Episode 59: Housing for People, Not Cars

Michael Anderson: I feel like we are living a life that’s more similar to my dad’s life in Chicago in the ’50s growing up than most Americans live today. I think the most important thing about Cully Green is that it’s illegal to build it almost anywhere in the United States.

Sarah Goodyear: Hello and welcome to The War on Cars. I’m Sarah Goodyear. A few weeks ago, a friend sent me an adorable video of her four-year-old grandson, Barney, riding his bike for the first time without training wheels, around and around in front of his house. Nothing so special about that, right? Except there was. Because the reason this little guy could ride so freely, and his parents could focus on capturing the moment was that there are no cars driving past the front of their home. No cars at all. No road or street where they’re allowed to go or could even go by mistake. No driveways. No cars.

Sarah: This little family lives in a brand-new housing development in Portland, Oregon, called Cully Green. It’s a variation on what’s known as co-housing, which in this case means that people live in small, connected townhomes around a shared, open courtyard. There’s a common building that residents can use if they want to throw a party and need more space—if there’s not a global pandemic, of course. There are also guest rooms you can book for visiting friends and family. Part of the lot is set aside for communal gardening. There’s a laundry room for people who don’t have washers and dryers in their homes. There’s a building for storing bikes. And, oh yeah, there’s also a parking lot at the edge of the one-and-a-half acre development, well away from the footpaths where kids run and play.

Sarah: As I learned more about Cully Green, it struck me just how unusual it is. Cully Green provides a way of life that is almost unheard of in modern America. It’s a place where you can walk out your front door and see people instead of cars. A place developed specifically to encourage a car-free or car-light way of life, although transit access in the neighborhood is not as good as it should be. So why are places like this so unusual? What are the benefits to this type of living arrangement? What are the drawbacks? Is this the kind of thing that can only work in Portland because, you know, Portland? Or could this be a model for building better cities and better communities all across the country? We’ll get the answer to those questions and more.

Sarah: But first, here’s a word from our sponsor.

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Sarah: All right. Let’s get back to Cully Green. As idyllic as it may sound to some people—including me—there’s just one problem. In most of America, it’s impossible to build anything like it. Why? Because of zoning that allows for nothing other than detached, single family homes. The battles over single family zoning have been creeping into the national culture wars lately, with opponents of multi-family dwellings and developments insisting they are protecting a traditional way of life. The issue even made it into the last presidential campaign.

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Donald Trump: The Democrats in DC have been and want to abolish our beautiful and successful suburbs by placing far-left Washington bureaucrats in charge of local zoning decisions. They’re absolutely determined to eliminate single family zoning, and what will be the end result is you will totally destroy the beautiful suburbs. Suburbia will be no longer as we know it.]

Sarah: But that video of little Barney riding his bike safely in Cully Green looked a lot closer to the traditional idea of a safe and family-friendly suburbia than a lot of single family neighborhoods look today. It seemed pretty nice, to be honest. I decided to call up Barney’s parents, who are also friends of mine, to ask them about where they live and what it’s been like. I’ll let them introduce themselves.

Maureen Anderson: I’m Maureen Anderson, and I’ve lived in Portland, Oregon for 10 years. And I am a labor and delivery and postpartum nurse at the big hospital in town, Oregon Health and Science University.

Michael Anderson: I am Michael Anderson. I am a Cully Green resident and I work for Sightline Institute. It’s a sustainability think tank in the Pacific Northwest. I write about housing policy.

Sarah: Until last year, Maureen and Mike had been living in a tiny house in a friend’s backyard.

Maureen Anderson: We were living in that situation and it was great. We lived alongside a family that had a kiddo that was 11 months older than our son, and so we were able to share things like dinners and babysitters and trips to the grocery store. It was great. And then they moved kind of suddenly to another town, and we were gonna be having to look for a new house situation. And it just didn’t make sense to move out and be on our own. It just—it seemed so lonely.

Sarah: They were determined to avoid that loneliness, so they talked with another group of friends about them maybe constructing a similar dwelling unit in their backyard. Then they heard about Cully Green, which had not yet opened, but still had some units for sale.

