What is Next for the Bay Area?
The Fair Housing Act offers little concrete support to housing cooperatives that fall outside of the group home definition limited to the protected class of disability. HUD, and case law, declines to impose broad application of the Fair Housing Act on state and local authority of zoning ordinances that involve household caps and family distinctions unless they affect protected classes. Possible tools that were once available through Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing Rule are no longer certain due to impending changes. This leaves housing cooperatives in the Bay Area dependent on statewide or local legislation changes. Remarkably, California is experiencing changes that may benefit the potential growth of intentional communities.
On a statewide level, Governor Newsom recently announced a sweeping change to zoning laws that effectively dissolve the zoning category for single-family buildings. Lawmakers, through small legislative changes, have made it easier for homeowners to convert parts of their homes into residential space, and build small freestanding homes in their backyards. Additionally, in October, Newsom also signed multiple bills into law in an effort to increase the construction of housing, including legislation that will allow property owners to build a backyard home of at least 800-square-feet as well as convert a garage, office or spare room into a third living space. These legislative changes would allow as many as three homes on parcels that exist primarily in single-family neighborhoods across the state. This new legislation may make it easier for housing cooperatives to establish themselves without the need to obtain variances or even organize through corporate structures. Even before this change in zoning laws, the center of the Bay Area itself has negotiated a co-living development that could support the normalization of communal living. Despite its promise for cultural change, its residential framework is a far cry from the fundamental concept of communal ownership.
San Jose, the heart of the Bay Area, is the city most impacted by inflated housing costs in the region. There has been an effort to encourage high-density development in an effort to respond to the growing need for housing, despite single-family zoning ordinances. One such effort is the largest co-living development in the word, an 18-story building with 803 units with communal living spaces, bathrooms, and kitchens. Starcity, the development company behind the project, has publicized that is seeks to “redefin[e] the meaning of home” by offering dorm-like housing with community activities and communal spaces to compliment the residents’ experience. This experience is made available by renting the units, which range range from $1,400 to $2,400 a month. The fundamental failure of Starcity’s development is the form in which residents gain access to the units. This development could have been a revolutionary experiment in communal living by allowing people residency through membership that offered an interest or stake in the community itself. Instead of offering residency through the framework of a housing cooperative, Starcity is just charging market rates that seem affordable only to single millennial professionals. Starcity has produced a wolf in sheep’s clothing by choosing to charge for the benefits and experience of intentional communities without giving residents the fundamental control that actual intentional communities offer. Although this development is promising insofar as it helps to normalize communal living, it fails to offer the real benefits of the intentional community movement.
Starcity is a product of our society’s unwillingness to let go of the value it places on the ownership of real property. Understandably, the structure of building wealth in this country is inextricably tied to homeownership. Despite this, culture needs to adapt to the needs of the people who experience it. The concept of private land ownership as a mechanism of building wealth has been problematized by structural inequalities imposed by historical practices of racism and classism. While the concept of intentional communities may not be a panacea to housing inequality, it is one of the few remedies that do not have to be contingent to the phenomenon of modern debt slavery that is caused by homeownership and renting culture.