Barbara Ballinger is a freelance writer and the author of several books on real estate, architecture, and remodeling, including The Kitchen Bible: Designing the Perfect Culinary Space (Images Publishing, 2014). Barbara’s most recent book is The Garden Bible: Designing Your Perfect Outdoor Space, co-authored with Michael Glassman (Images, 2015).
Cohousing Builds Active Communities
Educate clients on these small-scale developments with common areas that facilitate social interactions between neighbors.
July 2, 2019
There’s an growing consensus that loneliness is detrimental to mental health and may lead to a weakened immune system. Knowing your neighbors is considered healthful, whether you’re a young child, busy parent, or aging boomer.
Yet, so many home and community designs work counter to this goal. Single-family houses and multifamily buildings usually don’t encourage neighbors to gather, except for an occasional pot-luck supper or barbecue. Passing one another on the street or in a building lobby might not lead to conversation and friendship.
Technology is also exacerbating isolation. Many people are glued to their phones or tablets for several hours a day, leading to fewer meaningful face-to-face interactions.
But there’s a housing niche with the spirit of intentional inclusiveness that many buyers crave: cohousing. It’s a way of developing homes embraced by the Danes in the 1970s. American architects Kathryn McCamant and Charles Durrett traveled to Denmark to study the trend firsthand, then designed the first U.S. prototype in Davis, Calif., which was completed in 1991. They also cowrote Cohousing: A Contemporary Approach to Housing Ourselves (Ten Speed Press, 1994), based on their experiences.
Cohousing usually involves a small number of homes in any arrangement—single-family houses, attached or detached townhouses, condos, and sometimes apartments—that are grouped closely together. Often, there is a common building, house, or room in the middle with amenities and spaces that residents share. If extra land is available, a place for cars might be located on the periphery to encourage walkability and more togetherness.
Today there are almost 170 suburban, rural, and urban examples of cohousing in the U.S. and another 140 are in the development stages. More are likely to emerge since the concept has shown success, says McCamant, who now heads her own Cohousing Solutions development consultancy in Nevada City, Calif., where she lives in a cohousing community. “It’s a concept that works for any age, and it’s helping to recreate the neighborhood,” she says.
For real estate professionals interested in the niche, there’s plenty of advice to help, including the Cohousing Association of the United States, which hosts the National Cohousing Conference and offers a directory of developments on its website. McCamant and Durrett’s second book, Creating Cohousing: Building Sustainable Communities (New Society Publishers, 2011), is another resource.
But what’s most important to share with potential buyers is that the brick-and-mortar real estate of cohousing isn’t necessary for residents who desire to live actively with others, says Karin Hoskin, executive director of the Cohousing Association. You simply need willing participants.
Architect Grace Kim describes cohousing as a way of living where residents are committed to the place or community rather than thinking of a home as a real estate transaction. She cofounded a five-story cohousing building in downtown Seattle with her husband and architecture partner Mike Mariano, which the couple shares with eight other families. Kim’s Schemata Workshop firm is located on the ground floor. “We plan to live here forever even after our daughter is grown,” says Kim, who gave a TED talk on the concept.
Despite the growing prevalence of strong resale tract records, the cohousing concept is not for everyone. "It’s important that real estate salespeople make it clear that cohousing is about a shared way of living," says Leslie Arden, a licensed real estate broker in California and a purchaser at Rocky Corner, a new cohousing community now being built in Bethany, Conn. The development is situated on a 33-acre dairy farm, five miles from New Haven. When completed later this year, it will have 30 homes, including 13 that are affordable, a 4,500-square-foot common house, and an organic farm. The philosophy of the community is focused on preserving land and curtailing energy use.
After deciding to relocate back east from San Diego County to be closer to family, Arden, 71 and single, searched for a property that offers a strong sense of community, connection, environmentalism, and security. "I'm getting older and my priorities have changed. Plus, the idea of shared meals and activities and being totally independent is the perfect combination for me," she says.
Characteristics of Cohousing
The location, number of housing units, style of the buildings, and amenities may vary, but cohousing developments reflect similarities in how they’re organized. The following points will help real estate professionals educate potential buyers so they can make an informed decision on cohousing.
Legal structure. While residents live in their own homes—single-family, attached or detached townhomes, or apartment-style units or condos—most are legally considered condos, allowing everyone to own a share of the land and common facilities, including the common house. Some communities operate as a nonprofit, renting out units or allowing a combination of nonprofit rentals and ownership. Cohousing residents manage decisions as a group rather than relying on an outside company. “We create our own budgets and make decisions about maintenance and other matters,” says Hoskin, who lives in the Wild Sage Cohousing Community in Boulder, Colo. If they want outside expertise, they hire it.
