Starting Pocket Neighborhoods

Pocket Neighborhoods

From Book: Pocket Neighborhoods: Creating Small Scale Community in a Large Scale World

It’s been an interesting experience so far from building a tiny house to seeing the foundations of modern architecture to understanding how developers evaluate risks.

At this point, I still think tiny houses are cool. Is anyone going to be able to make a living from building them? Not likely. Tumbleweed makes their money from selling books and plans. It’s mostly folks building their own.

I’ve seen the idea for starting a tiny house community float around a few times. I have to ask why people would want that. You’d have to probably go outside of city limits because few zoning ordinances would allow for it.

Alternately you could build it on something zoned as a trailer park. But then you’d have to wait for others who had built tiny houses to show up and rent a space. If you’re retiring and don’t mind having your money tied up in the “if you build it, they will come” model, I guess that’s fine.

Folks who would be willing to rent in a trailer park and live in 100 sq feet might not make that stable a community. It seems that tiny houses make great places for individuals – or couples who eat out a lot. If you want a community with families, kids, pets, etc. a tiny house trailer park isn’t going to do that.

And a trailer park is still a place set up for trailers. It’s not especially walkable given the set up or the probable location. If you’re looking primarily for affordability then yes, a trailer park could do that. But that’s not a solution tiny house affectionados are necessarily looking for.

Pocket neighborhoods meet the same general intent for community. If you look at the image I linked from the pocket neighborhoods website above, you see that everyone still has their own house (some can be tiny if desired), it has great walkability and maximizes the opportunity for community.

I’m currently living in Arlington, TX. I looked up cohousing because my wife and I are planning to move somewhere near Richardson, TX so I can do a PhD in game development at UT Dallas (another story). I looked up Dallas Cohousing and there is a site: dallascohousing.org.

There is one development and a meetup group for it too. But for the most part, it’s a fairly non-existant concept.

After reading over some of these cohousing sites I wanted to add a few comments about starting a pocket neighborhood or cohousing.

Cohousing.org lists 6 principles of cohousing:

  1. Participatory process – future residents help design it
  2. Neighborhood design – designed like a pocket neighborhood
  3. Common facilities – usually a house that has community dining, classrooms, exercise, tool storage, etc.
  4. Resident management – similar to a condo board or neighborhood association
  5. Non-hierarchical structure and decision-making Рthey prefer consensus to voting
  6. No shared community economy – none of the residents are supposed to make money from providing a service to the community

To accomplish this, you’d basically have to get 10-20 households together who would agree to start a non-profit and purchase and develop all of this without financing. And that’s if you can find a location inside city limits which I think would be preferable. Otherwise you’re starting some kind of rural commune.

That seems fairly far fetched and idealistic. Promoting pocket neighborhoods that way will pretty much insure that they remain a nice post-apocalyptic idea.

The book Pocket Neighborhoods (and companion website) also promotes a few low commitment ideas too. Residents of regular neighborhoods can agree to take down their privacy fences and devote some portion of their backyards to a community walkway and possibly some other community feature such as a gazebo, playground, bbq, etc.

In Richardson, TX where we’re looking to move, most streets have alleys in the back. The idea was to move the cars and the trash off the main streets and into the back. While it did succeed in moving the trash to the back, there are still cars on the main streets. And the alleys seem like fairly inhospitable places to be because they’re all surrounded by backyard privacy fences. The book talks about taking back the alleys by taking down the fences and using most of it for community spaces.

If you were going to start a pocket neighborhood from scratch though, here’s some things to consider:

