Reclaiming Community

One neighborhood's efforts to stave off ghetto-ization and gentrification - with the help of cohousing

One of the articles in Designing A Sustainable Future (IC#35)
Originally published in Spring 1993 on page 31
Copyright (c)1993, 1996 by Context Institute

Inner-city neighborhoods don’t have to erode into slums, and they don’t have to be gentrified. They can be restored and maintained for their original mission: as healthy environments for people of diverse means to live, work, and grow together.

Some residents of the Sabin Neighborhood, in inner-city Portland, Oregon, are using cohousing to anchor the community and provide support for women who need a fresh start.

For more information about cohousing, see Resources Guide on p. 60, a self-portrait of Winslow Cohousing on page 39, and IC #14 and #21.

The Sabin neighborhood is on the slippery slope many urban communities face as they age. Income levels tend to be low, and houses on some streets are sliding into ruin. Paradoxically, the low real estate prices coupled with the neighborhood’s proximity to downtown Portland are attracting affluent buyers and, with them, the gentrification projects that have already priced long-time residents out of other neighborhoods in town.

"The gentrification is happening faster than the deterioration," said neighborhood activist Claudia Delgado. Gentrification may look nicer than ghetto-ization, but it’s just as disruptive to the existing community.

Rather than moving to newer turf, though, a group of energetic neighbors has put down roots to bind the community together. OnGoing Concerns cohousing is one of the flowers.

"We were always doing work in this neighborhood," said Diane Meisenhelter. "And creating housing with extended family networks that provided a real strong point on the block seemed like one good way to stabilize the community."

Diane is also a member of the Sabin Community Development Corporation, which supports many community-strengthening projects, but focuses most of its attention on affordable housing in this mixed race, lower-income community. The SCDC is working to create a community land trust that would take land out of the speculative real estate market, hold prices down, and reduce absentee ownership.


Members of OnGoing Concerns individually bought seven old, deteriorating houses, then took out the fences separating their adjoining backyards. A jointly-owned community kitchen and meeting room was recently added on to one of the houses.

The start-up period was unusually swift; only six months passed between the first discussions and the first move-ins.

"We wanted to just get living and focus on the other things we’re doing, like the community development corporation, the multicultural festival, the barter network, and the tree planting," Diane said.

The initial investment was also lower than in many custom-built cohousing communities; the houses were each bought for $30,000 to $60,000.

One goal was to demonstrate "that cohousing works not just for yuppies, but for low-income and middle-income folks as well," Diane said. "And it’s a resource-saving approach that can actually lower people’s living cost."

Of course, it wasn’t exactly as cheap, quick, and easy as that. Two years after moving in, the group is still working on rehabilitating the houses and creating the common space.

Insulation has been upgraded in the houses, and three houses have solar water heaters. Double-pane windows and rain barrels are common, and recycled building materials are used extensively in the renovations. Members also use "eco-landscaping": planting grape arbors in front of windows, for instance, to shade the house in summer but let warming sunlight through in winter.

A composting toilet is planned for the common kitchen, but the resource-recovery systems needn’t be fancy or expensive – part of the graywater system is a garden hose running from the upstairs bathtub down to the garden.

Neighbors of OnGoing Concerns can borrow tools from the group’s tool bank, join the food-buying club, or let their kids play where they’re sure an adult will be nearby. Encouraged by the example, a number of those neighbors are trying to join their homes into new cohousing clusters.


OnGoing Concerns and the SCDC are also raising money and providing technical support for another Sabin cohousing project, planned for and by African-Americans, called Ujima. The Swahili word means "collective work and responsibility."

Claudia Delgado, chair of the planning committee, said the heart of Ujima will be two halfway houses for women completing drug- or alcohol-abuse treatment. A partnership with the county correctional authority will allow women on parole or probation to spend time there as part of a community re-integration program.

Some women have supportive families to help them get back to normal life, Claudia said, but many have nothing. It’s too easy to slip back into substance abuse, or crime.

At present, there are no halfway houses in Sabin. "It’s almost a punishment that they can’t come back here," she said. "To be isolated from that support is to undermine their recovery."

Elders, young people, and families of different types will live at Ujima, probably renting low-cost homes owned by the SCDC, Claudia said. They’ll provide role models, friendship and a group for the women in the halfway houses to belong to, she said.

"Originally we’d hoped to have OnGoing Concerns be a mixed community," Diane said. "But our African-American friends said they preferred to have a kind of cultural cohesion; they didn’t necessarily want to eat tofu."

The two groups may have different styles and different cultures, but they are working toward a common goal: a stronger community.

"We’ve been working very closely together," Claudia said. "Especially now that we’re kicking the Ujima project into high gear."

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