Reasons for buying. Staving off loneliness is a prime reason for purchasing in a cohousing community as more buyers understand its far-reaching effects, says Hoskin. Those who buy into the lifestyle reflect a range of demographics, from single professionals and couples to young families and boomers.
Residential life. More millennials are starting to buy houses and raise families in cohousing developments, recognizing that it really does take a village to raise a child, Hoskin says. Dorothy Varner likes that her two children, ages 5 and 7, have free rein at Cantine’s Island Cohousing Community in the Hudson Valley town of Saugerties, N.Y. A growing number of communities are also attracting seniors. “Many seniors prefer cohousing to a retirement community,” McCamant says. Jim Leach, head of Wonderland Hill Development Co. in Boulder, Colo., helped develop Silver Sage Village Senior Cohousing there 11 years ago for that reason.
In addition to having neighbors in close proximity, many residents enjoy the increase in social interactions. They actively use their common house to celebrate life events together—birthdays, wedding anniversaries, and bon voyage or welcome home fetes. They know if someone has gone on a trip, come home from the hospital, or experienced a death in the family.
Community size. Some are as small as nine units and some are large as nearly 70, but the sweet spot is said to around 30 or so to encourage regular interactions, walkability, and sustainability. “If it’s too big, you don’t get to know one another; too small and there aren’t enough people there,” says Marie Pulito, a nurse and resident of Rocky Corner. Larger communities—up to 100, for example—can work if broken into small pods, says McCamant.
Common areas. Shared spaces or the common house serve as the magnet that brings residents together in cohousing communities, much more so than a suburban clubhouse because of its emphasis on participation. At many communities, a shared dinner is held two or three times a week in a dining area that accommodates all residents. People can sign up for cooking duty in what’s often an industrial-style kitchen; others might wash dishes. At the Silver Sage senior community, residents like Leach, 78, say they prefer to organize potluck meals.
While there’s no recipe for what other rooms and outdoor amenities might be included, many feature a community garden (sometimes on a rooftop) or individual homeowner plots, playground, workshop or arts studio, living space that may double as a meeting room, mail room that brings residents face to face, and, perhaps, a guest suite to house those who want to test the concept before buying or renting. Also, many of the homes in a cohousing community tend to be smaller since residents don’t need to duplicate spaces found in common areas, such as a guest suite or laundry room.
Resolving disagreements. While the cohousing concept might conjure thoughts of “kumbaya”-type togetherness, campfires, and everyone getting along perfectly, that’s not always the case. “Not all my neighbors are my best friends and there are ones who are definitely challenging,” Hoskin says. “But because we choose to live here, I have learned to be in a community and live and work together.” Most cohousing communities rely on a consensus or “sociocracy” approach to tackling issues, which means they talk through decisions and make sure everyone has a voice. Certain challenges are more prevalent, says Hoskin. Among them: residents’ pets, which brings up disagreements on whether to require leash rules or if they should set a limit on the number or size. Child discipline is another issue that arises, especially to what extent other residents can step in. Now some communities are wrestling with whether to let residents rent out their homes via sites such as Airbnb and VRBO.com.
Resale. Some communities are so new that resale hasn’t yet occurred, but others that have been around for decades have seen homes change hands multiple times. Overall, prices have increased, and many developments held their value better than other housing stock during the Great Recession, McCamant says. Yet, as is typical in real estate, so much depends on the market where the community is located.
How to Get Started
The process of getting a new community up and running can take as little as three years and as long as 10 or more depending on factors such as fluctuations in real estate markets, choice of the community site, the amount of professional help involved, and the effectiveness of a community’s marketing program, says Karen Gimnig, associate director of the Cohousing Association and resident of East Lake Commons in Decatur, Ga. Grace Kim’s Capitol Hill community, for example, took eight years from start to finish. Residents need to pool money to buy land, choose an architect and developer, go through a permitting and perhaps a zoning process, and decide how much to spend on sustainability features. The founders of Rocky Corner brought in an outsider, David Berto of Housing Enterprising Inc., because of his expertise in including affordable units. “He helped control costs and secured funds from the state to subsidize some of the units,” says Pulito. The Cohousing Association offers a plethora of information on its website to help, from a directory that lists forming and existing communities to articles about every stage of development.