  • Most people aren’t going to have meaningful contributions to make toward design. Waiting until you have a large enough group that can come to a consensus on such things pretty much insures it will never happen. Just follow the guidelines set out for pocket neighborhoods and take into account the location you’re in. You’re much more likely to find people willing to buy in after things are built.
  • Buy a house with some land. There are plenty of places inside city limits with an acre or two. Check with your zoning (Plano doesn’t allow more than one additional house per acre) and subdivide the larger parcel into your individual neighborhood parcels.
  • With as many houses as we currently have on the market (with more likely on the way), it might be possible to buy a few houses next to each other and start taking down fences. They say you just need three to start a trend and gain momentum.
  • I read somewhere that currently 95% of residential mortgages are government insured. Banks just aren’t interested in lending without that coverage. FHA and others don’t lend on coops. Your structure will need to either be condos or include a non-profit neighborhood association that owns or leases a community building. Or one of the residents can donate a portion of their land to building a community building.
  • People are going to have to take a step back from the cohousing model of everyone being in everyone’s business. Most literature advocates the management board doing a full financial and criminal background check similar to what you’d expect to go through for a security clearance. Hopefully most of this will be done by a third (non-resident) party. The point is that residents have to be screened to buy and then they have as much challenge when they want to sell. If we want more pocket neighborhood opportunities, we have to lower the bar. As it is, it seems like you’re getting married and having to meet the family’s approval first.
  • Along the same lines, some cohousing groups more or less expect residents to attend a certain number of community meals each week or month. Personally, we love having people over for dinner. The only thing with community meals is that you have a limited input into what is served. I happen to mostly eat raw, organic, free range food. I don’t eat sugar or grains except on rare occasion (eating out). Most of the time I’ve been to larger community meals, people go for the easy to mass produce dishes – lasagna, pasta, other processed foods, etc. While I like eating with people, I don’t see it being feasible to regularly accommodate a variety of nutritional requirements and preferences. I could see potlucks working better because if you don’t like what someone else brought, you can eat more of your own.

The bottom line is that cohousing needs to lower the bar on what they consider legitimate cohousing. Pocket neighborhoods would work okay without a community building too. Going without that feature would solve a lot of problems right off the bat. Either use a gazebo on someone’s lot or eat at someone’s house. Or make it a picnic until there’s enough support to build a structure.

Even if what I’m suggesting might seem a little watered down, it’s more feasible and therefore more likely to come into being. If we say these kinds of communities are better for most people who currently live in a typical suburb, then we need to make it as accessible as possible.

Please feel free to comment as this is a community topic and I’m only meaning to contribute to the conversation.

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24 Responses to Starting Pocket Neighborhoods

  1. HeatherNo Gravatar says:

    I have thought a lot about this because I feel that “cohousing” as the term goes would be a way for Tiny House communities to have some shared features that your tiny dwelling can’t accommodate. For example a shared community building could be an area where a couple of washers and dryers were maintained, or a few chest freezers, or even a full size stove and oven for when you would like to cook a larger meal without the constraints of a tiny kitchen. I also think as for community meals of sorts it would work better if in a tiny community a few of the households got together to “co-op” meals. Perhaps just a few meals a month or one a week where one household was responsible for the meal that day and the next time another was responsible. I think this way like food-minded individuals would tend to co-op together and share meals.

  2. I do believe that, where North America is concerned, the bar has been lowered for cohousing already. Many of the later developments, particularly outside the West Coast or Colorado, are virtually indistinguishable from conventional suburban neighborhoods, situated on cul-de-sacs with enclosed garages and big yards. As the country of origin for the concept, Denmark is (at least until recently) a relatively monolithic culture. To put it another way, most people are … well, Danish, in the ethnic sense. North America has long been a melting pot of cultures, and the idea that everyone is naturally just going to go along with communally shared meals requires a conscious lifestyle decision. Most people just want to get along with their neighbors. I’m very fortunate to own a place in a small-townhouse condo development () which makes for good neighbors. Everybody stays in their own business, and everybody (usually) gets along. Not a bad life, really.

  3. LouisNo Gravatar says:

    Here’s an example of one of the older ones in CO. They currently have a listing for a town home of 1024 SF for $359,900 which isn’t very affordable.

    Wild Sage Cohousing

    Google Map of Wild Sage

  4. Ross ChapinNo Gravatar says:

    Louis, Glad to see my image of a pocket neighborhood at the front of this post. Would be nice, though, to list a credit and source (Book: Pocket Neighborhoods: Creating Small Scale Community in a Large Scale World). Bonus points for listing the related website: http://www.pocket-neighborhoods.net. Keep up the good work!

  5. LouisNo Gravatar says:

    Thanks, Ross. I updated the post to link to the sources more directly. I’m often debating how much attribution is appropriate.

    I really enjoyed your book. Thanks for writing it!

  6. J.T.No Gravatar says:

    I agree that the bar needs to be lowered — dramatically. All the rules and conditions are fear-based, and the simple truth is that people who are interested in such a community aren’t looking to rip anyone off.
    Pocket communities can also be seen as having “neighborhoods,” which would solve some of the concerns about community meals, etc. The Vegan Burrough, for example, the Ovo-Lacto zone… and I suppose there might be a few on the outskirts who want a “I insist I’m an Omnivore” cul-de-sac.
    Less rules, more solutions, IMO. And if it must be a bit more rural, so be it, but make sure that basics like water and electric are available, please.
    When you get around to actually doing it, get ahold of me. If I haven’t gone off and started one myself already, I may be interested.