Maureen Anderson: So the friends that we were thinking about going in and having them build something in their backyard from scratch, they came up and saw the site with us, and we all rolled away from it—because we biked there and back, we rolled away thinking all honestly, like, this is it. Like, this is where we want to be. And there were two units that were right next door to each other. And so their daughter has just turned two, and our son is four, almost four and a quarter. And we wanted that sort of sibling-y relationship of him being able to learn to be with other kids and be in community. And it all just kind of fell into place.

Sarah: Michael, Maureen and Barney moved into Cully Green last November. It didn’t take long for them to feel like they were part of a community. A lot of the residents are young families, but there are also retirees, singles and couples without kids.

Maureen Anderson: We share dropoffs and pickups. We have dinners. When people—somebody lost their dad in the first couple of months that we all lived here, and they were taken care of in terms of, like, meals being brought to them and child care being offered to them. There’s another family that’s expecting a baby at the beginning of next month, and we’ve already set up all of the meal train stuff to support them. It’s like living in a village within a city, and it makes so much more sense.

Sarah: It sounds like the design really is an effective incubator of that kind of community. You don’t have to try that hard, in a way.

Maureen Anderson: Our front doors open up onto everyone else’s front doors, so we can see people coming and going, and stop and chat to people. We have little postage stamp-sized yards, which is perfect for me because I have no interest in gardening, but we combined ours with our friends that live next door and put a patio space in. And as soon as we put that patio space in, we would sit out with, like, glasses of wine or tea in the evening, and people just kind of gathered there and talked. There are so many kids that are, like, right around the same age, and they kind of all run around before dinnertime. And it’s an awesome way to stand around and chit chat with their parents from six feet away, and yeah, it’s a remarkable amount of community being built in the middle of a global pandemic.

Sarah: And so then the area that where all the front yards are and all of that is completely car free, right? The cars are parked at the perimeter of this kind of cluster, is that right?

Maureen Anderson: Yeah, it’s one of the huge perks is that I don’t worry about my kid running around to his friend’s house because there are no cars that come down. It’s just a pedestrian walkway all in between our front doors.

Sarah: Cully Green was developed by a guy named Eli Spevak, who’s been building housing in Portland since 1994. He lives across the street from Cully Green in a similar development called Cully Grove, which his team finished in 2013. Eli told me that when building in the Cully neighborhood, which is outside Portland’s urban core and still has a relatively rural quality, he was required to put in parking. That didn’t mean that it had to dominate the site, though.

Eli Spevak: When you have to have parking on a site, I try and put it on the edge of the community, so that the area in between the homes is landscaped grass, walking, pedestrian. And that means that some homes have—you know, are close to where their cars are. And some homes you have to walk away. And people like it both ways. They like the variety. We built 20 parking spaces for sale in this project and a couple of guestrooms out of 23 homes, and I’m stuck holding onto three of them, which is wonderful. I mean, I’m not sure what to do with them, but we didn’t have as many buyers for parking spaces as expected. And I had a lot of pressure from neighbors in designing the project to put way more parking than I actually did, so I’m glad about that. And we also provided a bike parking building with 54 bike spots in it, which I’m sure will still not be enough. But this is definitely a case where it is a trade off of land area for parking versus land area for trees and shrubs and pedestrian paths. And I try and err on the side of giving cars as little of the area of the site as I can.

Sarah: Cully is a neighborhood that’s changing quickly, and longtime residents have been concerned about gentrification. Housing prices have soared throughout the city, and co-housing developments like Cully Grove and Cully Green have kept pace with those increases. Eli has tried to be sensitive to these problems. Three of the units in Cully Green are dedicated as affordable housing for first-time homebuyers earning 80 percent of the median family income. Those units, in partnership with a local community land trust, will remain affordable forever. Michael, who writes a lot about housing equity, is concerned about how the development interacts with the community, and how that relationship will evolve going forward.

Michael Anderson: There is this barrier just beyond the boundaries of our—you know, it’s deliberately mixed income, but it’s still a pretty bougie group of folks living in some cases a very poor part of town. So, like, there’s this challenge, I think, for us of not being a bubble of people who happen to know each other and have this really strong community, but to be a strong part of a strong neighborhood. Which Cully is a remarkably well-organized neighborhood, in part because of work by the folks in Cully Grove across the street and so on, to invest their time and energy in the other movements that have already been going on.

