Commentary: “Introducing the HAUS Project” by Jay

Three years ago, I spent part of my summer driving around Houston with an awesome intern from Rice University going to every future light rail stop (there will be 65 by 2016 or so) taking pictures, collecting data, and trying to get a feel for each neighborhood.  Somewhere in that process, I had a vision.  Realizing that there are many weird old buildings near these future transit nodes and that almost all of Houston’s major universities will be on the light rail system, it is essential that affordable housing be preserved for students and current residents while these areas accrue the benefits of transit.  Further, considering that Houston – which has more than 3 times as many people as Austin – doesn’t have a single nonprofit co-operative house, there is a massive untapped market for this housing model in Houston, especially if it means providing young people with the option of living a low carbon lifestyle in the region’s walkable urban areas.

So I convinced my boss / dad to start incubating this idea and am happy to report that as of November 2010, Houston Tomorrow is officially out of the co-operative housing business, having incorporated a new non-profit, the Houston Access to Urban Sustainability Project (The HAUS Project) in charge of bringing co-operative affordable sustainable housing to Houston.  Currently we have a group of 8 people who are planning to move into Houston’s first nonprofit housing co-op on December 18th, so long as we can finish painting all the rooms this week.

Getting here has been no walk in the park.  We’ve had two years of meetings—amongst various stops and starts, a great deal of thought-processing and idea development, a tenacious membership recruitment campaign, and a mountain of advice from NASCO Development Services, a nationwide nonprofit dedicated to facilitating the creation of resident-controlled affordable housing co-operatives.  One day at a meeting at Brasil, an interested future member named Paul Schechter showed up.  When I asked “what makes you interested in co-ops”, his answer set me back a little.  “I purchased a 4000 sq ft historic building and am currently remodeling it to make a 10-person green co-op”, he said.

It turns out that Paul moved to Houston to work for a wind energy company, but had also always wanted to live in a super green, low carbon housing co-op. Seeing that none existed in Houston, he set out to make one and has been remodeling/greenifying it ever since.  After our meeting, we joined forces and I have been primarily involved in developing the co-op’s legal structural, financial spreadsheets and membership recruitment while Paul has been focused on remodeling the house.  Together with the work of a lot of other people, we have a solid group of former coopers, environmentalists, preservationists, and interesting people contributing time and energy to make this vision a reality.

The house is right in the heart of Houston’s urban area in Midtown, with amazing transit, bike, and walking access.  It has been rebuilt with a multitude of green features and techniques.  Some of these include a 3,000 gallon rainwater harvesting system that feeds six toilets and two washing machines, bedrooms separately zoned with AC mini-splits in order to reduce energy consumption, all the AC condensation (approx 10 gallons per day) fed to our fruit trees and a raised garden bed, rescued 1934 hardwood floors and stairs from a building that will be torn down in Montrose, spray foam insulation that greatly reduces HVAC needs, a solar oven on the 3rd floor deck, non-VOC paints, a veggie grease powered Mercedes that will be the house car, recycled glass counter tops, wine cork/bottle cap floors, solar thermal water heating and much more.

NASCO has documented that co-operative living inherently reduces each member’s energy and water consumption by 30 to 50%; we’re expecting our improvements will make our reductions even bigger.  We are also planning a heavy bike emphasis, including initial plans to build two cargo bikes for all grocery shopping.  Each member is also signing a sustainability pledge to work toward reducing our collective carbon footprint.  Because of this several members who work in distant job centers of the Houston region have already reevaluated their daily commutes and figured out how to take transit to work.  We are also planning to have a volunteer labor position that monitors our energy/water consumption and overall carbon footprint, so we can understand our environmental impact and the overall effects green remodeling and cooperatively living have in comparison to the average Houstonian.

Our initial vision is Five Green Co-ops in Five Years, but I think there’s potential to go even further. We have actually just started talking to a family that owns another historic property nearby, which might be a great co-op.  They are very interested in socially-responsible investing, so our second house may not be far away.  Within five years, we want to have at least two larger student-friendly – if not student only – houses (the current house is ten rooms and most of the initial people are 30-something professionals) and at least one family-friendly co-op.  Once we get grounded with the first house, we’re planning to approach the City of Houston, Harris County, the Greater Houston Preservation Association, local universities, local CDCs, METRO, and others to see how we can work together to develop sustainable, affordable, cooperative housing throughout Houston’s urban and transit-connected areas.

Paul, Kristen, Matthias, MaDiana, Josh, Jake, Teresa, and I are going to start living in this experiment this weekend and it’s really exciting. We are still looking for the last two live-in people as well as many ‘associate members,’ and the HAUS Project intends to expand to at least one other house this coming year. If you think this idea sounds exciting and want to get involved, or you’re just curious, please check out our Craigslist ad and get in touch.

Full Story: Introducing the HAUS Project
Source: Houston Tomorrow, December 14, 2010

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