  7. Mrs. Lin A. SmithNo Gravatar says:

    Oh, Indeed…….reviewed an article in AARP publication “pocket neighborhoods”, I’m so, so excited about them, their not only cute, they make sense! Where are they and when can I buy? Are there interested builders? Thank-you……

  8. LouisNo Gravatar says:

    Lin, sorry for the delayed response. I was out of town. Not many builders are building much of anything at this point much less something far out of the mainstream like a pocket neighborhood. I would check the pocket neighborhoods website. They might have some units for sale in existing ones. They’re mostly pretty pricey though if that’s a consideration.

  9. signalfireNo Gravatar says:

    Having lived in an intentional community for a year as a renter, there’s some problems with them that should be understood up front by anyone thinking about it.

    While ‘communal meals’ sounds nice, I found I often didn’t feel like spending what amounted to four or five hours helping with meals, eating the meals, socializing and then helping to clean up afterwards; it took the whole evening! I’d really rather just have a simple quick dinner, whatever I felt like, and then have a quiet evening to myself. I work long hours and need down time… this was seen as ‘antisocial’ by the group, but for me, three nights a week in a community dinner situation was exhausting and often the food didn’t agree with my health needs.

    Another problem is consensus discussions. While a good idea on it’s face, it takes freekin’ forever… everyone (30+ people) has to have their say, then the ideas are discussed, then the more, shall we say, vociferous opinions were reiterated, and finally ‘consensus’ seemed to be whoever was willing to continue talking the longest and strongest about any given point of what was going to happen next or have community money spent on next, or be done around the place next… even the silliest detail took three to four hours to discuss and reach a ‘consensus’…

    Shared washing machines and tools and a central community room are a great idea, but people put in laundry and then forgot to come back for it for a day or two, (forcing you to move theirs around if you wanted to use the washer or drier), tools were not brought back promptly, things disappeared never to be seen again, some people partied until late at night, others needed to work in the morning, there seemed to be a surplus of older women who constantly needed ‘help’ with their computers or things around their places, constant community gossip was a problem, several people were mentally ill for lack of a better term, there were random knocks on the door from people who just wanted to talk but who were not that interesting to talk to… work teams were scheduled for Saturday mornings (when I worked at my real job, at a hospital) so I couldn’t attend these but was seen as shirking my communal duties, at least it felt that way as I drove out of the community waving as I went while they were digging a hole for broken plumbing or something…); oh and the piece de resistance, the kid who liked to bounce a basketball up against my bedroom wall early Saturday mornings and whose mother, when I complained, said, ‘well it’s raining and he has no where else to go’ as if it wasn’t her responsibility to make sure he didn’t interrupt other people’s sleep or quietude, or encourage him to find other outlets…

    The idea of communal living is romantic; the reality can be like living with a very large family, only some of whom you like, and some you really don’t like at all. There’s no control over it, as the people living in these situations changes out all the time. If there’s a 20% turnover, that means 1/5 of the people are always new. You can post ‘rules’ all over the place (and you’ll have to) but that doesn’t mean they’ll be honoured. It’s quite a lot like a dorm situation and you know how chaotic that can be. It might work for extroverts but an introvert would be under constant stress from it.

    My preference now is a small house of my own, or even a tiny house on rented land in someone’s (a compatible person) backyard; something that can be moved easily and takes up little space. The pocket communities as above are all really too expensive, 200 or 300K for a small footprint house is really not do-able for the majority of people. After all, you can buy a house anywhere in the world for that; what we need is more 20K houses that are sustainable and off grid if possible so that 30 year mortgages become a thing of the past.

  10. LouisNo Gravatar says:

    Signalfire, I can relate to that. My last year of college I lived in a 3 story house that had 14 rooms and 24 (25) occupants – all college aged people going to the same school and church mostly. Our twice weekly communal meals didn’t always last all night but if it was your turn to cook, it would.

    It was a religious community foremost and that went bad after a while. Someone broke a religious rule (not even at the house) and so began a witch hunt. Any who questioned the methods were questioned as well (myself included). It was demeaning and I eventually left that church altogether. They “evicted” the offender which was probably illegal now that I think of it.

    I’ve lived with roommates pretty much my whole life including the involuntary community imposed by the army. Aside from the few times I ended up friends with my roommates, the better ones were the ones that shared my same standards of privacy and cleanliness which were few and far between.

    I think it’s probably better to have meals with people you want to have meals with – friends (and family and neighbors if you happen to like them).

