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BUILDING A COHOUSING COMMUNITY
Co-op America Quarterly, Spring 1991 By Kathryn McCamant and Charles Durrett
It's five o'clock in the evening, and Anne is glad the work day is over. As she pulls into her driveway, she begins to unwind at last. Some neighborhood kids dart through the trees. Her daughter yells, "Hi Mom!" as she runs by with three other children.
Instead of frantically trying to put together a nutritious dinner, Anne can relax now, spend time with her children, and then eat with her family in the common house. Walking through the common house on her way home, she stops to chat with the evening's cooks, two of her neighbors, who are busy preparing dinner in the kitchen. Anne continues down the lane to her own house. After dropping her things off at home, Anne walks through the birch trees behind the houses to the childcare center where she picks up her four-year-old son, Peter. She will have some time to read Peter a story before dinner, she thinks to herself.
Anne and her husband, Eric, helped design the development in which they live, though neither is an architect or builder. Six years ago, after responding to a short announcement in the local newspaper, they joined a group of families who were looking for a realistic housing alternative. They wanted a place where children would live near playmates; where individuals would have a feeling of belonging; where they would know people of all ages; and where they would be able to grow old and continue to contribute productively.
Two and a half years later, Anne and Eric moved into their new home—a community of clustered houses that share a large common house. By working together, these people had created the kind of neighborhood they wanted to live in, a cohousing community.
Traditional forms of housing no longer address the needs of many people. Dramatic demographic and economic changes are taking place in our society and most of us feel the effects of these trends in our own lives. Things that people once took for granted—family, community, a sense of belonging—must now be actively sought out. Many people are mis- housed, ill-housed, or un-housed because of the lack of appropriate options. This article introduces a new housing model which addresses such changes and sketches out the path to making it happen. Pioneered primarily in Denmark and now being adopted in other countries, the cohousing concept reestablishes many of the advantages of traditional villages within the context of late twentieth-century life.
In Denmark, people frustrated by housing options very similar to our own have developed a new housing type that redefines the concept of neighborhood. Tired of the isolation and impracticality of single-family houses and apartment units, they have built housing that combines the autonomy of private dwellings with the advantages of community living. Each household has a private residence, but also shares extensive common facilities with the larger group, such as a kitchen and dining hall, children's playrooms, workshops, guest rooms, and laundry facilities. Although individual dwellings are designed to be self- sufficient and each has its own kitchen, the common facilities, and particularly common dinners, are an important aspect of community life both for social and practical reasons.
Today, over 120 of these communities have been built in Denmark and over 30 are being constructed or are in the latter stages of the planning process. They range in size from 6 to 80 households, with the majority between 15 and 33 residences.
A NEW TYPE OF HOUSING
Cohousing is a grass-roots movement whose initiators drew inspiration from the increasing popularity of shared households, in which several unrelated people share a traditional house, and from the cooperative movement in general. Yet, cohousing is distinctive in that each family or household has a separate dwelling and chooses how much they want to participate in community activities. There are, of course, other innovative ideas being experimented with—for example, single-parent cooperatives and congregate housing for the elderly with private rooms arranged around shared living spaces. But unlike these approaches, cohousing developments are not targeted for specific age or family type; residents represent a cross section of old and young, families and singles.
Cohousing also differs from intentional communities and communes. Communes are often organized around strong ideological beliefs. Most intentional communities function as educational or spiritual centers. Cohousing, on the other hand, offers a new approach to housing rather than a new way of life. Based on democratic principles, cohousing developments espouse no ideology other than the desire for a more practical and social home environment.
Cohousing developments vary in size, location, type of ownership, design, and priorities. Yet, in our research we were able to identify four common characteristics:
A DIVERSITY OF EXPRESSION
- Participatory Process. Residents organize and participate in the planning and design process for the development and are responsible as a group for all final decisions. The process can be long and frustrating, but those now living in cohousing communities universally agree that it was well worth the effort.
- Intentional Neighborhood Design. The physical design itself encourages a strong sense of community. For example, if residents must pass by the common house on their way home, they are more likely to use it.
