Home Sweet… Co-Home?

By Pam McDonald

How attractive an option will cohousing be to Baby Boomers – the original Hippies of the late 60s? That’s a question increasingly explored by the media in articles with titles like “Can Boomers Make Cohousing Mainstream?” from the Atlantic’s City Lab blog, “How Baby Boomers Are Creating Their Own Retirement,” from U.S. News and World Reports, and “How Baby Boomers Are Changing Retirement Living” from the Washingtonian.

According to CoHoUS (www.cohousing.org), the association that represents cohousing in America – which increasing is touted as an effective strategy for aging in place – there are about 133 cohousing operations across the nation. Additionally, nearly 50 more are in development and another 95 are in the talking stage.

Understanding Cohousing

In order to understand co-housing it’s necessary to look at other forms of shared housing, including condominiums, cooperative housing, intentional communities and communes. While the Fellowship for Intentional Community (http://www.ic.org) points out a number of similarities, they note distinctions as well as:

Condominiums offer adjoined dwellings and shared common space usually maintained by dues paid to a homeowner’s association. Unit owners may or may not know or socialize with their neighbors; there is no expectation of share values or daily life.

Cooperative (Co-Op) Housing consists of apartments with shared space. Members become a corporation that owns the entire building and is governed by a board of directors. Each shareholder is entitled to reside in a unit and helps pay for the buildings’ mortgage, maintenance and upkeep. Members usually share demographic commonalities, such as students or retirees.

Intentional community is a planned residential “village” designed from the start to have a high degree of interaction, social cohesion, and teamwork. Responsibilities, possessions and resources are shared. Members typically hold a common social, political, religious, or spiritual vision.

Communes consist of a group of people living together, sharing facilities, possessions and everyday life. Many times members have emotional bonds to the whole group, which they consider their family.

The Difference

While the differences are small, they distinguish cohousing from other shared living arrangements. Cohousing is an intentional community of private homes clustered around shared space, typically a large communal kitchen, dining/meeting area and recreational facilities. Owners have independent incomes and private lives, but share meals and preparation and are committed to maintaining and operating the community for the benefit of all residents. The legal structure is typically an HOA, however decision-making most often relies on reaching consensus.

A forum held last month in Sacramento, California, detailed both the concept of cohousing and introduced four projects emerging in the region. One is operational and specifically for seniors. Another has selected a site and is looking for buyer/members. The remaining two are in the talking stages.

Pre-eminent architect, co-housing developer, and founder of Cohousing Solutions LLC, Kathryn McCamant was on hand to facilitate the meeting. She and her husband, Charles Durrett, are credited with coining the term cohousing and bringing it from Denmark to America. Their 1988 book, Cohousing: A Contemporary Approach to Housing Ourselves is considered a classic in the field. Mr. Durrett recently authored Senior Cohousing: A Community Approach to Independent Living – The Handbook.

Ms. McCamant noted that after an abrupt stall in construction with The Great Recession starting in 2008, new cohousing is again flourishing. She said, “Response from banks and other lending institutions is good. Mortgage brokers love cohousing. Planning departments, in general, really like cohousing since great neighborhoods are good for the city. Construction loans can be hard to get until buyers are on board, and not-in-my-backyard (NIMBY) can be problematic.”

Typical Cohousing

Typically cohousing is:

  • ADA accessible, featuring universal design

  • Sustainable and eco-friendly, energy efficient, and built with less toxic materials

  • Smaller, 600 to 1200 square feet with around 15 to 30 flats

  • Built around a common house and other shared space

  • Supportive of a sense of community; front porches face each other

  • Car-free, traffic and parking is kept to the outside fringes

  • Unique in the culture that emerges

  • Participatory, neighbors work together to plant gardens, prepare and share meals, see each other through life’s transitions, create rituals and celebrations

  • Committed to the overarching goals of developing a web of relationships based on trust, care and reciprocity

According to proponents, cohousing residents share more and use fewer resources. Their cost of living is reduced since they waste less food, eat locally, and communally garden. They get more exercise and enjoy greater social connection, which helps people live longer, healthier lives, feeling more satisfied. They pitch in when neighbors are sick, which can help lower health care costs. They learn to listen and consider different perspectives, as well as to organize, build consensus and get things done.

Ms. McCamant, who has lived much of her adult life in cohousing developments, states, “It’s like the close-knit neighborhoods I grew up in during the 50s. You’re surrounded by people who know and care for you – as you do for them.”