    From a community and/or sustainability standpoint, I’m starting to think that urban infill apartments and condos fit the bill better. Aside from the more sustainable use of resources, you’re as close or as far from any social circle and economic opportunities as you want to be. Of course there’s crowding and congestion so going off grid away from everyone makes sense for some people too.

  11. JohnnyNo Gravatar says:

    Hey there,

    First, I’m a huge fan of the Tiny House movement and think co-housing is a cool idea. However, I agree with most of the real world observations posted in this article.

    Two points:

    First, You don’t have to live in a special kind of building or “community” to enjoy the benefits of co-housing. I have always reached out to my immediate neighbors wherever I’ve lived and built reciprocal arrangements with them for fun and savings. Over the years I’ve attracted five different neighbors to have dinner in my kitchen every night. I do the grocery shopping (food, soap, toothpaste, etc.) in bulk. I cook and do the dishes, and at the end of the month I divide the bill and everyone rights a check. Our meals cost on average $3.24 per person per meal – and that includes high quality meat, wine, dessert, etc. (I buy fifty pounds of flour and sugar and twenty five pounds of quinoa and wild rice etc. so it’s super cheap per pound). We use each others cars, garden on each others roofs, have out of town guests use each others spare rooms/apartments when needed. Since we live in earthquake country we also have emergency supplies tucked in various buildings for collective use. Keep in mind, most of our other neighbors are oblivious to our activities. We’re a self selecting group on a normal block of homes and small apartment buildings.

    Second, I bought the smallest, ugliest, most run down, cheapest, tear down house on a really good half acre lot in a great little walkable/bikeable village about an hour north of the city. After ten months of gutting the place and putting it back together to a reasonable standard I rented it to a wonderful young couple. Now I’m ready to move on to phase II – adding a Tiny House or two to the large back yard. The Tiny House would be an additional bed and bath/guest house/home office rather than an independent rental, although I could see myself living in it later in life, or having friends or relatives use it for long periods at some point. Installing one or more Tiny Homes on existing property avoids most of the hassle with infrastructure, permits, and inspections associated with a traditional home addition. Plus a Tiny House or two can be build in stages on a cash basis. No debt. No loans. No banker/government bureaucracy/conventional contractor telling you what you have to do or not do to “qualify”.

    – Johnny

  12. Dana OgleNo Gravatar says:

    Is there an existing neighborhood in Austin and if so what do the homes cost. Is there a builder available in the area still building?

  13. LouisNo Gravatar says:

    I’m not aware of an existing neighborhood. There are plenty of builders though. I’m sure Kanga Room Systems of Austin would work with you if you wanted something small. Otherwise, any reputable residential home builder would do. You’d need to subdivide a plot of land and probably work with an engineer or landscape architect.

  14. Glad you mentioned Dallas Cohousing: we’re inching toward reality. Have 3 households actively planning, a property targeted to retrofit and we’re seeking more member-investors to secure the property and develop it. The property’s close to downtown Dallas.

    If you’ve moved here to DFW and are interested, please come to our orientation on Sunday, Jan. 27, at 2 pm at the Dallas Shambhala Meditation Center in Farmers Branch. NOT close to our property but a free place to meet. :}

    The address is on our website, if you’re interested, together with lots of info about our vision.

    And btw, as far as I’m concerned, if the community is formed around the 6 principles of cohousing, doesn’t matter if you’re living in tiny houses, 1 big building, townhomes, whatever–it’s cohousing.

  15. LizNo Gravatar says:

    Louis, I think signalfire has a lot of good comments. Also, many people cannot afford the $300,000 and up price tags on the pocket communities I know about. Perhaps a like minded group could select a low income neighborhood to buy homes and then establish a village-to-village community within the neighborhood. Homes could be purchased with the idea of remodeling them. Ideally, the community could advertise the concept and attract more people to the neighborhood. I believe this could work in Richardson.

  16. LouisNo Gravatar says:

    Liz, the layout of the streets might need to be changed for this to work optimally. The closest infill project I’ve seen was in Austin on Taulbee Lane. I’ve attached a picture. I think they bought two or three adjacent lots to do that one. For it to be more of a community the driveways and building footprints would need to be flipped inside out to have an inner courtyard.

    For Richardson, I’d think new builds on vacant lots would be easier. There is a chapter in the book referenced in this post on reclaiming alleys which would totally apply to Richardson. Our house doesn’t have a fence on three sides so we’ve enjoyed socializing with our neighbors next door and across the alley. This is something I would love to get a community discussion going on in conjunction with the Beautification committee.