Sarah: Mike and Maureen are still settling in and figuring out how to navigate the neighborhood, which they do mostly on foot and by bike. They ride Barney to his preschool a few blocks away on the back of their e-bike. When he’s ready for kindergarten, they won’t have much farther to go.

Maureen Anderson: We are thankfully right down the street from the local elementary school, so we can see the elementary school from—if we stand in the middle of the street between Cully Green and Cully Grove, we can see the buildings. So it will be a perfect bike ride away for him. I imagine there’s gonna end up being some sort of, like—what’s that called, a bike train, sweetheart? I don’t remember. Yeah, but where, like, a whole bunch of people all at the same time leave to go to school together. Yeah, he’s gonna continue to be—or he’s gonna be able to continue his life on two wheels, which is very exciting.

Michael Anderson: I think it’s a perfect example of, like, the neighborhood where you need bikes to optimize the car-free life because it’s a mile or two from good transit.

Sarah: Right. And are you guys getting by with just one car, or do you have two?

Maureen Anderson: Oh, no, We’ve only had one car, our whole relationship. I brought the car to the relationship. Michael didn’t have a car.

Michael Anderson: I still claim that it is Mo’s car.

Maureen Anderson: He uses it from time to time, but he always asks, which makes it feel much more like my car. But yeah, the one car is more than enough.

Sarah: At this point in my conversation with Mike and Maureen, I was seriously asking myself why I don’t live in a co-housing development. Then I remembered the thing that makes a lot of people hesitate to do that.

Sarah: And so, okay, then the big question that somebody asked me when I was telling them about this and getting all excited, talking about it, it’s like, but what if it all goes terribly wrong? What if you and your friends get into a feud with each other? What if there’s some dispute about the garden space or—you know, how are those kinds of interpersonal dynamics going to be handled? Do you have any sense of how they’re gonna be handled? Because, of course, things happen. [laughs]

Maureen Anderson: Oh, it could go spectacularly wrong. And maybe that’s part of the fun of it. There was a book that we—I don’t know if we were required to read or not, I did not read it, about consensus decision-making. And basically, the idea behind it is speak up if you really, really feel strongly about something, but otherwise just let it go, man. Like, there are enough families, there are 23 families that live on the site that, I think that buying into a space like this, you have to know that it’s not gonna be about you, that there are greater forces at play. Some of that is annoying because I hate meetings, and I don’t like sitting around and, like, you know, fussing over every detail. But for the most part, we’ve been conflict free. But, I mean, it’s early days.

Sarah: Eli told me that part of the secret of setting up successful co-housing is transparency on the front end, and then staying transparent once people move in.

Eli Spevak: It’s really important that people, when they join a community, know what they’re getting into. It’s important to have a clear vision statement, which I put out there right in front of everyone who’s looking at it, so people can self-select in, and make sure it feels like it’s a good match. And in terms of how the association runs, I love what I call meeting-lite co-housing. For a lot of people, co-housing feels like it’s a slog through meeting after meeting. And there’s upsides, but that’s one of the downsides. And one way to achieve that is to have the opportunity to do lots of stuff without going through the HOA at all.

Eli Spevak: So if you have chickens or you have a morning breakfast for all the people who have kids, then that can be a project of that subset of members, but it never actually goes to the homeowner association. And having opportunities for that, you know, creates a lot of life in the community, to be able to be sort of spontaneous. I love that. It’s gone really well, but there’s been a little bit of tension sometimes between kids’ stuff in the visual, in view left out in the common areas, you know? And some people say that’s part of life. Some people say I’d rather not see it. I mean, little stuff comes up like that. There can be larger issues that can come up, too. But I think that communities with some experience learn that the most important thing is to try and address community concerns early. The worst thing is to let it fester and get worse. And so that’s some of the lessons we’ve learned. But, yeah, you have to expect that in a community of 23 households, conflicts will come up, and the best thing to do is to acknowledge that and be prepared.

Sarah: Maureen and Mike think the trade offs of living in this kind of community look pretty reasonable, especially when they think about what growing up in Cully Green is going to be like for their kid. And they wish that more people had the choice to live like this.

