Housing for Families, Not Just Households

When we dream the American Dream, we probably don’t imagine monthly mortgage payments — we dream of comfortable and safe homes that anchor our families and relationships. The nation’s mortgage-industrial complex, which only considers one (nuclear) family in one house, has often turned this family dream into a financial nightmare.

We all know relatives or friends who intentionally chose to cluster their families in homes close together. These “cohorts” of families are expressing their community and sense of belonging in the way they live. This “vernacular” approach, which I refer to as cohort housing, recognizes the value of social cohesion and natural community in creating resilient homeownership. It is time for housing policy, homeownership counseling programs, mortgage lending, and real estate development in the United States to support this vernacular formation of homeownership, which reflects the way many live and have lived, while rebuilding economically, environmentally, and socially healthy communities.

Cohort housing is based on the premise that strong bonds and communities already exist in various forms, including extended families, faith-based groups, civic and cultural associations, school-based parents’ associations, neighboring units in rental developments, and friendships. These cohorts have not historically been developed to revitalize neighborhoods; however, they have been effective, as illustrated by more than 20 years of research about the role of social cohesion in neighborhood revitalization.

Moreover, many extended families, often from immigrant and low-income communities, have pooled resources to buy homes in close vicinity to one another. Older members of the family often look after children, enabling both parents to work without childcare expenses. Additional members of the family move into housing units that are close by when it becomes financially feasible or with the financial help of the cohort. In cohort housing, family and organic ties support the sustainability of a community. Physical proximity enables cohort members to rely on one another for day-to-day needs, such as cooking meals, running errands, or property maintenance.

Social cohesion and natural community are powerful assets. They are just as valuable, if not more so, than capital assets. This is particularly true in the current economic climate where jobs and savings are scarce, the number of foreclosures vast, and lending requirements strict, all leading to a reduced pool of qualified buyers and an increasingly challenging environment.

The cohort model reinforces mutual support among peer groups and could generate four to six ready homebuyers at a time. This would enable capital-efficient homeownership development in the right markets and streamline resale of foreclosed homes.

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So why not start with the right size of investment? This strategy would be well suited to address places where there is enough clustering of foreclosed homes to find four to six homes adjacent to one another. Alternatively, we could pair cohort housing with small-scale infill development (4 to 12 units) on sites too small for most affordable housing developers.

Cohort housing demands a rethinking of lending practices to enable, rather than hinder, the expression of social cohesion in housing decisions. Some housing finance agencies already support transit-oriented mortgages, such as the location efficient mortgages available in Chicago, Seattle, San Francisco, and Los Angeles, so why not create mortgages that support families to live close to each other?

At federal, state, and local levels, we need housing policies that are family friendly and that celebrate and support the way we live, rather than the extremes we currently promote via the mortgage interest deduction, which atomizes families into nuclear units, and federal and state policies that force housing developers into a financial model where multifamily developments of less than 50 units are infeasible.

This means multi-generational households, inter-generational transfers of housing assets, and pooled funds. And because the benefits of cohort housing apply to rental housing situations as well, we need HUD and local housing authorities to consider bundled “extended family” Section 8 voucher programs and mechanisms to adhere to fair housing laws while also supporting the social benefits of social cohesion.

This approach is radical only in its insistence that we look at what’s happening on the ground and develop a facilitative, rather than a prescriptive, response. It’s time to do away with a mortgage-industrial complex that turns “families” into “households” with income earners, credit scores, and debt ratios. In the real world, families are social constructs, which means homeownership (rather than “housing-ownership”) is a social condition first, one that should be enabled, not defined, by the financial nature of the mortgage system. It’s not just a policy; it is a way of life.

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Jeremy Liu is a consultant and principal of Creative Ecology (www.creativeecology.net), and most recently served as executive director of the East Bay Asian Local Development Corporation in Oakland (www.ebaldc.org).


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