Intentional Communities, Exclusionary Zoning, and the Struggle for Innovative Affordable Housing

by Sophia Barba

Celebrity gossip is not a common way to learn about pressing housing issues. Yet in September of 2019, Business Insider, a publication not necessarily known for its celebrity coverage, released an article entitled, “Kanye West tried to build ‘Star Wars’-inspired domes for the homeless, but LA officials just forced him to tear them down.” West was attempting to build communal housing for the homeless, or at least prototypes for such housing. Although building code violations were the reason West failed to execute his vision, zoning concerns would have probably been the ultimate barrier to West’s final vision for affordable housing for houseless people.

West had reporedly built several large, domelike buildings on his 300-acre property in Calabasas, CA.  He had announced that his endeavor aimed to revolutionize the idea of housing, but his neighbors were not supportive of his vision and filed noise complaints to the Los Angeles County Department of Public Works. The county performed an inspection on West’s property, and determined that the structures violated county building codes. Concrete foundations beneath West’s structures implied a permanency that required permits he did not have. Ultimately, West had failed to obtain proper permitting and was forced to demolish his co-living structures. But, what if Kanye’s structures got built? What if he was able to provide multi-unit housing for people who did not have a stable living situation in the Los Angeles area? Would NIMBYism prevail, cause neighbors to cite zoning violations instead of a more cynical desire to keep their area exclusive? Would there have been any protection under the law for his shelters?

This essay explores how intentional communities, like Kanye’s would-be community of houseless ‘acolytes’, encounter barriers as a result of restrictive zoning laws. It will examine contemporary challenges that intentional communities face in Southern California’s even more housing-restrictive neighbor to the north-- the Bay Area-- where they are being used as remedies to the area’s housing shortages. This essay will examine this barrier by first exploring the housing scarcity in California, and how it disproportionately impacts low-income communities of color. Next, the essay will explore the history of intentional communities in America and identify contemporary formations of housing cooperatives, a common type of intentional community. It will then explore how regional, statewide, and federal zoning laws have been applied to housing cooperatives. The essay will conclude by discussing the Fair Housing Act’s limited scope of application to cooperatives and will examine current strategies that may encourage the use of cooperatives as a feasible remedy to housing needs.