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.

There is a lack of affordable housing in California and it disproportionately impacts low-income communities of color

Californians have fallen prey to remarkable housing scarcity. The dearth of affordable housing has been exacerbated to the point that even individuals far above the national poverty line are struggling to rent or buy housing. As of 2019, the median home value in California is estimated to be roughly $509,400, 2.34 times higher than the national average of $217,600. In the Bay Area, the average home price is roughly $800,000 to $1,000,000. The high cost of homeownership has made it difficult for people to build wealth by purchasing homes, and many can only afford to rent residences instead.

Renting costs in California are also incredibly high compared to the rest of the nation: on average, a studio apartment costs as much as $914 per month and four bedroom residences cost as much as $2,166. The Bay Area has an average rental cost of $1,800 a month for studio apartments and as much as $4,000 a month for four bedroom residences. To put these prices into perspective, the average median income in California is roughly $71,805, which means that individuals who are fortunate enough to make that amount would be spending roughly 15% of their income to a studio apartment, or 30% of their salary to housing for the same square footage the Bay Area. Anyone who requires more than a studio apartment is forced to spend a higher percentage of their income on housing based on the same percentages.

Minorities suffer more in the housing crisis due to their lower average incomes. Latinos, the largest minority in California, have a median household income of $47,200, compared with a median household income of $69,606 for non-Latinos. Additionally, 23 percent of Latinos live in poverty compared to 12 percent of non-Latinos. With an income of $47,200, Latinos end up spending a higher percentage of their income on housing each month. Ultimately, studies have shown that low-income Blacks and Latinos in the Bay Area are at a higher risk of homelessness as a result of earning much less than the state and regional averages.

Despite this, many have tried to overcome the insurmountable struggle for affordable housing with creative solutions like opting to live in housing cooperatives instead of owning or renting conventional residences. Intentional communities, particularly housing cooperatives, are planned residential communities designed to house people with common interests or needs and share a communal interest in the property and its maintenance. Cooperatives offer a form of housing that subvert traditional single-family housing schemes, which have become prohibitively expensive. In order to begin discussing how zoning laws prevent greater use of  intentional communities, the following two sections will discuss the historical presence of intentional communities in America, and then describe the most common formations that intentional communities use today.

A history of intentional communities in America and the characteristics of housing cooperatives, their most common contemporary formation

The ideology behind intentional communities is a longstanding tradition in this nation, if not a foundational one. In the United States, intentional communities have existed in a variety of forms, characterized by groups of people who sought community bound by common ideologies, intentional living practices, and communal expectations. Notable intentional communities were established early in the nation’s history and endured lasting success, with many still in existence today.

One of the earliest intentional communities of note is New Harmony, a community that was established in Indiana in the 19th century. Members of a Christian religious group had used their communal wealth to purchase a 20,000-acre piece of land with the intention of supporting one another through agriculture, known as initially “Harmonie”. In 1825, a man named Robert Owen, bought Harmonie with the intention of creating a community that would prosper through education, science, technology, and communal living. This community, New Harmony, functioned using a socialist framework, with personal assets being redistributed to all members equally, and services being performed in exchange for credit in a central store. Ultimately, New Harmony’s expansive vision for a utopian stronghold failed but it was a blueprint for other intentional communities.

In 1889, Hull House was established by two women who sought to promote education, autonomy, and to help women break into traditionally male dominated occupations. Hull House, defined by a philosophy of sisterhood and social reform, created its first settlement houses in working class and poor neighborhoods of Chicago. Unlike New Harmony, Hull House began as a single building, but had expanded to over five hundred communal buildings across the nation by 1920. Hull House buildings offered residency, education, and other resources to impoverished residents, all of whom were immigrants and women. The Hull House network survived until 2012.

In the early 20th century, group residences began to emerge for individuals with similar health needs. One such community, called Gould Farm, was established in 1918 in rural Massachusetts to serve the needs of individuals who suffered from an array of mental illnesses. Gould Farm offered residents the opportunity to move toward recovery, health, and greater independence through community living, meaningful work, and clinical support. The community still exists to this day.

By the 1960s, communal living became a mainstay in the countercultural movement. The term ‘commune’ was a highly politicized used by the media began to describe anti-establishment communities of immorality and political radicalism. There is no doubt that many intentional communities fit that description at that time. National attention given to intentional communities in the 1960s was negative, often defining them broadly as cults that targeted vulnerable people. For the most part, however, communes offered residence to individuals who lacked financial stability, sought spiritual fulfillment, and valued environmental justice.

In 1968, an intentional community was established in France for the purpose of providing residential and social support to intellectually disabled people. Much like Gould Farm, the L’Arche community aimed to provide stability for a category of individuals who were stigmatized and disempowered by the greater part of society. The success of the L’Arche community in France led to the establishment of a community in the United States, which has now expanded into several communities throughout the nation that are still in operation to this day.

Communities like Gould Farm and L’Arche subverted stigma imposed on individuals with disabilities by providing them with independence and stability. Other communities, like Hull House, provided stability for women and immigrants in an otherwise unforgiving urban landscape. These intentional communities either still exist, or endured for a remarkably long time, and owe their success to predecessors like that of New Harmony, and further notoriety in the mid-20th century. Intentional communities create an opportunity for accessible and equitable housing for individuals who often find themselves at the margins of society. Modern housing cooperatives give the intentional community framework potential to respond to housing inequalities across the nation, especially in states like California.

Contemporary intentional communities can be defined broadly to include any organization of individuals through communal residence based on membership, common interests, and the desire to rely on one another in order to pursue these interests. Modern intentional communities most commonly take the form of cooperatives, which are an alternative to conventional private ownership of real property. Housing cooperatives, the most common form of intentional communities, often take the form of a nonprofit corporation organized under Section I.R.C 501(c)(3) or (d), or as a business cooperative. New members of a cooperative are generally selected by the community's existing membership, rather than gaining a residence by interacting with real-estate agents and obtaining mortgages. There are administrative requirements non-profit organizational structures that to agree to, but it hasn’t deterred nonprofit-based intentional communities from maintaining membership structures through language in founding documents. Business cooperatives maintain the same goals of self-government and self-determination by including membership language in their articles of incorporation.

Ultimately, state nonprofit corporation and business cooperative laws allow cooperatives a great deal of freedom in determining specific membership requirements. Ultimately, members of intentional communities enjoy a lower cost to access to housing due to the decreased financial and administrative burdens of purchasing real property. They operate on an at-cost basis, collecting money from residents to pay outstanding bills. Despite the remarkable potential that this housing framework can offer to California’s housing crisis, zoning laws pose the biggest barrier to their broader implementation.