    I’m not familiar with signalfire?

    Taulbee Lane Infill

  17. LizNo Gravatar says:

    Signalfire is the person who posted earlier in this discussion.
    You are thinking of a central courtyard as a shared community area. I don’t have any preconceived ideas as to how to arrange everything. Dallas has built so much housing that works against creating what used to be called a neighborhood, so I’m open to anything that refocuses us on community. .
    I like the neighborhood arrangement that you can find on Encore Drive off Preston Road. This homes are larger than I want even though they don’t look like it and they are in the $300-$400 thousand dollar range. They don’t have a community area to my knowledge, but they consider themselves to be and probably have a common fee. I wonder what the builder calls this type of arrangement.
    If you google “encore drive dallas” you can see the street configuration. If financially feasible one area could be designated a common area.

  18. LouisNo Gravatar says:

    Ah, I forgot the previous commenter from a year ago. Encore Dr. is what they call zero lot lines – they basically get permission to build right up to the edge of the property. There’s nothing special about it per se except people have smaller yards. Presumably people who move there don’t mind being closer to their neighbors than usual.

    Honestly, I don’t feel cohousing is realistic for the vast majority of people for the reasons I and signalfire stated above.

    For me, it’s more about the layout of the place. The most important features that facilitate community seem to be close well designed parks, good sidewalks and front porches.

    The porch needs to be big enough for several people to sit shaded and just far enough from the sidewalk that the occupant can wave and say hi if they want to or ignore passersby without feeling antisocial for doing so.

    There’s more to it but neotraditional design tries to accomplish that at least. There’s a good example of it at Tucker Hill in McKinney. Again, the homes are a little too pricey and it’s way out in the middle of nowhere but they have the parks and porches. See http://www.tuckerhilltx.com.

    Apparently those houses have been slow selling. Contrast that with the town homes near the DART Spring Valley Station that have no porches and all look nearly identical. They are not very community friendly but they’re around the $200s price point, are next to a DART station and so are selling like hot cakes.

  19. Haley TranumNo Gravatar says:

    I am just curious with your thoughts on this now, a year later. I live in Richardson TX and have been interested in helping start a Tiny house neighborhood like you describe, or live in one already designed. Has that been accomplished anywhere around here?

  20. LouisNo Gravatar says:

    Haley, since this post was originally written, I finished a masters degree in real estate and started a PhD in two fields focusing on generative urban design.

    I think the only way this will happen is if someone develops a new trailer park and somehow limits it to tiny houses. Of course there aren’t many around so they’d probably have to build and sell (or rent) all the tiny houses too. And then it would have to be pretty far out of town and you’d have to find mostly cash buyers because it won’t qualify for a mortgage and most tiny house enthusiasts are anti-mortgage anyway.

    I don’t know of anything anywhere that’s been done like that. Pocket neighborhoods are rare at that and pretty much only appear in the north west of the country.

    If you just want to park your tiny house in a trailer park, I know of someone who did that. She said the management and other residents had doubts initially but then everyone loved it.

    I think the most realistic opportunity for anything like tiny houses now are as urban infill. A lot of cities have provisions in their codes for Accessory Dwelling Units which is how you’d qualify them (on permanent foundations behind existing houses). It seems that some neotraditional neighborhood designs are including a separate building for office/elder/teenager already. Many of the lots I saw at Tucker Hill (see previous comment) have the ADUs already built in to them.

  21. chris2013No Gravatar says:

    I am building a tiny house and also seek others who might want to live in proximity…..maybe away from a city. But not on top of each other like a trailer park. Or even ways to make tiny house parking for periods of time legal, without going to an RV park.

  22. SusanNo Gravatar says:

    I would love to do something like this, but not necessarily by purchasing a trailer park.

    Surely, if a community will give permission for a developer to build an apartment complex on a few acres, they wouldn’t balk at giving approval for those few acres to house smaller homes (not necessarily “tiny house” size, but maybe in the range of 750 – 1200 ft).

    I live in Fort Worth, and would love to see something like that around here!

  23. NanNo Gravatar says:

    I would love to live in a pocket neighborhood. I live in Ft Worth but would like to get out of the city and downsize.

  24. Don HarmonNo Gravatar says:

    I have designed an ECO VILLAGE that consists of (16) Bungalows – all detached that fits the “pocket neighborhood” classification. If anyone would like to see a copy of this proposal please send a pm to don@lifebatt.com and I will be glad to share it with you.

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