Neighborhoods that fit in a pocket


Raines Cohen lives in a 685-square foot home in Berkeley, CA where residents helped resurrect a 1900s-era farm property with 15 restored properties that house 32 residents.

Called the Berkeley Cohousing neighborhood, it comes with a garden of fresh produce, a park-like courtyard, all near public transit, a farmer’s market, shopping, a library, and other necessary services.

The neighborhood includes a 2,000 square foot farmhouse rehabilitated for adaptive reuse as two housing units and a common house where residents gather to share meals several times a week.

It’s all on a 0.8-acre site.

“We can live in a small space. I know my neighbors. This is unusual, even for Berkeley, but it’s about economies of scale. It’s an old fashioned community,” said Cohen who paid $200,000 for the home seven years ago and has held its value even through the bust.

Not really “old fashioned,” Berkeley Cohousing is a new spin on an old idea and it’s called a “pocket neighborhood.”

Living large on a small scale

Rooted in the Dutch cohousing model of communal living, and borrowing concepts associated with infill housing and transit-oriented development (TODs), pocket neighborhood development is an outgrowth of the back-to-the future trend toward more-affordable, high-density, neighbor-friendly housing, with an emphasis on “small.”

Pocket neighborhoods are typically small clusters (a dozen or less, typically) of small homes (1,000 square feet or less), gathered around a landscaped common area, community structure or both to foster neighborly interaction.

Like TODs, they also promote walkability and minimize the need to drive or de-emphasize the automobile with shared parking behind and away from residences. Like infill housing projects, pocket neighborhoods can be tucked into vacant urban or suburban lots.

The small homes come with the built-in energy efficiency of smaller rooms, but go even further to keep out-of-pocket and environmental costs down.

Berkeley Cohousing was built with sustainable growth timber and low-toxicity and recycled materials. Residents use permaculture landscape principles, passive and active solar energy and grey water re-use.

Smaller is better

Simply put: smaller homes costs less to build, less to buy and less to maintain than larger homes. Scaling down is what makes them affordable.

It’s a trend whose time has come.

“We are encouraging sensibly-sized houses,” says Ross Chapin, a Langley, WA architect with more than a dozen pocket neighborhood projects completed or underway.

“Ask people who live in a 3,000 square foot home where they actually live in the house. They’ll tell you they live in about 1,000 square feet of it and the rest of the home is just hanging out,” said Chapin.

Demographics reveal demand potential. More than 60 percent of all U.S. households are comprised of only one or two people, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

Urban Land Institute’s (ULI) CEO Patrick L. Phillips says smaller homes can be the answer to a housing shortage expected when the bust breaks.

Housing starts dropped 22.5 percent in February to an annual rate of 479,000 units, according to Commerce Department, little more than the record low in April 2009. Building permits — indicating future supply — fell to a record low of 517,000 units, down about 20 percent from levels seen in February 2010.

“We’ve learned that there is a market for compact, mixed-use design, smaller housing space, and development that minimizes the need to drive,” said Phillips.

Pockets of trouble

Unfortunately, many jurisdictions don’t have zoning, building codes or general plans in place to foster pocket neighborhood growth.

Before Chapin could get his first pocket community off the drawing board he had to lobby for a special “Cottage Housing Development” (CHD) zoning code provision.

Chapin’s Third Street Cottages in Langley, WA, the first to use the new zoning, went on to win the 1999 American Institute of Architect’s Sunset Magazine Western Home Award.

The project consists of eight detached 550 square foot loft cottages on four standard single-family lots in a 31,000 square foot area that includes a shared garden, commons building, tool shed, detached parking and storage rooms for every resident.

In 1998 when the project was completed, the units sold for $140,000 and have since resold at $240,000, Chapin said.

NIMBYism (for Not In My Back Yard) can also get in the way when neighbors object to any new development.

“It’s challenging. You have to get the people, the vision, the resources and you have to find the right site. It can result in a neighborhood conflict, even through you are working to preserve more open space,” said Cohen.

However, one of Berkeley Cohousing’s neighbors literally beat a path to the unique neighborhood’s door.

“One neighbor next door just knocked down the fence” to become a part of the pocket neighborhood, Cohen said.

Footnote: The village (below) in the post-power-outage-from-hell TV series, “Revolution” looks a lot like a pocket neighborhood.

About the author

DeadlineNews.Com's Publisher, Executive Editor and Founder, Broderick Perkins, was the first real estate journalist to manage a daily newspaper's online real estate section. He parlayed more than 30 years of old-school journalism into a digital real estate news service offering "News that really hits home!" -- the Silicon Valley bootstrap, DeadlineNews.Com. Network with Broderick Perkins on LinkedIn, FaceBook, Twitter, Google+ and the Bloomberg Business Exchange.


  1. erick95959 says:

    Cohousing and pocket neighborhoods are generative; they provide residents the facilities and opportunities to create, communicate, and cooperate with neighbors. It works because residents strive for consensus that allows everyone to live their own lives happily – a relationship based on proximity and fundamental human values.

    What you end up with is your own home within a socially and physically supportive community. Get in touch with a local cohousing to experience what cohousing life is like (check the link below for the directory). To find out where it all started and to see the progress of cohousing in North America, check out Creating Cohousing: Building Sustainable Communities, by Kathryn McCamant and Charles Durrett. They championed the process and have overcome many planning and zoning code limitations to create thriving, high functioning cohousing neighborhoods.

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