Most people don’t ususally get to design their own neighbourhood. Particularly not with homemade wooden blocks.
But that’s what happened when approximately 20 people gathered at the Mount Lorne Community Centre April 11 to discuss creating a co-housing project in the hamlet of 400, located southeast of Whitehorse.
Chair of the local advisory council Bob Sharp handed out small wooden blocks from a clear plastic bag around the table at the meeting. The blocks, which Sharp said he had cut less than an hour before — as evidenced by the fresh sawdust spilling out of the bag — were meant to represent potential houses and buildings. People were divided off into groups of four and asked to create possible layouts for a co-housing community.
People quickly got to work, talking excitedly amongst themselves, leaning over the wooden blocks, sipping coffee, nibbling on home-baked cookies people had brought to the meeting. In the end, each group created very different versions of a community, all designed with a common theme: living together and sharing resources in a rural setting.
“This exercise is designed to demonstrate the kind of notions you have to embrace if you want to be part of the co-housing community, how you will live with discontinuity,” Sharp said. “If you say ‘only my ideas will fly,’ then cohousing might not be for you.”
The notion behind co-housing is similar to an old-fashioned village, Sharp said. People live together in personal dwellings but share common areas, such as water sources, work spaces and gardens. Sharing resources like this allows everyone to have more combined than they could possibly have individually, but it does require sharing and compromise, he said.
“People have to really work together to make co-housing work,” he said. “We’re not going forwards in time, we’re going backwards in time. To something more like 50 years ago,” Sharp said.
A recent change to government regulation now allows non-profit groups to apply to purchase Crown land below market value. The project hopes to cash in on this.
“With 20 people on it, you’re not talking $100,000 a person for an unserviced lot anymore, but probably something much less,” Sharp said.
The question of who would own the land and assets on the proposed property was raised several times. Sharp said this depended on what the community decided to do.
“You can lease land, build tiny homes to roll in and roll out, own a piece, own a home on the land, own a piece of the land in simple fee… it’s up to the community to decide how they want to do it,” Sharp said.
Many co-housing projects exist in North America and Europe, Sharp said, although most of them are urban and suburban. In the Yukon, the Ten Mile Road Co-housing Project out at Shallow Bay in the Lake Laberge area has been home to five people since 2012.
“We pay a yearly share (of costs) based on our ownership share (in Shallow Bay),” said Alison Reid, representing the Ten Mile Road project. “Right now that works out to about $230 a month per person.”
Subdivisions are currently not permitted in Mount Lorne by the choice of the community, said Al Foster, Lorne Mountain Community Association President.
“The government tried to put large subdivisions out here but Mount Lorne doesn’t want that,” he said. “Small clusters of development like co-housing fits this idea.”
The Mount Lorne Co-housing Project has yet to choose a specific site, but is eyeing several possible locations in the Annie Lake Road area.
While both Sharp and Foster are involved in the LMCA, Sharp said it’s not something the association can do by itself, but will require community members to sit on project committees and donate their time.
“Co-housing will not come from the government,” Foster said. “It’s a process that takes time but it’s an option I think we need in the Yukon. I think Mount Lorne has been really good at giving people an alternative way to live, but we can’t spearhead this by ourselves.”
What it really takes to have a successful cohousing project, Reid said, is “persistence.”
“It seems inevitable that this is a long process.… It takes time. People need to really imagine that this is going to be someplace they want to live for a relatively long period of time,” she said.
One of the concerns of the Mount Lorne project is how many seniors currently live in the area. The project is actively looking for families and young people in their 20s and 30s to become interested in the project, said Eleanor Millard, a former territorial politician who sits on the board.
The majority of people present at the meeting were older.
“It’s not just for seniors,” said Millard. “We want to emphasize that. There’s way too many of us grey-hairs out here. We’ll be long dead before this is all done.”
The price of land in Mount Lorne is prohibitive to young people looking to live in the Mount Lorne community under the traditional ownership system, Sharp said. Co-housing is one possible way around that.
“When I moved here 40 years ago,” Sharp said, “I bought my parcel of land for one year’s salary. Now, that same parcel of land would cost six years salary…. By virtue of the current price of land, Mount Lorne has become a bit of a privileged community and that doesn’t sit well with us.”
“Helping others and working together – that’s what communities do,” he said. “None of (the older members) have an appetite, unless we become so hopelessly enfeebled to care for ourselves, to live in a city institution.
Millard said while the project is based in Mount Lorne, it is not just for people living in the community or even in Whitehorse. People from all over the Yukon are encouraged to become interested if they think co-housing might be for them.
The Mount Lorne Co-Housing Project will be holding another public meeting and information session at the Whitehorse Public Library on April 26 at 5:30 p.m. More information is available at mountlornecohousing.weebly.com.