About the Campaign

I'm the organizer of the petition, so I can verify, on behalf of my 72-year-old neighbor Alice Green, after over two years working together on this, that the key issue preventing her from getting a reverse mortgage is that our condominium community is a cohousing neighborhood.

I'm the organizer of the petition, so I can verify, on behalf of my 72-year-old neighbor Alice Green, after over two years working together on this, that the key issue preventing her from getting a reverse mortgage is that our condominium community is a cohousing neighborhood.

You'll find the "smoking gun" in our entry in the HUD condo approval database - our legal name is Strawberry Commons HOA and we're in California, so you can look us up yourself. Our listing reads, "THIS IS A CO-HOUSING CONDOMINIUM PROJECT WHICH IS NOT ELIGIBILE FOR FHA PROJECT APPROVAL." Yes, "not eligibile," typos and all. This despite our 1997 award from HUD for "Innovations in Homeownership," and our documents being constructed in all respects to be an FHA-approved condominium project.

Yes, we know a few cohousing neighborhoods have gotten prior FHA approvals, but in the years since the 2008 housing crunch, HUD has gone from a "lender of last resort" for people not served by the overall mortgage market to the "last man standing" universal lender backing most home loans, and it is applying new standards and interpretations; cohousing appears to be in the pile of things HUD might call "stuff we don't understand so let's say no for now." We have been hesitant to point our fingers at condo projects that got past approvals that haven't expired yet, for fear that our attention would lead to loss/revokal of approval, but now is the time to rigorously go through and document cohousing's exemplary record of maintenance and foreclosure prevention, so the value can become clearer to regulators and our community relationships and meals together can be seen as a benefit, not a liability.

After three failed resubmittals for our project with minimal feedback, we finally asked for direct guidance and got to speak with our HUD regional condo-approval coordinator who helped us understand that this is coming from HUD national, in ways that many individual borrowers who relied on lenders or brokers to seek approvals through an independent service business do not get to the point of understanding because the details get lost in the game of telephone -- they just want to close the loan, not fix the underlying problem, and as soon as they find the answer is "no," they move on or drop it.

Yes, there's also the additional challenge that all units in our project are permanently affordable, with prices capped for 30 years, going up slowly with capital improvements plus area incomes to match inflation, as a trade-off for our taking rent-controlled apartments off the market when we converted to condos in 1997. However, our development agreement with the city was designed (with obscure language that I've only recently come to understand) to meet a particular loophole in the HUD/FHA guidelines (see Code of Federal Regulations, section 203.41 parts C and D), by being set up to serve people below a certain percentage of median income and by being structured so that if HUD or any bank forecloses, they can sell at market rate, kind of a "get out of jail free" card that lets them ignore the affordability price restrictions for purposes of underwriting/calculating property value. HUD has a process to review and approve these agreements through its legal department, but it won't even start that until our core project application is approved. We do have to get our city attorneys to fix a technical error they made along the way (amending a document that had been superceded by our individual per-unit documents, which prevents it from being formally released), but we expect that to be simple once they have clear guidance from HUD, based on our conversations with the city's housing department.

I briefly met Housing Commisioner Carol Galante last year and learned that she knows people living in cohousing (she comes from a Bay Area nonprofit housing background and studied at UC Berkeley's Department of City and Regional Planning - Go Bears!) and we are working with a HUD staffer to find solutions, but it could be years until the issues of interpretation are fixed through a formal rulemaking process. We believe that with the community connections and power of the cohousing movement, we can find a faster fix in time to help Alice and others like her in cohousing neighborhoods across the country.

Yes, reverse mortgages are not the ideal choice for everyone, but in this particular case, we believe it to be the best available tool to help Alice stay in the community by providing her with an ongoing income so she can pay for condo dues (covering fully-funded reserves and extensive maintenance and insurance), property taxes, and food, an amount that exceeds her current income. She has no kids or car and lives an incredibly rich, thrifty and efficient life, biking everywhere. She's living in the inner San Francisco Bay Area on under $12,000 a year fixed income, in a place that can be challenging for people making even ten times that. If she were to move out, she would be spending far more, have less of a grassroots support network, and would qualify for subsidized publicly-assisted housing. Even fiscal conservatives should agree it is in the public interest to help her tap her own hard-earned home equity to stay in a supportive community.

For those of you, like Patti from JP coho, concerned about what happens to a cohousing home when the owner dies or has to move out and sell: It's the same as for any cohouser at any age chooses to leave: ideally the community helps market it to find a great new neighbor to buy it, and the mortgage balance is paid off by the proceeds of the sale, just like any other turnover, with the former owner or estate getting the remainder. The secret sauce that makes an FHA-approved "HECM" Reverse Mortgage loan especially relevant for Alice and others in her shoes is this: if she outlives her projected life expectancy and then she continues to live in her home after its value is exceeded by what she's received in reverse-mortgage payouts and interest, the HUD mortgage insurance will continue payments, at no risk to the lender or her heirs, thanks to the federally-backed mortgage insurance she pays for as part of the loan.


Alice videoconferencing with Cristina from PEERS, planning the campaign.

Thanks to all of you and many more, Alice's petition got over 10,000 signatures in just the first weekend, with 100 pages of moving comments about cohousing, your own situations, and the fundamental societal dignity involved in helping prevent our elders from being forced from their homes. We weren't prepared for such a groundswell of support emerging so quickly, so we didn't have the website ready to support the education and advocacy we'll need, but we are developing this now at my Aging in Community website.

We'll be adding videos and pages with much more depth explaining cohousing, reverse mortgages, and the particular challenges we're facing. We'll be naming partners (national and regional communities-movement organizations are likely candidates, along with Partners for Affordable Cohousing and sharing-movement advocacy groups) and supporters (some of your very-moving comments are worthy of their own campaigns and stories), as well as calling out institutions and people who are standing in the way. So far we've clocked hundreds of hours of volunteer time on this project, and would love to get help from people all over. We'll be naming actions you can take, including financial support and direct lobbying -- wouldn't it bring great attention to the issue to send Alice to hand-deliver the petition to the Housing Commissioner in DC as part of Mid-Atlantic Cohousing's upcoming month of community events in May?

I just this month brought up this issue at the first Global Ecovillage Network elders' gathering at Findhorn in Scotland, and presented about cohousing at the Aging in America national conference in San Diego, where I took every opportunity to bring the issue to the attention of key aging-movement influencers and connectors, who are especially looking for opportunities to remove obstacles that prevent Aging in Community. Sharon, I look forward to getting connected to your neighbor who has experience lobbying HUD -- we're going to need all the help and advice and connections we can get.

Raines Cohen

Raines Cohen, Cohousing Coach and Community Organizer

Certified Senior Advisor and Audacious Aging "Aging-in-Community" chapter author

Cohousing California/East Bay Cohousing

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