Cohousing: Real Estate Wave of the Future?

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written by Ellen Freudenheim, MPH

You don’t have to be from Denmark –nor speak Danish— – in order to understand the appeal of bofoellesskaber, or co-housing. It’s an innovative blend of private homes and close knit communities that’s been flourishing in Scandinavia since the 1980s. As a lifestyle, cohousing has come of age in the US in the past decade, ever since a couple of Berkeley based architects, Kathryn McCamant and Charles Durrett visited Demark, saw the potential in bofoellesskaber –which literally translated means “living communities”— and wrote a book that remains the bible on the topic, Cohousing: A Contemporary Approach to Housing Ourselves. Since then over a hundred cohousing communities have popped up in thirty seven states. They’re all small, ranging in size between twenty and forty households each. In the US, most are located in suburban or rural areas. However, in Denmark, cohousing exists in urban areas, as well.

Check it out to see if it’s a new business idea for you. As a social experiment, cohousing is sufficiently interesting to a wide range of Americans—-retirees, environmentalists, social scientists, activists and groups of friends—that bus tours in Colorado, Massachusetts, Washington state, and California to take people to visit a few and see, first hand, what it’s all about. (For information on tours, see below.) Some people buy into these communities, and then rent out their homes for a shorter or longer period.

With the aging of the American population, rising energy costs, a nationwide yen for small-is-beautiful communities where neighborliness is valued, and the incredible freedom to work long distance afforded by the Internet, it’s just possible that some form of co-housing represents a coming wave in the future American housing market. It’s a field that is as yet under-marketed, not yet well-known, yet which seems to offer a lifestyle that many boomers are seeking.

A Culture of Participation

Residents contribute a minimum of several hours work a month to the community, and prepare and share meals regularly, from once to three or four times a week.

Founding residents are intimately involved in the planning, design and democratic operation of a co-housing community.

People who move into such communities expect to—and are expected to— shoulder day-to-day jobs, participate in regular business meetings of the homeowners association, and address long-term management issues. All the work that otherwise might be done by a management company—from outdoor maintenance to taxes to governance, and future projects—are done by residents.

Beyond anything, the internal dynamics and rich interpersonal relationships among residents differentiates co housing arrangements from, say, a condominium in Manhattan, or a golf community in Boca Raton, or a coop apartment in downtown Chicago.

Obviously, not everybody gets along all the time. And so, each community has mechanisms for dealing with conflict.

One of the ideals of cohousing is community life, and so decisions are made by consensus, not by an elected board or a hierarchical (nor paid) management team.

And, if the intimacy of community life just gets too intense, residents are allowed to rent out their units, of course,

A Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood

Another feature of cohousing is the very careful neighborhood-friendly layout of the buildings combining common facilities and private housing.

Residents enjoy full privacy, and live in their own fully equipped apartments or homes. It’s the shared spaces that are noticeable: the common garden (worked by residents), and green space, recreation areas communal meals several times a week.

The layout of these communities is designed to enhance interaction among neighbors. Sunward Cohousing in Ann Arbor, Michigan promotes the fact that they “designed the community layout and our homes with the concept of a privacy gradient: privacy increases as you go toward the back of the house.” So, if you’re sitting on your front porch rocker, that’s a green light to others that you’re in a sociable mood; sitting on the more private back porch signals the opposite.”

Where They Come Together: The “Common House”

If there’s one tangible feature that reflects the difference between co-housing and the average American subdivision communities, it’s the common house. All cohousing communities have one. And, however large or small, the common house serves as the collective hearth and home. In the standard condominium apartment building, the building lobby is designed as a place to pass through, or perhaps wait briefly. It’s not a place to hang out or socialize with friends for hours; eating and drinking would be discouraged. IN contrast, the common house equipped with a kitchen, communal dining area, and children’s play space, laundry and sitting area. Like a fancy college dorm some also have a workshop, library, exercise room, crafts room and even guest rooms.

Each Community has Different Values

As one might expect, different cohousing communities have different personalities. Culturally, they stress different things.

For instance, Sonora Cohousing in the boomtown of Tucson, Arizona, “attempts to overcome the alienation of modern subdivisions in which no one knows their neighbors, and there is no sense of community.” Winslow on Bainbridge Island in Washington boasts of the diversity of its members, and its lack of dogma.

EcoVillage at Ithaca, located in upstate New York’s Finger Lakes region, stresses environmental sustainability. Tierra Nueva Cohousing in San Luis Obispo County, situated is a five acre complex halfway between San Francisco and LA, has 27 passive solar homes.

Recently, several elder-only cohousing communities have been started by people over age 60 as an alternative lifestyle. IN 2006, a New York Times feature article detailed one such community started by friends who wanted to be with each other as they grow older, as an alternative to relying on busy adult children and fragile support networks.

What’s Yours is Yours, Not Mine

The uninitiated might be forgiven for confusing various living arrangements that all share the prefix “co,” such as cohousing, commune, even co-op. But cohousing—which its proponents like to call “intentional communities”— strikes a very careful balance between private and public property.

Unlike a commune, where residents share the community income, in co-housing individuals and the community don’t share income.

And, unlike condominiums in some of the nation’s largest cities, in cohousing communities, all are welcome: new members are not screened because, say the experts, and those who chose this lifestyle are a self-selected group.

Not Cheaper

Cohousing has not yet proven to be more affordable than other housing options. Still, there’s appeal the idea, especially for among Boomers whose families are far flung, who like to participate in group activities, and who love the intimacy and personal involvement of living in an old fashioned community.

For American Boomers who consider themselves joiners—that is, people who enjoy group activities— this Danish import may offer the best of all worlds: a balance of privacy and community. For information, to find a cohousing community near you, and to explore whether there’s a business opportunity in this trend, see www.cohousing.org.

Bookshelf

Cohousing: A Contemporary Approach to Housing Ourselves by Kathryn McCamant, Charles Durrett, Ellen Hertzman (Ten Speed Press, 1994)

The Cohousing Handbook Building a Place for Community by Chris ScottHanson, Kelly ScottHanson (New Society Publishers, 2004)

Senior Cohousing: A Community Approach to Independent Living by Chuck Durrett (Ten Speed Press, 2005)