Rethinking The Way We Live: Co-Housing

Most of us have certain expectations about our lifestyle set by that good ole American Dream. It paints the picture of all us with our own home sitting on a large lot, our own car, our own TV/computer/stereo/lawn equipment etc. A nice picture for sure, but as personal finance people are pointing out more and more frequently, an expensive picture.

Fresno Cohousing by McCamant & Durrett Architects

Fresno Cohousing by McCamant & Durrett Architects

With the cost of food, energy and basic necessities rising rapidly, not to mention that many of us Boomers, single and married, have a beer retirement budget despite our champagne tastes, it may make sense to consider other options. Co-housing not only has definite financial benefits, but some wonderful social benefits as well.

It would be fair to say that most Americans believe the ideal is to buy their own nice, big house, fill it with furniture and other ‘stuff’ and have their own shiny car sitting in the driveway. It isn’t called The American Dream for nothing! That ideal isn’t surprising since American society in general tends to place a great value on individual rights and property.

Scott Burns, a popular personal finance columnist, points out, “Prosperity has raised our expectations. We expect to own our house, to have our own bedroom, our own bathroom, our own car, our own phone (preferably mobile), our own TV set, and we want to eat what we want for dinner, not what everyone else is having.”

However, he says, “that makes life very expensive.”

Energy costs and the price of food and other basics are going up and not likely to come down anytime soon, making many mid-lifers worry about how they will make retirement ends meet.

Many people are also beginning to become disenchanted with the excesses of consumerism and would like to simplify their lives. Perhaps the kids have flown the nest and downsizing makes sense. Or, the idea of living with good friends or family within walking distance becomes more appealing as we get a little older.

In the face of these trends, the idea of settling into a close-knit community that fosters social interaction and significantly reduces living costs becomes much more appealing. One such option that is gaining momentum is called co-housing. While it takes a number of different forms in practice, it has some essential characteristics.

What is co-housing?

A concept originating in Denmark in the 1960s, co-housing is an intentional community where residents are consciously committed to living as a community. They actively participate in the design and operation of their neighborhood which is designed primarily to encourage social interaction.

It general, co-housing has four main characteristics: a “social contact design,” which creates a physical space conducive to a strong sense of community; resident involvement in recruitment, establishment and management of the community; a non-hierarchical organization with no one individual in charge; and a collaborative culture fostering interdependence, support networks, friendship and security.

What does co-housing look like?

Social interaction is the key in a co-housing community. For many, co-housing in the United States is a return to a time when people knew and were close to their neighbors.

The physical design is meant to encourage both social contact and individual space. Private homes contain all the features of conventional homes, but residents share extensive common facilities such as open space, courtyards, a playground and a common house. This common building usually containing a large kitchen and dining area as well as a living area and game area. Often, residents attend a number of group meals per week, and community events are regularly planned.

The housing itself is usually clustered with parking on the perimeter and walking paths designed to encourage interaction in the middle. It is designed to create many opportunities for casual meetings between neighbors, as well as for deliberate gatherings such as celebrations, clubs and business meetings.

What are the financial benefits of co-housing?

Other than the social interaction, other benefits of co-housing are financial and environmental. The cost of a home in a co-housing community ranges from $50,000 to $160,000. Typically, since the community is planned from the ground up, being ‘green’ is top of mind. Shared space, resources and infrastructure mean lower costs.

Smaller homes mean less upkeep and heating/cooling costs. Include the latest in insulation, triple-paned windows and materials and the cost savings can be significant. Because of the “green” techniques some communities are utilizing, only an estimated $50 per month will be spent on heating and cooling per family.

What needs does co-housing meet?

Subsistence: Efficient homes with passive solar; access to garden produce; lots of home offices.

Protection: There are always meals, medical advice and other support for those who are sick.

Affection: Good friends a one-minute walk away; many parties and celebrations.

Understanding: Skills and perspectives gained from neighbors, directly and via email and bulletin boards.

Participation: Each neighbor is a neighborhood citizen, making decisions about common property.

Leisure: Gardening, playing music, and sharing community meals are some leisure activities.

Creation: Neighbors co-design new landscaping, aesthetic features and celebrations.

Identity: Strengths, passions and accomplishments are respected by neighbors.

Freedom: Each person “has a piece of the truth” and can safely express dissent and approval.

What should I consider?

Those living in a co-housing community have expectations about sharing common resources. For people who don’t want to share, this is probably not a good fit. People looking for co-housing tend to be focused on their values rather than their wants. They tend to value getting many of their psychological and social needs met close to home.

For most communities, the decision making process is participatory and consensus based which means residents are expected to take part in the governance. Residents often share responsibility for maintenance and preparing community meals.

Residents do not derive income from the community and all individually support themselves financially.

How prevalent is co-housing in the United States?

The first co-housing community in the United States was completed in 1991 in Davis, California. Since then, about 100 communities exist today, and many more are in the planning stages.

Not only are there intergenerational communities, but communities for boomers in retirement are on the rise. Generally for those 55 years and beyond, the retiring communities are attracting boomers who aren’t looking forward to the traditional retirement, but who are still active and want to retire with good friends always within reach. Although there are only a few retiring communities constructed, there are many in the planning stages.

With the increasing number of communities being built, co-housing is becoming a much more realistic option for families, boomers and retirees. Whether motivated by the financial benefits or the idea of a neighborhood that values social interaction and community above all, co-housing offers an intriguing option.

As one woman moving into a retiring community said, “I traded in square-footage for treasured friendships.” It can’t get any better than that.

Written by Allison Allen and Lindsay Sellers

Cohousing Collaborative’s New Community Sandbox

Cohousing Collaborative LLCCohousing Collaborative has launched a new social media marketing platform. They have a
social media website,
they are on twitter (follow @cohousingworks),
facebook (!/cohousingworks),
AND they have the ubiquitous Blog,
all integrated and designed to identify prospective cohousers and give them a sandbox to play in. This will be an environment where cohousers — whether beginners or old hands — can talk to each other.

It’s your choice. Connect and share using any or all of the methods you can handle.

2011 National Cohousing Conference in DC Area

How much more can we do as a community? Come discuss this and many more relevant issues at the 2011 National Cohousing Conference to be held June 15 – 19 at the Sheraton Crystal City Hotel in Arlington, VA.

Some of the conference highlights include:

Hope to see you there as we work to create better neighborhoods for the future.