Americans, many of whom need and are ready to embrace non-traditional housing concepts, have nonetheless been slow to invest in housing solutions that are commonplace in other countries. One such innovation, called co-housing, began in the 1960s in Denmark where approximately 8 percent of the population now lives in many hundreds of co-housing communities. Co-housing is also not uncommon in other European countries. Yet, this blend of private and communal living has barely made a dent in the U.S. housing market, where only about 165 of these communities exist and 140 are in development.
A co-housing community is like a small village. Apparently, the guiding principle is that everyone unites for communal action in pursuit of everyone’s mutual benefit. Physically, the co-housing community consists of approximately 15-40 privately owned homes that cluster around common spaces that are owned and shared by homeowners. Houses may be freestanding or attached and each house contains its own kitchen. The central indoor area, usually called the common house, typically includes a large kitchen and large dining area, lounges, meeting rooms, children’s playrooms, laundry facilities, and recreational activity areas such as a swimming pool, workshops, crafts rooms, exercise rooms and whatever else the community chooses, such as guest rooms for visitors. Outside, the common areas include parking areas, gardens, courtyards and walkways connecting all of the homes, and open spaces where residents interact. The intent is to foster and facilitate interaction among community members.
Legally, the community may take the form of a condominium, co-op, or homeowners’ association. Monthly or yearly dues support the association and decisions are made by consensus. Members work together to maintain the facilities, share commonly owned resources and tools (such as a lawn mower and gardening equipment) and other equipment such as kitchen appliances, and are available to help other members as needed—for example, to drive a member to shopping or to a medical appointment if the member does not have a car. Once or twice a week, members prepare and share a communal dinner in the common house (attendance is not mandatory). Members can participate in communal events such as games and movies. Neighbors can organize child and elder care, form clubs, carpool, etc.
To form a co-housing development, members decide by consensus the development’s design and then select and purchase a site. Constructing the community may take a few years and involves architects, land purchase, builders, environmental consultants, landscape architects, attorneys and approvals by local government agencies such as zoning boards—the list goes on and on.
Co-housing communities initially suffered from the erroneous idea that they are communes. However, communes do not have private homes for their members, and when co-housing members have had enough communal interaction for a while they can retreat to their individual homes.
Who lives in a co-housing community? Millennials with young families, many of whom lived collaboratively in college, like the idea. Therefore, some communities include young couples and children. The concept is also useful and appealing to downsizing empty nesters and to senior citizens who have lost a spouse and/or whose families and friends have moved away from them. Co-housing provides instant community to counteract feelings of isolation and loneliness, and it imparts a safe and secure feeling that someone will always be around to provide help and companionship.
An intentional community is a variant of the co-housing concept. These communities are built to advance a shared world-view, such as a common religious belief, political philosophy or environmental or social ideology. As in co-housing, intentional communities tend toward sharing resources, but the shared belief system is paramount in their formation.
There are also “age-friendly” co-housing communities—multi-generational or senior only. Senior-only co-housing can be designed for seniors or retrofitted to accommodate them. This involves building such amenities as wide doorways for wheelchairs, walk-in tubs, etc. These communities are especially good for aging baby boomers and may even include, in the private homes and/or common house, rooms for live-in caregivers.
Co-housing is obviously not for everyone, and it is in the interest of established communities to actively educate potential new residents about the lifestyle. Some people don’t want all of the togetherness and self-government and communal obligations. Some communities require that a prospective owner rent before buying in order to ascertain that the newcomer is comfortable with the lifestyle and with what is expected of him or her as a communal participant. Owners may eventually discover that, while they have to pay for construction and upkeep of some of the communal facilities, they may not use them at all (swimming pool, tennis court, exercise room, etc.). Co-housing communities are intentionally close-knit so they may thrive on knowledge of private matters and dissemination of gossip. Some communities may collectively be overly intrusive about other matters; for example, dictating the color that members may paint their houses.
Proponents of co-housing tout its social and economic benefits. Sharing expenses for meals, transportation, entertainment, tools, etc., saves money. (Why spend money on a lawnmower when you can use the co-housing’s lawnmower?) Co-housing communities typically adopt green living construction and an eco-friendly lifestyle. Clustered housing saves land. Smaller homes cost less money to build, heat and cool, and use fewer building materials, resulting in lesser consumption of non-renewable resources. Co-housing communities are pedestrian-friendly. Bringing people together makes it easier to share resources including tools and skills. Members look out for each other so people feel safer and more secure than in a traditional neighborhood. Children are mentored by adults with a variety of skills and educational backgrounds. People can live on their own longer than if they were in a non-communal environment. One co-housing community even engages in commercial activity that pays for all of the community’s expenses.
Interested? Consult The Cohousing Association of the United States.
By Vivian J. Oleen
Vivian Oleen is an associate broker at Sopher Realty.