Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Co-Housing, Part 7: Residential Vision for a Wireless Generation

I suspect that cloud computing – where the technology infrastructure resides “in the cloud” that supports computing and liberates businesses from the shackles of servers and other bulky equipment – and co-housing are headed for a delicious collision. This will be a paradigm shift of significant magnitude for Generation Wireless. Typical cloud computing providers deliver common business applications online, accessed from a web browser, while the required software and data are stored on servers; but they are someone else’s servers, in my vision of the near future. Not only will cloud computing users avoid capital cost on hardware, software and services; they will pay providers only for what they use on a “utility-bill” (resources consumed, like kilowatts) or subscription (like a year’s subscription to Newsweek Magazine) model. So, freed of “stuff” other than their laptops, mobiles and brain-pans, when users can access systems using Web browsers regardless of their location or device employed, Gen Wireless members will be free to play in any sandbox they can afford.

This implicates permanent-housing paradigms. At the beginning of the 21st century, more developments in single-family housing began to shed large yards in favor of interior amenities. The ‘great indoors’ began to supplant the emphasis on wide-open spaces for many American purchasers of homes – including in areas of the nation where land was fairly cheap for first-time residential buyers. In short, the U.S. housing paradigm is beginning to resemble the rest of the industrialized world, where land is too costly (in dollars, inconvenience and otherwise) to factor importantly into decisions of dwellers about what to purchase. Or whether to purchase at all; although in America, a different way of thinking developed – here, renting a dwelling historically was deemed only a transitional phase. Accordingly, land for garages, yards and so on was coupled with the main dwelling unit in owner-occupied developments. (Even in condominium projects, the owner owns an “undivided interest in the common elements,” where the community pool and swing sets are located.)

Here, I predict a complete uncoupling, for significant parts of the U.S. population, of land and dwelling ownership in this century. Clearly the next generation of home-buyers will include significant numbers of persons freed from the moorings of rented offices and bulky computer equipment. If affordable and sustainable housing with sufficient design appeal and transportability (containers!) becomes available in large enough quantities, and if debt for residential leveraged purchases remains scarce for large numbers of the population, there will be a palpable transition away from conventional subdivisions. Perhaps in favor of this - opening curtain:

A park-like setting with vegetation, a swimming pool or other appealing body of water, a community garden using grey-water and other common use amenities like barbeque pits, workout facilities and congregate rooms. You and your family unit, fresh from somewhere distant, visit the environment and decide it suits your needs. You speak to the Trustee of the parcel and discuss the minimum occupancy term, the community regulations and the monthly occupancy fee. Satisfied with these matters, your application is reviewed and approved by the Trustee, and in comes your existing dwelling on an 18-wheeler’s trailer to your space. The Trustee’s trusty contractor connects your dry utilities to the conduit provided at ground level, and your piping for plumbing and sewer lines. (Your solar panels already are imbedded in your rooftop, naturally.)

There’s no lease; just installments of occupancy fees due monthly. Those payments offset the community’s cost of maintenance, repair and replacement of the common amenities and buildings. You pay your cable and Internet fees directly to the providers, according to your particular requirements. Water, sewer and trash/recycling are included in your monthly fees, reduced on the basis of recycling and other community economies of scale. Your monthly fees are, of course, tied to the space you occupy and the length of your tenure in the community, with discounting for the longer-term residents. No mortgage payments, naturally. Of course, if you don’t remain for the minimum term you agreed upon, there is the specter of the “breakage fee,” but that’s a cost you’re willing to accept for the privilege of hitting the road if you find the environment not gelling with your personal style.

You use all the amenities of your choice, but you don’t maintain them, because you don’t own the land. You have a voice in community decisions, but you don’t run the place, nor do you have the freedom to “run wild.” If you don’t like the lay of the land or your fellow community members, you’re free to leave without worrying about brokers, commissions (man! Sorry Patrick!) or waits for the buyer market to hits your target home sales price. You pull up your stakes (wiring and plumbing connections), hire another 18-wheeler, settle up with the Trustee, and you’re on your way to your next dwelling place, with your residence you’ve long since paid for in tow.

Sound impractical? A cloud computing business owner can choose to live anywhere she/he chooses today; it’s only complicated by finding the right combination of location and housing stock. But if you control your “stock” for as long as you require one type of dwelling, then all you need is a patch of terra firma known as a “footprint” and connections to hook up your wires, pipes and cables. I predict that shortly there will be quasi-transient communities available where your “crib” will be of your own invention but your immediate surroundings will become a menu-choice instead of a commitment (or a bankruptcy or short sale/credit hit, under the current model of much residential ownership).

I predict that communities will be owned by individual, often anonymous, investors who hold the land essentially for long-term investment. These investments may be held through a myriad of ownership devices, but let’s identify one for ease of explanation. The land trust was a device invented for Chicago downtown development that became universal. In Arizona, my domicile, it primarily has been used as a residential development financing mechanism, so it’s largely known here as a “subdivision trust.” Essentially, land is deeded to a Trustee (the fee owner) of the trust, who answers to the instructions of the beneficiary/investor(s); and there may be more than one beneficiary (but tiers of beneficiaries are not for today’s post). The Trustee, likely an enterprise, will (i) pay taxes and common amenity utilities and insurance premiums out of the collected dwellers’ monthly fees, (ii) negotiate terms of occupancy with successive new community dwellers, (iii) pay a certain amount of the collected fees to the beneficiary(ies) but plow some back into the community, and (iv) deal with the community agency.

By “the community agency,” I refer to the dwellers in the community through their elected/appointed/self-proclaimed representatives. The final authority for expelling a miscreant dweller is vested, however, in the Trustee (see my earlier post on this site on the means to quell community hate-fests through dispute resolution mechanisms). Some communities surely will feature owner-occupancy; I’ll predict most will be mixtures of permanent residents and quasi-transients. By the term “quasi-transients,” I mean persons intending to stay in a community, initially, for a protracted period but who depart. How’s that sound, futurists?


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