I remember growing up in a neighborhood where the kids all hung around together and the reason our parents knew each other was because bands of kids charged through one another’s houses.
Garage doors were always open and lots of neighborhood birthday parties happened on the weekends.
Those were the golden days of suburbia. After World War II the American Way was to live in a single family home outside the urban core. After 60 years, that lifestyle is now getting tarnished.
There are some estimates that up to two-thirds of renters across the nation say they can’t afford to buy a home. Since home prices are rising at a rate twice that of wage growth, saving up for that down payment is an even bigger challenge.
Millenials and GenXers with high student debt are in this boat, as are some older folks who for one reason or another were unable to build any extra savings.
High-density communities are seen as one way to provide affordable housing to owners and renters. One such configuration is “cohousing.” The cohousing model originated in Denmark in the 1960s. Architects Katie McCamant and Chuck Durrett brought the concept to the United States in the 1980s.
In the traditional cohousing neighborhood, residents own their homes, but agree through a shared vision and list of values to maintain and operate their community through participation in activities like mowing the lawn, weeding the garden and shoveling snow, while enjoying each other’s company at shared meals a couple times a week.
The fact is, traditional cohousing can’t be built fast enough nor inexpensive enough to meet growing demand, particularly for the aging population. There are 10,000 Baby Boomers turning 65 every day through at least the next decade.
If you can’t afford to buy a home or your rent is too high how can cohousing meet your needs?
I’ll introduce you to a couple alternatives to “stick-built” cohousing communities.
Remember, housing is housing and what differentiates cohousing from other configurations is the “secret sauce.”
Research points to a variety of cohousing benefits. The most often mentioned benefits relate to reducing social isolation. The cohousing “secret sauce” provides for intentional socializing, neighborly support when under the weather, sharing chores, sharing expertise, and having neighbors who share similar interests.
What is cohousing “secret sauce”? Cohousing has certain basic characteristics. They are fairly broad, but include:
- Relationships – Neighbors commit to being part of a community for mutual benefit. Cohousing cultivates a culture of sharing and caring. Design features and the neighborhood size are typically between 30 and 40 homes that promote frequent interaction and close relationships.
- Balancing Privacy and Community – Cohousing neighborhoods are designed for privacy as well as community. Residents balance privacy and community by choosing their levels of community engagement
- Participation – Decision-making is participatory and often based on consensus. Selft management empowers residents, builds relationships and can save money.
- Shared Values – Cohousing communities support residents in actualizing shared values.
Three cohousing configurations: Over the years, the traditional cohousing model has been evolving. I live in Boulder, Colorado where microbreweries are part of the economic base. What are the types of cohousing microbrews?
- Cohousing UltraLite – “Burning Souls” transform an existing neighborhood or repurpose a building or build a community among members who don’t live in the same location. This is the most cost effective and quicker approach and allows for more rental housing.
Architect and real estate professionals play supportive roles. Residents of retrofit cohousing in one place include more young people, full-time students, renters, racial minorities, single householders, and households with fewer financial assets. When applying the tenets of cohousing, “retrofit” can also be a community of people who don’t live in the same proximity.
Housing is housing, but the cohousing culture is what makes the community. The Beacon Hill Village is an existing dispersed community of 500 seniors who agree upon how to be active and supportive of one another rather than reliant on others to “take care” of them all the time.
They provide neighborly support with one another and coordinate outside social and physical care giving when necessary. The Beacon Hill approach would be appropriate to multigenerational communities as well. Since all are aging, it seems like people don’t get around to planning for their life care until it’s almost too late.
A group in Traverse City, Michigan is forming their community ahead of time. They have their eyes on an existing building that they are planning to retrofit into their physical community.
There also is “accidental cohousing” as is the case of the “Big Bang Theory” apartment house setting where Sheldon, Amy; Leonard, Penny; and Howard, Bernadette; live and the elevator has been out for years.
They use the stairway as a common area where they have conversations every show. They share common meals in their various apartments.
Their decision making is by consensus, with majority often having to compromise towards Sheldon’s minority position.
In real life, a couple in Flushing, New York built an accidental community in their apartment building.
- Cohousing Lite – The project is architect and real estate professional driven. The “Burning Souls” may or may not be recruiting community members. The development is less time consuming since there is less customization. It is also less capital intensive since the developer is responsible for the development and homeowners only have to obtain financing for their home.
