Ravens' Roost offers new way of living

Photo/Michael Dinneen/AJOC

Want new neighbors? A small group of Anchorage residents does and they are developing a neighborhood new to Alaska: cohousing.

A year from now, Chris Allard, Terri Pauls, and Tom Pierce-Bulger hope to be putting shovels to dirt for first construction of the Ravens’ Roost cohousing neighborhood.

The plan is for 35 townhouse-style homes on a 6.3-acre plot of land near Lake Otis Parkway and Abbott Road in southeast Anchorage.

Every aspect of a cohousing development is designed to bring people together, Pauls said, to form a tight-knit community in a larger city.

“Cohousing attracts people that want to get to know each other,” she said. That’s kind of the point of cohousing; you want to get to know your neighbors.”

At first glance, cohousing neighborhoods often look a lot like a traditional townhouse or condominium development, and in many aspects they are.

In the Ravens’ Roost plans, the single-family housing units are divided among eight different buildings. Residents will pay regular homeowner’s association dues. The homes will range in size 720 square feet to 1,550 square feet, according to a listing on the group’s website.

“In every aspect it’s going to be a private home,” Pierce-Bulger said.

That’s where the similarities to typical townhouses start to fade, however.

The property will also hold a 3,800 square-foot “Common House,” where Ravens’ Roost residents will be able to hold shared dinners several nights per week, do laundry, and house visitors in guestrooms, he said.

An existing building on the property will likely be turned into a multi-use workshop where residents can pool their tools and handyman know-how, Allard said.

While plans are for each home to come with a heated one-stall garage and another outside parking space, the vehicle use is segregated from the housing, a layout intended to encourage foot traffic in the common areas and build relationships when neighbors bump into each other, Pierce-Bulger said.

Additionally, Pauls said the unique design gives children a place with no streets to come together and play between the homes, giving parents peace-of-mind that their kids will not be near traffic.

Katie McCamant, co-founder and president of CoHousing Partners LLC, is consulting on Ravens’ Roost and is largely credited with bringing the European cohousing concept to the United States nearly 30 years ago. She said the standalone, single-family home model common today is a diversion from historical living arrangements.

“It’s only recently that we’ve had the luxury of being so self-centered,” Pauls said. “Native Alaskans look at this and say, ‘Well, duh, people were meant to live together in groups of 100 (to) 120 people.’ That’s how humanity lived for most of our existence. It’s kind of about a group of people that are willing to support each other and willing to have a give-and-take — a higher level of relationship than you have with most neighborhoods.”

Pierce-Bulger, the project architect as well as a future Ravens’ Roost resident, designed the buildings to make use of plentiful summer light.

“The homes all have something most homes in Anchorage don’t; they all have a southern exposure,” Pauls said.

Along with having homes that gather natural heat and light, each multi-unit building will have one large heating boiler, Pierce-Bulger said, thus maximizing the inherent efficiency in economy of scale. He said he eventually hopes to invest in solar panels to further increase Ravens’ Roost’s energy efficiency.

Sharing three to four “common meals” per week will cut down on the collective energy used by the neighborhood, Pauls said.

A vast majority of the homes will also be wheelchair accessible, Allard said, with only four having stair access.

Decision-making, when it comes time at Ravens’ Roost, will have a different feel as well, Pauls said. Instead of having an association board that makes decisions for the residents, everything in most cohousing neighborhoods — there are about 120 across the U.S. and Canada — is done by consensus, she said. Each of the 35 households will have a spokesperson to share opinions.

No system is perfect, but when everyone must buy-in to a decision it also leads to getting better acquainted with because all views are heard, Pauls and Pierce-Bulger said.

“With cohousing everyone’s on the HOA board, so you’ve got a group that’s going to make a decision and if you have people that are willing to learn consensus — you have to actually be taught (to make a group decision), we have workshops on learning this stuff — and you end up with a much more elegant solution usually,” Pauls said. “That’s much more of a win-win situation because consensus requires hearing from everyone.”

She said the Ravens’ Roost name came from a member in 2012, during the early stages of the project, and floated to the top of a list of suggestions.

The 6.3-acre property could hold 50 homes according to Pierce-Bulger, but 35 is about the maximum number of parties that can still effectively make decisions, Pauls said.

She noted the extra “green space” adds value to the property, but the group would’ve happily used a smaller parcel if not for a Municipality of Anchorage zoning rule requiring planned unit developments be built on at least five acres, she said.

Financing the project, its last major hurdle, will be worked on over the next 10 months, Pierce-Bulger said.

Because cohousing members act as the developers, the first round of Ravens’ Roost members are required to put 20 percent down payments on their future homes ranging in price from $225,000 to $489,000. When 26, or about three-quarters, of the units have been invested in the group will confidently seek a construction loan, Pierce-Bulger said.

Before the housing market contracted in 2008, he said most cohousing developments across the country received loans with investments on 50 percent of the units.

According to McCamant’s experiences in financing cohousing, “Once you can show there’s a market, the banks come on board.”

She said traditional developers aren’t building cohousing because real estate is a conservative business and tends “to be based on what sold last year.”

The remaining nine units will be available on traditional mortgages to interested but risk-averse individuals, or those who can’t afford a large, non-refundable investment, Allard, Pierce-Bulger and Pauls concurred.

Early Ravens’ Roost investors essentially need to be able to financially maintain two residences until the neighborhood is built, and “that’s not going to be young families and we want to leave a good chunk available to them,” Pierce-Bulger said.

To meet the group’s spring 2016 move-in goal, the “critical mass” of members with 20 percent down must be met by next March, Pauls said. The first 10 percent of the investment is due by November 1, she added.

With a new member officially on-board after a May 10 open house held at The Alaska Zoo, Ravens’ Roost has 15 investor-members, she said. Three more prospective members recently put 30-day holds on units with $1,000 deposits, so the project is gaining financial momentum, according to Pauls.

Once construction begins, Pauls and Pierce-Bulger said they expect the remaining units to fill quickly and possibly a waiting list to form.

The group plans to hold education and recruitment events about every two weeks throughout the summer.

Pauls said a tour of the property is scheduled for May 18.

05/14/2014 - 10:37am