Civekos Redux

Hello Good People!

I have rebooted my plan for Civekos, the cooperative housing network for social benefit professionals.

I had an opportunity to describe the concept to some folks at Harvard Kennedy School through their Social Innovation & Change Initiative. They are seeking applicants for their Social Innovation Fellowship Program – looking for new ideas on how to innovate in the social sector. I responded by giving them my latest thoughts on Civekos. I actually didn’t bring up the name or the larger social movement of Civekoi (the renunciate members dedicated to social purposes), but I outlined the benefits of subsidized housing for social benefit professionals. You can read the application below.

I always like some photos in my blog:

Here’s a new development near my house in Cambridge (this is technically Somerville). It was a standard triple decker (three units, 6-9 bedrooms), and now looks like 8 units with more like 20 bedrooms. But probably a condo style development of separate ownership and some kind of management entity that maintains the exterior, public interior space, parking and grounds.

Here is another multi-fam development from about 30 years ago (can you tell?) on the other side of the same Beacon Street. This is also condos. It’s not that exciting to me.

Here is yet another – the more vintage multi-family alongside the new one. You can also see the elevator core of a yet next building going up – this on the site of what had been a single-story ~3000sf commercial building. I knew it was going to get redeveloped and am surprised it took the owners so long to shift it from what it was to residential.

My larger thoughts are about who and why people are going to move into these places, and what and how they could be designed and operated for greater social benefit. Building a similar amount of domiciles using a cooperative household or togetherment model could result in stronger linkages among residents and between them and the surrounding community.

That is one of my areas of interest.

But regarding Civekos and housing for people dedicated to social purposes like teaching and social work, here is the pitch I provided. Actually, here is the application description and the questions they were asking. Briefly, the selection criteria are:

  • Provides evidence of real commitment to a specific social issue and the people adversely affected by the current state.
  • Demonstrates a clear connection between the Fellowship and long- and short-term post-graduation goals.
  • Approaches innovation with a learning mindset.

While I was concerned that my concept is something of a “meta-solution” rather than a specific intervention into a social problem, I am hopeful that it can be seen as a good aspect of a broad solution effort, and an actual innovation in how we provide compensation and residential tenure security for people who choose to pursue non-commercial professions.

Here is the application essay (four questions):

  1. What public problem or social issue are you passionate about? Why do you care? Please discuss 1) how you came to understand the problem through academic, personal, and/or professional experience, or other activities, and 2) your personal motivation to contribute to a solution. (500 words or less)

I want more people to be able to commit to long-term work in the social benefit sector, yet many leave because of fears about housing costs. Many people working in non-profits, or government agencies, or teaching, or other social benefit work, spend a few years of enthusiastic service and then leave and start new careers in the private sector in order to earn more income. Social benefit professionals can become income sensitive especially when challenged by housing cost that are rising rapidly in their community.

This is a clearly seen problem in many places. My personal motivation stems from a systems perspective where I envision multi-resident housing “lodges” for social benefit professionals throughout the world. A network would evolve and adapt for different locations and different populations.


Imagine facilities similar to youth hostels, but with long-term residents, sharing in a group living setting and taking various responsibilities for house/facility management, developing and strengthening their commitment to social benefit service work. Each node in the network would provide not only a reasonable-cost housing option for social benefit professionals, but also a micro-community of curated colleagues which could support each other’s intentions and provide emotional & professional support. The lodges would be centers for continuous learning, maturing, and networking, regardless of the specific professional work a member performs. The facilities could model distributed education for sharing best practices, integrating with surrounding communities, and facilitating long-term commitment to social benefit work.


  1. How will you use this opportunity to make change happen? Please describe the factors that led you to apply for this particular Fellowship and how you anticipate using your time to develop and advance your social innovation project. (500 words or less)

If selected to participate in the Cheng Fellowship program, I will be able to focus on researching, modeling and building out a network of housing for social benefit professionals. There are many examples of how people who are providing social benefit work find housing. Major institutions like the Catholic Church and the military provide housing as a matter of course for their members, who are performing social benefit work. I have found many semi-similar affordable housing models but nothing quite specific to reward social benefit work and reduce the total household costs for this type of professional by reducing housing costs. Across the globe, there are a variety of institutional structures which address housing and also connect social benefit work to housing, but usually these are directly connected to a specific institution – the housing is only for associated workers. There could be a more open-source brand and non-affiliated (non-religious and/or non-political) to link multiple employers to a housing benefit. It would not be unlike other types of benefits social oriented workers find: such as student debt forgiveness, schedule flexibility, food or travel allowances etc. Entities like Teach for America or small social service non-profits observe that their fellows and staff do find low-cost housing on the market, yet this is a missed opportunity to create a better benefit package and better experience for these employees.


I will use my time at Harvard to tap into the resources and academic connections to learn how to create a social enterprise which would meet the demand for this type of housing. I will explore the legal structures necessary, such as urban land trusts and community development corporations. I will research the governance structures that would be needed, such as decision-making processes and conflict resolution. I would determine ways to select residents and/or how can the nodes in the network be self-organizing, independently appropriately responsive to their localities and generate net positive benefit.


  1. How can we be sure that you will still be working on this post-graduation? And if you aren’t sure, why? (250 words or less)

I have had a dream about this concept since at least 2011 when I first worked on it as a part of my Environmental Leadership Program ( cohort research project. Due to my professional trajectory, I have not had sufficient bandwidth to truly build out the model. However, I have been living in a prototype of this housing, my 11-person residential cooperative household, since 2004 (which had been founded in 1963). I am an active participant in the cooperative housing community in the Boston area and can see a real opportunity to build out a network to meet the needs of social benefit professionals in many places. I want to use my year at HKS to focus on an audacious concept like this and learn how to iterate until we have a self-perpetuating social enterprise dedicated to delivering low-cost housing to this population. It may be a technology or communications platform, or it may be as evolved as a non-profit real estate development entity financing, building and managing these facilities.


  1. What characteristics, skills, or experiences demonstrate that you will be able to attract and mobilize money, people, and institutional support around your cause? (250 words or less)

People know me as a charismatic and engaging person who can rally support to a cause. I have had reasonable success growing small organizations into stable operations. In attracting support, I have worked to earn grants, various sized corporate donations, and built out income-earning programs and fee-for-service contracting. I have been involved in real estate, building, community development and planning throughout my entire professional life. The topic of housing cost is hot, and facilitating more people into social service can attract a coalition of supportive institutions. The idea of grouping people in “co-living” arrangements is also contemporary: adding to the group living experience a shared social mission orientation will strengthen the nodes in the network. Financial and in-kind support will come from traditional social service support entities (like CDC’s and city agencies), and from “start-up” oriented actors who can see this as a new model to address social needs. Having developed two non-profits from scratch, and having grown other entities through hard work and leadership, I believe I can tackle this problem and build a new organization to solve the dilemma of housing cost for social benefit professionals.


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