Editor’s note: Eliot Hurwitz and Magdalena Valderrama are the co-founders of Seigler Springs Community Redevelopment Association. Eliot is the Executive Director, and Magdalena is the Program Director. Magdalena is also a director of the South Lake Fire Safe Council and a nonprofit representative to the Lake County Fire Safe Council and the Lake County Community Risk Reduction Authority.
This year our husband and wife nonprofit team is finally getting around to building a home for ourselves. After seven years following the 2015 Valley Fire in Northern California, this should be good news, but it is actually the admittance of defeat and a fantastic failure.
During the intervening years, it must have seemed to our friends, family, and neighbors, and colleagues that our energy knew no limit. We supported ourselves and our community through the intense long-term recovery process – whether distributing supplemental funding for survivors, setting up a municipal advisory council at the epicenter of the fire so that our voices as a community could be heard more readily at the county board of supervisors, co-producing community fire safety workshops, or obtaining a large grant-supported fuels reduction program.
But the project that really drove us was the attempt to build cooperative housing and try to turn the disaster into a blessing. In our neighborhood, three-quarters of the homes there, including ours, were lost to the disaster.
The need for housing was clear. Why not band together those who might be interested and create a new affordable housing project, incorporating fire safety and other sustainable features into the design?
Eliot and I had experience under our belts. This would be our third attempt at developing cooperative housing that the occupants would design, manage, and control together and that would keep prices low. Our first attempt in a major metropolitan area of the country was based on persuading people to move to a less expensive part of town, but the prospect of lower expenses wasn’t enough of a draw. Our second attempt was in a smaller, but still urban area. We got as far as workshopping the second project, but life changes pulled the participants in different directions and away.
Now here in Lake County, we found ourselves among a group of people we already knew and who were in need, and land was already practically in hand! In the field of cooperative housing, we were already halfway there.
We contacted all our previous and experienced, affordable housing advisors and described the opportunity and the initial, modified co-housing plan: 40 people, eight large, co-housing units each with its separate entrances/kitchens and a common house, laid out to take advantage of solar and septic innovations, and incorporating connected, park-like spaces. They assured us that we had set worthwhile and achievable goals. Everywhere we reached for information and advice from old or new sources, it seemed that the best people were eager to help us. Over the course of the project, we took advantage of one of the top land trust experts in the country, architects who wanted to help disaster survivors, the Sustainable Economies Law Center in Oakland, California that held a stable of lawyers, accountants, and capital funders who had the desire and expertise to guide and support our quest, and extremely experienced advisors and skilled trainers in creating intentional communities of one kind or another.
Every month, some major part of the project seemed to be moving forward. The various town-hall style neighborhood and owner meetings were packed. A steering committee arose and within a year had set up a 26-page Operations Agreement and filed papers as a limited liability company to play the role of developer.
The full group undertook intensive training in consensus decision-making, and met all its challenges successfully, whether the problems came up while setting our rules of participation, or engaging the process of designing as a group. Along the way, group delegates met with potential funders and private lenders, engaged in design charrettes, and worked with the designers to present site plans and drawings for review and finalization.
The project manager kept in touch with the builders as prices started to climb even beyond their experienced expectations. Normal expectations for housing demand following a mass disaster changed as extreme disasters began around the country – hurricanes, tornadoes, and more wildfires.
The need for “affordable housing” in California is not news. Even before the current cycle of catastrophic fires, the issue has been one of the main hot button issues in the state, with literally dozens of bills in the State legislature attempting to find solutions. Little meaningful progress is evident, and fierce contention continues. The steady growth of cooperative housing development in the country over the past several decades might seem to offer a contribution to the effort, including shared amenities and innovative designs. However, even these new projects have tended not to be “affordable” for most disaster survivors.
In the end, our housing project ran into two insurmountable obstacles. The first one had to do with the complexity of the cooperative structure we had built – the design of our collaborative ownership model would not mix with any of the regulatory and financing options currently available. Having realized these difficulties, in the midst of scrambling to reconfigure the project, reducing its scale and even raising a significant portion of the costs in cash, a global pandemic descended. The cost of construction materials skyrocketed, construction labor became chaotic, and all completely upended the precarious affordability calculations. These cascading circumstances coupled with an aging cohort of residents now having spent several years struggling to put a new model together finally forced the project’s core participants to find simpler, if less attractive solutions.
Disaster housing recovery models don’t cover survivor-led or community-based cooperative housing. State and Federal legislation and guidelines lag far behind in any case. Nearly all major disaster recovery programs in our region start with the 2017 or 2018 disasters, so our disaster is just too old for inclusion.
- National Low Income Housing Coalition: Disaster Housing Recovery Updates – May 16, 2022
- Paper: “Rebuilding Housing After a Disaster: Factors for Failure”
- “Benefits of Cooperative Housing” https://www.housinginternational.coop/housing-co-operative/benefits-of-cooperative-housing/
- National Association of Housing Cooperatives – https://coophousing.org/
- CoHousing Association of the United States – https://www.cohousing.org/