Co-housing is not a well known term in real estate but it
is a growing housing movement. It is also called "intentional communities,"
but if you were around in the 1960s the word "commune" may pop into mind. Co-housing,
however, is a very different concept.
Communes were usually built by residents with unifying interests or concerns.
Commune dwellers might all be vegetarians or practicing an alternative religion.
Often they were united by economic factors such as farming or arts and crafts.
In a commune togetherness could be intense; land and buildings were jointly
owned or leased and cooking, childcare, maintenance and other tasks were shared
or perhaps mandated would be a better term. Co-housing is more likely to attract
very diverse groups of people who want to explore a different form of socializing
while maintaining privacy and owning their own property.
The idea of co-housing came out of Denmark in the early 1980s and it continues
to be a major force in that country with over 200 active communities. In the
United States it is estimated that there are 80 active co-housing communities
up and running throughout the country and another 100 in the planning stage.
In its purest form co-housing is built from scratch and designed with the goal
of unifying the residents and encouraging social interaction. There are developers
who specialize in organizing, marketing, and building intentional communities
but most have started with two or three families interested in the lifestyle
that locate a site and recruit other members. The participation of as many potential
residents as possible in the design process is considered crucial to the success
of the project. The Cohousing Association
of the United States lists communities in its database that range in size
from seven to 67 residences but says that most co-housing has 20 to 40 member
Housing can be detached single family units, townhouses, or garden style condominiums.
Typically the living units are clustered to allow a lot of green space or built
around a common courtyard. Cars and roads are, wherever possible, kept on the
outskirts of the development both as a safety issue for children but also to
allow both a visual and physical flow among houses. Meandering pathways, playgrounds,
and community gardens are frequent amenities. There is almost always a club-house
or gathering space with a kitchen and room(s) for meeting, dining, and socializing.
Perhaps there is also a workshop or a library for group use. Preparation of
and participation in community meals (which tend to be served two or three times
a week) and other activities is entirely voluntary.
Legal ownership takes one of three forms. Many developments are owned as single
family houses with each resident holding a fee simple deed while the community
rooms and possible open land are owned by a homeowners association. Some are
held under cooperative ownership but this is a format that banks outside of
New York, Washington, D.C., and a few other major cities are not too comfortable
financing. The condo model seems to work best from a financing standpoint with
land and common areas held under a master deed and the homes owned individually.
This is a format that banks are familiar with and one which allows homeowners
to buy and sell their properties at will without a vote of the community.
Another model that has emerged is what is referred to as retrofit co-housing.
This is an evolutionary model which may take a full generation to reach fruition
but starts when one or two families buy into an existing neighborhood, recruit
possible participants, and wait for other houses to come on the market either
for sale or under long term lease. As more and more houses are acquired by members
the neighborhood is adapted to meet the needs of the community; fences are torn
down, common areas established, existing streets are "quieted," and eventually
a common kitchen/gathering area is built. This has not been a particularly successful
model but co-housing experts point to N Street Housing in Davis, California
as a good example.
Much attention is now given to elder co-housing. This looks a lot like those
independent living projects that companies such as Marriott have been developing
for affluent seniors. Usually based on a condominium model (although many are
rental communities) these allow older residents (usually defined as 55 years
of age or older) to maintain their own apartments but encourage or require that
one meal per day be eaten communally.
Elder or senior co-housing is more informal and flexible. First, the development
is designed with the goal that residents will be able to "age in place"
with accessibility and security the primary concerns. Some interesting concepts
have emerged. One is studio apartments within individual units so residents
can have live in aides and perhaps share those aides with neighbors to lower
costs and prolong non-institutional living
On the outer edges of co-housing is yet another model, eco-housing.
These developments are usually structured legally and socially along co-housing
lines but with a greater emphasis on sustainable and green living. Features
of such developments may include community organic gardens, composting toilets
or watershed sensitive waste treatment plants. These are worthy of further examination
as we continue to look at green building and living.
What is it like to live in a co-housing development? There is certainly a strong
element of self-selection that goes into the composition of these communities
so anyone who opts in is somewhat predisposed to overlook the drawbacks. Still,
most accounts from residents are glowing. Residents extol the virtues of knowing
who lives across the street and down the block; about neighbors who rush in
to help in times of crisis. Raising children in such neighborhoods draws the
most praise. Kids play safely under the village's eyes; there is no need
to schedule play dates; it is easy to organize after school or recreational
programs. Still, there are complaints about the "fishbowl" aspect
of raising kids in such a close neighborhood and about clashes in parenting
Decisions about the community are generally made by consensus and professionals
consulting in the field encourage residents to resort to voting as only a last
resort. Work is allocated on a volunteer basis and there seems to be an almost
universal willingness among residents to contribute, perhaps not equally, but
according to available time and abilities.
Those who develop co-housing tend to encourage a broad base of participants
and to create cross-generational communities where singles, couples, families,
and the elderly are encouraged to interact social and support each other. One
of the emerging problems, however, seems to be related to the aging of members.
In some cases the housing itself was not designed to accommodate increasing
frailty. Some elderly residents (and these communities are now, at most, 17
years old so increasing numbers of original occupants are now in their seventies
and eighties) complain that they feel isolated within the communities or that
newer residents do not remember the work they put in when younger and now resent
what they view as a drain on community resources.
Intentional communities are not easy to establish and they certainly will not
be attractive to everyone, but the waiting lists at many of
these active developments (not to mention the fact that several have spun off
a sister complex within blocks) attest to their viability as a new way to approach
the idea of neighborhood.