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Haystack Heights Cohousing creating community in the South Perry District

Jim Dawson poses for a photo at Haystack Heights Cohousing in the South Perry District. Dawson co-founded the 39-unit community, which opened in May at 731 S. Garfield St.  (Tyler Tjomsland/The Spokesman-Review)
Jim Dawson poses for a photo at Haystack Heights Cohousing in the South Perry District. Dawson co-founded the 39-unit community, which opened in May at 731 S. Garfield St. (Tyler Tjomsland/The Spokesman-Review)

More than five years ago, Jim Dawson and Mariah McKay had a vision to create a sustainable, intergenerational village with clustered homes, green space and shared amenities.

The couple’s vision was realized in May with the opening of Haystack Heights Cohousing, a 39-unit community at 731 S. Garfield St. in the South Perry District.

Haystack Heights Cohousing is the first of its kind in Spokane and Eastern Washington.

Cohousing communities consist of private, fully-equipped homes and shared common spaces, such as large dining areas, workshops, craft rooms, gardens and more.

Members own their living units, but join together for meals as well as collectively manage shared spaces and plan activities.

“What we really envisioned was a highly functional community where we knew our neighbors, and where we could rely on each other to make life easier and more meaningful,” Dawson said. “We got that in spades.”

Creating community

Dawson and McKay’s idea for cohousing was prompted in part by a desire to connect with others.

“We really care about community and we are community organizers in our professions, gathering people together to make a change in the world and in our city,” Dawson said.

In 2017, they launched Spokane Cohousing, which was later renamed Haystack Heights Cohousing.

That same year, Haystack Heights members hired Katie McCamant of CoHousing Solutions as a development consultant.

McCamant has assisted with developing more than 50 cohousing communities in the U.S.

The project got started when Dawson and McKay bought a home on one acre from a couple on Eighth Avenue.

The same couple then agreed to sell an additional four acres for what would eventually become the Haystack Heights cohousing community. It included the Haystack Building, which was incorporated into the overall project.

As the cost of the development grew to $15 million, some parties dropped out of the project due to the investment required and uncertainty, Dawson said.

Despite turnover of members, Haystack Heights pre-sold all of its planned housing units.

“We found that there was a ton of interest and that a lot of people tried to build cohousing in the past and it didn’t happen,” Dawson said. “We were able to build our group pretty well throughout the whole process and we were sold out before we started construction.”

Haystack Heights was initially designed to include five buildings, but one structure was cut keep the project within budget.

Members formed a limited liability company and submitted down payments to build equity for a construction loan.

Those down payments were applied toward purchase of members’ housing units, which ranged in price from $250,000 to $450,000, depending on size.

“It took a lot of work to find a credit union that was willing to do the construction financing for the project, just because it was different,” Dawson said. “Even though we are using a very traditional condo association ownership model, and we had people committed wanting to put 10% to 30% down and pre-sold all the units ahead of time.”

Building success

Another key to Haystack Heights’ success was working with developers who had extensive knowledge in cohousing projects, Dawson said.

Haystack Heights members worked with Portland-based Urban Development + Partners.

McCamant of CoHousing Solutions and Spokane-based Yost Gallagher, the project contractor, were also instrumental in the project’s success, Dawson said.

“I think a lot of the communities that are not successful with cohousing are the ones that try to do it on their own,” Dawson said. “If you make one mistake, it can cost you $500,000. It takes a lot of discipline and experience to know where those pitfalls are and to avoid them.”

Because Yost Gallagher purchased lumber needed for the project prior to recent price spikes, it saved thousands of dollars in construction costs, Dawson said.

Groups looking to build cohousing communities often face a learning curve as it’s their first time developing a project.

There’s also a financial factor as cohousing communities are typically new developments that cost more per square foot compared with a 20-year old house, said Karen Gimnig, a nationally-recognized consultant with a passion for cohousing communities.

“Usually a developer with access to money, land and skills builds a property and sells it,” Gimnig said. “With cohousing, typically people who want to live together form a group and have to fund a lot of it up front.”

“They are investing in a development project, which is different than putting a down payment on a house,” she added.

People living in cohousing communities may see cost savings in other areas as they share resources, she said.

“The sense of connection and relationships – that’s the value people are buying,” Gimnig said. “You do it because you love the community.”

Cohousing growing

There are about 170 established cohousing communities in the U.S. and 125 in varying stages of development, according to the Cohousing Association of the U.S., a national nonprofit that supports newly forming and existing communities.

“We’ve certainly seen a growing interest in our programs and signups for our email list,” said Trish Becker-Hafnor, executive director of the Cohousing Association of the U.S.

The pandemic drove demand for cohousing communities as people sought connection to others to avoid isolation, Becker-Hafnor said.

“The pandemic really showed us how much we really need one another. Many of us experienced isolation in a new way and saw how much connection is tied to well-being,” she said. “As a result, we looked to other models and said to ourselves, ‘We need to create more connection and community in our lives.’ ”

Spokane resident Ana Trusty was drawn to the community aspect of Haystack Heights.

Trusty learned of the cohousing project through a friend. When a spot on Haystack Heights’ waitlist opened, Trusty jumped at the opportunity to live in the community.

Trusty, a mother of two, was able to quickly sell her home in Spokane’s booming housing market, allowing her to submit a down payment for a unit at Haystack Heights.

“I’m really enjoying that there’s a lot of adults my age. I’m excited my kids get to be there and learn from so many people,” she said. “It’s a great place to raise a family, that’s for sure.”

Haystack Heights members are not alone in their efforts to develop cohousing communities in Spokane.

Former Spokane County Commissioner Bonnie Mager and her husband are among five families that have formed a group to build a cohousing community.

“We have been aware of cohousing and think it’s a great way to live,” Mager said. “Now that we are retired, we started talking to our son and daughter-in-law, and they were interested in it, and we were interested in living next to our grandkids.”

The Magers are planning to build a cohousing community with 20 to 30 units on a site that they own.

“We hope to increase to 15 families, so we can start the design process,” Mager said.

Haystack Heights has been referring interested parties to Mager’s cohousing group, which is planning a series of informational cohousing meetings and design workshops in the Spokane area.

Mager aims to break ground on the cohousing space in two years.

“We are very much looking for additional families that want to live in a multigenerational community with like-minded people who want to conserve resources and still maintain their own home,” Mager said.

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