Maureen Anderson: I think it’s really neat that we’re gonna be able to give him so much freedom. And he’s a super trustworthy kid. Like, he’s a rule follower, and he is not the kind that’s gonna run off the property or anything like that. So in those confines, he can go anywhere. He can dig in the dirt, he can ride his bike, he can go play hide and seek. He can—he’s gonna have so much freedom within this kind of, you know, scaffolding of the community. And I’ve also thought about, like, we’re doing a little bit of parenting all the time. So if you see a kid that’s running around outside and there’s no grown up, I think all of us feel okay to be like, “Hey, Simone, where’s your grown up?” Or like, “Where you heading?” Or “Keep up. Don’t—you dropped something, sweetie,” and things like that. So there are always grown ups that are around.

Sarah: It seems like it takes so much pressure off of you as the parent of a young child, that you can have this feeling that you can let the kid go out and it will be safe, and there are other grownups there. And also, it’s so much less lonely for you than—you know, I just feel like parenting in the huge majority of the way that people live in this country, parenting is so punishingly lonely.

Maureen Anderson: Yeah. And isn’t it interesting that we’ve all kind of fallen into our phones as a way to look for that connection and support from other people, when you could just live a little bit closer to people and have a smaller yard?

Michael Anderson: Only you couldn’t, because it’s illegal.

Maureen Anderson: Ah, that’s the thing!

Michael Anderson: I think the most important thing about Cully Green is that it’s illegal to build it on any—almost anywhere in the United States. Eli was characterizing this as, like, an old-fashioned way of living with a newfangled twist or something, right? But, like, this is really like, I feel like we are living a life that’s more similar to my dad’s life in Chicago in the ’50s growing up than most Americans live today.

Michael Anderson: And prior to—and I mean and it’s also much more like, I think, how we evolved in tribes of 20 to 150 or something, wandering around Africa. And the number of systems we’ve created that have led us to live in different ways today, they’re not all bad,but I think a huge amount of my motivation for my work on trying to make different housing options legal in more cities is to, like, get rid of these stupid rules. I think we’ve really created a ton of loneliness and isolation, and really almost impossible to measure social costs that require you to, like, be—to rely on your spouse and your immediate family for all your social needs. And why is that? Because of zoning. It’s because of, like, it being illegal to have a community where you can have one friend who does this role for you and one spouse who does these other roles for you, and another friend that does something else, and relationships with kids who are not your own. And all these things that I think we’re prevented by law from doing because of the way that we’ve written up laws in a way that forces everybody into a certain type of life, a certain type of family.

Maureen Anderson: We made a spreadsheet of all of our skills. And so there’s a lady that was a pediatric nurse practitioner for 30 years. And I know how to stitch people together. And there are horticulturists and bike repair people. And, yeah, it’s drawing from such a bigger pool, rather than just what’s in your four walls. It’s cool. Honestly, there’s not a day that goes by that I’m not just like, “Oh my God, I love living here. This is great.”

Sarah: That’s it for this episode of The War on Cars. Thanks so much to Michael, Maureen and Eli for giving us a window into the way they live, and helping us think about what’s possible if municipalities open up zoning to give people more choices.

Sarah: We’ll put some links to information and videos showing Cully Green and Cully Grove in the show notes, along with some stories that explain just why it can be so hard to build multi-family developments in the United States.

Sarah: Big thanks to our top Patreon sponsors: Charley Gee of Human Powered Law in Portland, Oregon, the law office of Vaccaro and White in New York, Drew Raines and Virginia Baker.

Sarah: Don’t forget that listeners of The War on Cars get a 30 percent discount on Cleverhood’s new anorak, specially designed for walking and biking. And 20 percent off on almost everything else Cleverhood has to offer. If you’re in Portland, I know you always need that rain gear. Go to Cleverhood.com and use coupon code “waroncars” when you check out. You can also pick up official War on Cars coffee mugs and other gear—we’ve got sweatshirts now!—in the official War on Cars store located at Thewaroncars.org/store. And you can also go to our store on Bookshop.org to find books by guests from past episodes, as well as some of our favorite titles about how to build a world centered on people rather than cars. That’s at Bookshop.org/thewaroncars.

Sarah: Please subscribe and rate and review The War on Cars on Apple podcasts or wherever you get your podcasts. This episode was produced by me, Sarah Goodyear, and edited by Ali Lemer. Our theme music is by Nathaniel Goodyear. Our logo is by Danny Finckel of Crucial D Designs. On behalf of my co-hosts Doug Gordon and Aaron Naparstek, I’m Sarah Goodyear and this is The War on Cars.