- Extensive Common Facilities. The common area is designed for daily use, to supplement private living areas. The heart of a cohousing community, the common house, is a place for common dinners, afternoon tea, children's games on rainy days, a Friday night bar, crafts workshops, laundry facilities, and numerous other organized and informal activities. Common facilities often extend beyond the common house to include barns and animal sheds, greenhouses, a car repair garage, and the like.
- Complete Resident Management. Residents—renters and owners alike— manage the development, making decisions of common concern at community meetings.
While these four characteristics are not unique to cohousing, their consistent combination is. And their application in practice has been quite diverse, since each community is developed to fit the particular needs and desires of its residents.
Size. Although there are cohousing developments as small as 2 households, we have found that groups smaller than 6 households tend to function more like situations in which a number of unrelated people share a house or apartment. Such small groups are more demanding because residents depend so heavily on each other. The average cohousing size of around 40 to 100 people allows residents to retain their autonomy and choose when or when not to participate in community activities. Those living in larger communities of around 80 households sometimes feel they are too large and institutional; often they subdivide into smaller groups.
Location. The location of cohousing developments are limited only by the availability of affordable sites. The majority are situated just outside metropolitan areas where sites are affordable and yet within reasonable distance from work, schools, and other urban attractions. Ten communities have been established in rural settings, some of them using an old farmhouse for the common house. While these developments have a "rural atmosphere," most residents must still commute to nearby cities for work. Still other communities are located in the inner cities.
Design. Most cohousing communities have attached dwellings clustered around pedestrian streets or courtyards. Generally, they are new construction because it is difficult to create the desired relationships between spaces in existing buildings. Nevertheless, two communities have adapted old factory buildings and another an old school building. While all the newly constructed Danish developments are low-rise in scale, in both Denmark and Sweden high-rises, as well as sections of huge housing projects, have been converted to cohousing to overcome impersonal environments that encouraged vandalism and high turnover.
Financing and Ownership. Cohousing developments utilize a variety of financing mechanisms and ownership structures: privately owned condominiums, limited equity cooperatives, rentals owned by nonprofit organizations, and a combination of private ownership and nonprofit-owned rental units. While financing does determine who can afford to live in a particular development, it makes little difference in the actual functioning of cohousing. Cohousing refers to an idea about how people can live together, rather than any particular financing or ownership type.
Priorities. The priorities of cohousing developments are as varied as the residents themselves. In addition to seeking a sense of community, some groups emphasize ecological concerns, such as solar and wind energy, recycling, and organic community gardens. In other developments, residents place less priority on community projects and spend more time on individual interests such as local theater groups, classes, or political organizations. Priorities often change over the years, reflecting the desires of the residents.
THE DEVELOPMENT PROCESS
Resident participation in the development process is cohousing's greatest asset and its most limiting factor. It is a huge task for a group of people, inexperienced in both collective decision making and the building industry, to take on a project of this complexity. Most residents have little knowledge of financing, design and construction issues for housing development.
Luckily, in dealing with these issues today, we can benefit from two decades of cohousing experience. The first cohousing projects took from five to eight years to develop; today, it can take as little as two years from the first meetings to moving in.
The process is different for every cohousing community. In some cases, the group forms with the intention of developing a specific site. In others, the group establishes its goals and objectives before identifying a site. Often, both happen simultaneously. The process generally includes the following phases, although the sequence may vary:
COHOUSING IN A MULTICULTURAL U.S.A.
- Find others interested, establish an organizing group, and agree on general goals, location, and financial expectations.
- Choose consultants, consider the financing options, consider the design objectives, draw up legal agreements, and acquire a site.
- Design the development, obtain building permits, and select a contractor.
- Monitor the contracted work and complete the resident-built work, and move in.
Our multicultural society presents unique challenges for the development of cohousing. Within the diversity of the American population, however, many people of differing ethnicity share the basic values needed to live together successfully in cohousing: an appreciation of the benefits of community and a willingness to work together to achieve them.
Another concern is that cohousing might further emphasize already existing American patterns of residential and social segregation. But cohousing offers an opportunity to overcome the current patterns of segregation by interest, age, income, race, and household composition. In choosing cohousing, residents choose to respect each other's differences, while building on their commonalities.