An example is Bloomington Cohousing in Indiana. The developer, Loren Wood, is financing and constructing the project designed by an architect who worked with the “Burning Souls” to come up with some basic floor plans. The community is being organized concurrent with the project development.
Another example is Genesee Garden in Lansing, Michigan. The neighbors transformed an existing area rather than building from the ground up. As homes become available for purchase, the community purchases them. One was converted into the common house.
- Cohousing Stout – Traditional community structure. “Burning souls” partner with an architect and other real estate professionals. Projects are very capital intensive with the developers and future community members share the risks of the entire development. In addition to finding like-minded people who want to live together, they must also have the financial resources to invest in land, design and construction, patience to decide on countertops and landscaping and have the time to wait while all this happens.
I live in a stout community consisting of 16 condos. It is representative of the characteristics of the broader segment of the wider Boulder, Colorado community, in that it tends towards the extremes. The project was heavily subsidized to encourage socioeconomic diversity.
The community has six permanently affordable deed-restricted houses that are 800 sqft in size and priced at $160,000. Those are contrasted with 10 houses that are “market rate” and range in sizes from 1,000 to 3,000 sqft and have values in excess of $800,000.
This ground-up process often takes three to five years or more with potential members coming and going and mostly accessible to people and families who have inherited wealth or adequate disposable savings.
Who is the typical cohouser? There are significant differences among the residents who live in the various cohousing configurations, with coho ultralite residents being the most diverse:
- Coho Stout and Lite – Caucasian, liberal, high perceived social class, high income, high education level, 70 percent of the time a woman
- Coho UltraLite – More racially diverse, liberal, middle class, moderate income, high education level, more singles and single parents
What are the three steps to building a cohousing community? In a retrofit situation the community development steps are the same as for a traditional cohousing community. “Burning soul” advocates and other group members may or may not live in the same building or community. They may decide to move into the same apartment or condo complex, but would follow a typical cohousing development process such as these three steps:
- Discuss and agree upon community values and perhaps, a higher purpose, which would fill the need to walk their community values talk while participating in service projects;
- Whether you’re three or thirty people, come up with a name and “elevator speech” identifying the community. Referring to yourselves as a “bunch of housemates” doesn’t tell about your community story;
- Community cohesiveness could be built around a higher purpose of community service that binds a community together.
- Once you kick the can down the road a few blocks, check your state laws about homeowner association regulations. You will find they set up HOAs that do not mirror cohousing very well – lots of centralized power and control, lots of voting. Save this until later, because conforming cohousing declarations with state laws is a chore.
- There likely will be common expenses that relate to community activities, coordinating transportation, common meals, intra-community communication and a fee structure to pay for all or part.
- Community values and mission are implemented through the budget by teams – overall steering team equivalent to a board of directors, social events, managing building and grounds, proceed and governance, finances and legal matters,
- The entire community approves by consensus the budget or any action for that matter, and the steering team ratifies the action also by consensus.
Design and Construction
- If you’re sharing a big house, there will be design issues about designating common spaces and storage. Some design and construction in retrofits may be necessary if you’re in an existing condo community or apartment building is adapted. This may include renovating an existing dwelling unit into a common space with a guest room and common kitchen which was the case at Boulder Creek cohousing in Colorado;
- Identify resident needs, how the “site” functions – if it is in an existing physical development like a condo association, apartment complex, or households dispersed within a given boundary;
- Determine what are considered “common spaces” which may not be literally common, but function in common. These may be in private homes for shared meals and meetings, civic spaces, churches, libraries
Looking for a few cohousing retrofit pioneers. There are plenty of individuals who are interested in cohousing. Some of you may have managed to form into group that has begun the traditional cohousing process but you’ve bumped into obstacles including lack of money, no suitable land available, professionals such as architects who are only willing to give so much upfront service, group members who can no longer wait for the community to get off the ground. There are well-documented war stories.
I want to prove the concept. I’m seeking one or more people, preferably in the Denver-area to organize a retrofit cohousing community and facilitate you through the process.
- Maybe, you don’t need a place to live or have bumped into some community development obstacles, but want to create connections with other like-minded people as a hedge against loneliness and living in isolation;
- Maybe you live in an apartment building and your neighbors are interested in a more collaborative lifestyle;
- Maybe you are affiliated with an existing assisted living community and want to adopt appropriate cohousing principles
There are varying opinions about whether what I describe is actually cohousing, but regardless, I want to hear from you. Email firstname.lastname@example.org
Alan O’Hashi is the incoming president of the national Cohousing of the US board of directors.