Cohousing not just for boomer hippies

Model's economic, social benefits attracts a surprising demographic

Back in the 1980s, Katie McCamant and Charles Durrett were architectural students in Denmark when they came across a residential concept called cohousing, which was a type of community where people owned their housing units but nevertheless lived communally, sharing activities such as cooking, child care, gardening and governance.

When McCamant and Durrett came back to the U.S., they proceeded to write a book about cohousing, which was the impetus for the concept being introduced here.

"Cohousing really struck a chord for us," McCamant said. "When you look at how you and your partner hold down two careers and raise kids, having a viable neighborhood is huge. It made a lot of sense to us. Our first book, ‘Cohousing, A Contemporary Approach to Housing Ourselves,’ was published in 1988 and that brought cohousing to the (U.S.)"

It took about a decade for cohousing to catch on, getting a bump up in the late 1990s when financing became more accessible for these types of communities. Today, there are 125 cohousing communities in the country and another 100 in formation, said Rebecca Lane, executive director of the U.S. Cohousing Association.

These aren’t large communities — the biggest counts no more than 60 homes.

In Lane’s definition, cohousing communities are old-fashioned neighborhoods created with a little ingenuity; they bring together the value of private homes with more sustainable living. Cohousing communities always include common facilities with good connections to the neighbors.

While everyone owns a residence, there is almost always a common house where people cook and eat together, plus do other chores or enjoy leisure activities. Cars are parked on the perimeter of the property so residences are connected by walkways, not roadways.

There can be a common grassy plaza, workshops, gardens, etc., but these features are not universal. What is most important is that foot traffic be directed to and through the common house to increase interaction with neighbors.

"The key to the design of a cohousing facility is that it makes it easy to have community and easy to have privacy if that’s what one wants," McCamant said.

"Good design is about running into neighbors on the way home to chat, organize or help with babysitting. A good design facilitates the community side and the privacy side."

Jim Leach not only lives in a cohousing community — Silver Sage in Boulder, Colo. — but he builds them, as well. His company, Boulder-based Wonderland Hill Development Co., in partnership with McCamant’s CoHousing Partners, has developed 21 cohousing communities such as Silver Sage, where he and his wife live today.

"When we decided to develop Silver Sage as one of the first cohousing facilities targeting seniors, my wife decided she wanted to move in," Leach said. "I reluctantly came along, but my wife was smarter than me. Living here has been amazing for us. This makes a lot of difference to seniors because of the support network."

Most cohousing remains intergenerational, but senior cohousing has taken off in recent years, and as Lane notes, has really given a boost to the sector.

Silver Sage was developed four years ago and has 16 units. It was built across the street from another Wonderland Hill Development cohousing project, Wild Sage, which is intergenerational.

"The average cohousing community is more like 30 units," Leach said.

Since cohousing consists of privately owned residences, I was interested to see how they held up through the recession.

No cohousing projects have gone under, Lane said. "Cohousing tends to hold value more and sell faster because they are more desirable."

This isn’t to say that individual developments haven’t had to adjust to the bad times. A lot of developments are now showing rentals because families cannot sell their individual units. On the other hand, there are cohousing communities with no vacancies and long waiting lists.

"Generally, cohousing communities have fewer foreclosures, fewer problems reselling and higher market value," Lane said.

Any cohousing owner can sell his or her unit using an outside real estate agent, but the community does feel an obligation to be involved in the process.

"You can go to your own broker to sell," Lane said, "but optimally the community should be involved because it’s really important that whoever comes to buy understands what cohousing is and what the opportunities are. We like to give potential buyers a chance to meet the people, share a common meal."

In addition, as with any other homeowner groups, there are rules that a buyer has to agree to, besides understanding the sharing and government consensus.

"Most cohousing communities have a process whereby they orient prospective buyers to the communities so the buyers know what they are getting into," Lane said. "We do, too."

Sometimes, problems occur because the real estate agent representing the sale doesn’t realize or understand that the project is different from an average condominium complex.

Lane said she once visited a cohousing community that had a foreclosure, which had somehow gone undetected until Realtors started showing up.

"The membership coordinator did her best to try to intervene with the real estate agents to let them know this was just not a plain condo association and there were obligations when one buys in," Lane said.

"She was working hard to make sure people didn’t buy in who were not knowledgeable about what the expectations were. Otherwise, it would have been a setup for failure."

Steve Bergsman is a freelance writer in Arizona and author of several books. His latest book, "Growing Up Levittown: In a Time of Conformity, Controversy and Cultural Crisis," is now available for sale on Amazon.com.

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