Cohousing: Sharing life with neighbors
Originally appeared in Bay Area News Group publications on September 20, 2014
“When I am with a group of human beings committed to hanging in there through both the agony and the joy of community, I have a dim sense that I am participating in a phenomenon for which there is only one word…’glory.’ ”
– M. Scott Peck
California is the U.S. focal point for cohousing, a social experiment that originated in Denmark in the late 1960s and was imported to America in the 1990s. A group of like-minded folks participate in a planned community that will meet their needs.
The Cohousing Association of the United States (Coho/US) lists 229 operations from Alaska to Wisconsin, either established or forming. Forty-two, by far the most of any state, are in California.
Cohousing is a successful concept in the East Bay with eleven of these organizations. One Contra Costa association states its vision as, “To create and live in a community that fosters harmony with each other, the larger community and nature.”
According to Coho/US, there are a number of common characteristics of cohousing communities.
Individual living units/common spaces
Despite the fact that some of these communities are retrofits of existing housing, most are newly built and follow the pattern of individual homes or units around or near a common building shared for meals and various activities.
Each unit is a complete home with its own kitchen and bathroom(s).
There is communal dining, usually at least twice a week.
The “common house” typically has a kitchen, dining and sitting area, laundry, bathroom(s) and a playroom for children. There may be a workshop, exercise room, crafts room and guest room(s). Common space usually includes lawns with playground equipment and gardens.
Neighborhood design/participatory process
Residents plan the layout and design of the community.
Participants manage the community themselves and do the physical work needed, which includes preparation of common meals. There are frequent meetings to establish and enforce rules and policies and solve problems. Committees are formed to deal with specific functions.
Non-hierarchical structure/decision making
No individual(s) has authority over the group. Most cohousing organizations function by consensus.
Not a shared economy
The community is not a source of income for its members.
As with any gathering of humans, there are positives and negatives.
Our increasingly technological world has created a sense of isolation for many. People email or text instead of talking. In this sense, cohousing is the technology antidote. By its nature, it encourages personal interaction among residents. This is healthy.
Cohousing is intergenerational. Children have the chance to interact with and learn from people of all ages. Seniors get a glimpse of changes in trends, culture and attitudes from those not a part of their age group. It is like a large, extended family.
Those who participate in cohousing value living harmoniously with each other and the environment. Green living and sustainability is important to them. This may involve purchasing a solar power system for the community, planning for efficient water usage, sharing car rides, having a group garden or other shared food production and living in a walkable neighborhood. With the intent to encourage interaction, designs traditionally locate parking on the perimeter.
There is a physical and emotional security to folks looking out for one another. Whether it is checking in with a resident who is ill or watching someone else’s kids when they get stuck at work, this give and take bonds people.
Rather than purchasing, some items can be shared among neighbors. This might include tools, certain appliances, books, educational materials and toys. Children’s clothing can also be effectively reused by others.
Duties, daily routines and responsibilities are shared. Those with different skills help each other.
An online blogger, who lives in a cohousing arrangement, wrote, “Yes, it takes work to live this way. There’s no way around that. But to me it doesn’t feel like work. It feels like living.”
The loss of privacy is a barrier for some. Clearly, your business may become others’ business and vice versa. Some people like to gossip and this can be a problem.
Although there are some financial advantages to a cohousing arrangement, inexpensive housing is generally not one of them in the Bay Area.
We tend to like some people more than others. This can become tricky if most members of the community are invited to an event (wedding, party, etc.) and others are excluded.
Depending on the setup, the group will have “mandatory” meeting attendance, participation on a committee (landscaping, computer network, finance) and work projects (cooking, cleaning, shopping, babysitting) each month. This may feel onerous and tiresome. “Meeting fatigue” can set in.
Cohousing units in our area are commonly sold For Sale by Owner, which tends to be complicated. This is why I have helped buyers and sellers as an hourly consultant.
Some groups have controversies over pets.
Getting enough “quiet/private time” can be an issue.
Resentment may result when some members consistently don’t do their share of the work.
Even the best “intentional communities” do not always have the tranquility and good vibrations of a Norman Rockwell painting. Clearly, there are pros and cons. Before purchasing, buyers need to determine if the cohousing concept fits and if a specific community feels right.
A woman experienced in cohousing summarized it this way: “A good communitarian is willing to work through conflict and drop judgments, to look at one’s own foibles, control issues and blind spots, is committed to creating a better world by doing the interpersonal work of learning to live cooperatively and happily with others.”