The Pacifica Community and Affordable Cohousing

In the town of Carberro, twenty-four kilometres (fifteen miles) from Durham, North Carolina, the bus rolled in to Pacifica. In 2001 architect Giles Blunden and a group of interested people created a new neighborhood around community, diversity, sustainability, affordability.

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In Pacifica there are forty-six units altogether mostly in duplexes and fourplexes and there also four big free standing houses.

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Pacifica went with very basic construction – there’s nothing much very fancy there at all – and that kept the house prices low. Units can be 1100 square feet, 1300 square feet up to 1460 square feet. There are four small units – two and two down – and each is only 600 square feet. One woman bought her two-storey house for only US $172,000.

The community had a big commitment to affordability. In some ways that squeezed them a little bit and some people felt they were a bit too basic.

Pacifica has two acres of wooded area behind a housing row and there are lots more acres in the whole wooded local area and people in the neighbourhood like to hike, bike, walk dogs and visit there every day. The Pacifica ‘backyard’ is basically woods and trials.
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The Land Trust is a model that is a way of doing affordable cohousing. It has yet to be fully explored. Pacifica is one community doing just that.

On the tour, Brad, our guide was asked, “Do you have any discussions in the community about climate change and what’s going to happen in the future and cohousing as a player or having a role?” The answer started with, “Oh wow!” He explained that there are certainly lots of people who are environmentally conscious in the community and the way the whole thing was designed was with the environment in mind. He said people are very aware and seek to live lives leaving as small an environmental footprint as possible. He mused, “Can cohousing help to stop climate change or be part of that?” There was some talk about the Osmosis effect within a community – and potentially out into the wider neighbourhood – that can help to bring people along into that aspect of community where we become more outward and a little bit more activist about things that matter to all of us. While cohousing might not be “the answer” to Climate Change it has a role to play.

In answer to a separate question asked a bit later about the nucleus of social change activism in Pacifica and the role that cohousing can play in making the change the member, “How many people and where’s the nucleus of social change activism in this community in terms of that role that cohousing can play in making change? Like we’re in the suburbs so it does have an effect on where you live. And what are your plans from here?” was this reply, “I don’t know if we have plans other than keep doing it making it better continuing to move closer to our principles.”

A guest house with three bedrooms and two bathrooms that is very convenient to the Common house. They charge $11 per night. (“The way to see the world”). It’s used a lot. They have an online reservations system. Three bedrooms for forty-six units in Pacifica.

The cistern is for rain-water. They don’t recycle grey water. 15,000 gallons comes from Common House roof. 5,000 filled by solar driven pump from pond when excess water.
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Bike shed
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The Common House is about 2500 square feet and draws people to it frequently with its mail room location.
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They choices they had to make went through a process of wish-list, priorities and then budget. They didn’t get the gym but fitness is addressed through yoga and dancing in the Common House and community gardens and the woodland outside. Baffles were installed to help improve the acoustics.

They do have solar panels, a shared laundry and a bike shed.
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The Common House also has a lot of gatherings, kid birthdays, Lego conventions, marriage celebrations, and all sorts of events.
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The dynamics between common meals and pot lucks have been a challenge since very beginning in 2001. People knew that cohousing does a lot of meals and so had expectations of two or three a week but have found it depends on energy and there is currently one pot luck a month (before the community meeting) and other meals happen as people get the urge. It’s voluntary. They do drink together a bit.

Every second Saturday is a Community workday and the committee prepares a fabulous breakfast for everyone. People don’t have to stay for the workday but most do. Other communities put on a wonderful meal after the workday as an incentive to be involved in the work. Pacifica has found it has changed over time depending on energy and talents.

The question was asked about the original people whose idea it was and if any of them were still there because apparently in many communities these people end up leaving. Pacifica started meeting four years before they moved in and there was a guy who never became a member of the community who purchased the land with the idea of cohousing and then they formed an LLC.

A few of the original people were still there and there are some people from the original group still living there who don’t want to have anything to do with the rest of the community.

There was a big turnover – a lot of the originals left. “Quite a bit of turnover”. Sometimes they left because they were unhappy with how things were going, or because of work or their families got too big or they fell in love with someone of the West coast. But the people who moved in their place have been wonderful and they haven’t done any screening, they don’t have any right of first refusal. They don’t do any running of a waiting list and they acknowledge they’ve been so lucky.

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In the discussion about diversity a feeling was expressed that Pacifica hasn’t done a great job with racial diversity. They started out with three African Americans and now only have one and that is a daughter. They do have Latin Americans and some Asians. For whatever reason they found they were certainly pretty good on diversity on national origin, sexual orientation, age and income but less so on racial diversity. “It always sucks to be the only one – is part of the answer”.

As far as financial diversity they had found it had only come up as an issue when they talk about raising the dues. Affordability is one of the issues so they try not to raise the dues.

Average monthly charges depend on several factors. Someone in a 900 sq ft unit would pay about $100 US or $105 a month which includes water, internet and a dollar for each load in the laundry and capital money.

About half of the dues is based on square footage and the other half on the number of people in the household especially related to water use – water is communal – and internet, laundry loads in the Common house and capital expenses.
Pacifica has community internet costing about ten dollars US a month whereas something comparable would be about $30 or $40 a month so they are saving everybody in the community “a bunch of money”.

Interestingly they have found that economic diversity has also generated other types of diversity as well. They have younger people living there who are not yet making a substantial income but can still afford to live in one of the smaller units or maybe one of the Land Trust units.

About Giselle Wilkinson - 4allsentientbeings

Environmental conservation, community and cooperatives have been enduring threads in my life. Promoting sustainable lifestyles and more lately, focussing on restoring a Safe Climate, is work expressed predominantly through organisations such as The Sustainable Living Foundation (which I co-founded in 1999 - current President) and the others listed as links below. I am some way into a professional doctorate with MIECAT on "Mobilising Whole Communities to Restore a Sustainable Environment" and have in recent years moved into MURUNDAKA – a (more) sustainable, (more) affordable co-housing community / housing cooperative in Heidelberg, Melbourne (for which I gave up my co-op house of 19 years including veggie garden and small orchard) and it's great. I'm also a mum of two grown up daughters and have five step children.
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