Our experience in introducing the cohousing model to American audiences has confirmed that a broad demand exists for this housing alternative. Inspired by the Danish examples, people interested in cohousing have been meeting with each other across the country to explore local possibilities. Currently, over 70 groups have formed, and several of those have acquired sites and are making progress in the planning of their communities. As of this writing, projects in Davis, CA, and in the Seattle area are ready to begin construction.
The cohousing model is a major contribution to society's concept of home and community. Yet, it obviously has its limitations. At an average size of 15 to 35 units, cohousing developments have limited impact on larger urban and regional design issues. Realizing the goal of providing good, affordable housing for all Americans will require a commitment from government and society as a whole. In the meantime, more informal approaches are necessary.
In the coming years, we will learn much more about adapting the Danish cohousing model to an American setting. Clearly, many people are seeking alternatives not provided by the traditional housing industry, and some are ready to do something about it. We hope our work will continue to provide the inspiration and the rudimentary tools for such people to take decisive steps toward a creative solution.
Community Land Trusts
Community-oriented design, such as the cohousing model, is a second step on the road to better housing. The first step is an economic one and must address housing affordability and ownership. Inflated markets, increased gentrification, and a 70 percent cut in federal housing subsidies by debt-ridden Reagan and Bush administrations have made affordability and ownership urgent issues. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology estimates a deficit of 7.8 million necessary low- rental housing units by the next decade. The homeless families on every city's streets are obvious signs of the crisis. However, effective models for providing affordable housing exist at the community level.
In the late 60's the Institute for Community Economics designed a community land trust model that provides permanent housing affordability by removing land from the speculative market. It works like this: The Community Land Trust (CLT), a democratically structured nonprofit corporation, acquires land and offers low-to- middle income homeowners lifetime land leases that are transferable to heirs but not saleable. Homeowners may own the house, but the CLT retains the option to repurchase the house at a rate that accounts for homeowner improvements. The lessee retains the benefits of homeownership: security, fair equity and a legacy for heirs; the community benefits from permanent availability of affordable housing for low-to-middle income people. The flexibility of the CLT model allows a community to meet a variety of housing needs from single-family homes and condominiums to multi-family buildings and co-ops.
Many programs lose affordable housing to the speculative market because of short-term equity and use restrictions that require repeated resubsidizing of the same units at higher market values. For example, a community development corporation in Massachusetts used public and private subsidies and volunteer labor to rehabilitate a house sold to a first-time buyer for $40,000. When the owner resold the house for triple the value 18 months later, the community lost a home that it had worked hard to make affordable. Long-term affordability sets CLTs apart and has contributed to the proliferation of more that 90 CLTs in 23 states in the last ten years. Start-up money is still necessary, but the CLT model ensures that funding and efforts will not be wasted once spent.
The nonprofit status of the CLT draws grants, private donations and volunteers to provide funding and labor to rehabilitate and construct homes. Financial support ranges from banks and state housing finance agencies to socially concerned individuals, foundations and religious institutions.
CLTs operate in towns, rural areas and smaller cities like Burlington, VT, Syracuse, NY and Durham, NC as well as large cities like New York, Atlanta, Dallas and Boston. In Burlington, Vermont's largest city, former Mayor Bernie Sanders helped establish a government financed city-wide CLT that owns over 100 units of housing for lower income residents. The City of New York donated vacant and abandoned property to a Catholic organization and a cooperative homesteaders' CLT that is constructing 150 units in the Lower East Side with over $7 million from state and federal housing programs. However, Lin Von Dreele, the Program Associate for a community-based organization working to establish CLTs in Chicago, described the NYC CLT as an exception rather than the norm. She attributed a lack of government leadership support in large cities to gentrification, the push/pull for urban real estate, and the magnitude of large cities' problems compared to rural cities such as Burlington.
Future programs may combine the highly compatible models of CLTs and cohousing. Presently, there are no working models of cohousing units on community land trusts, although several projects are being considered. The cluster housing on some CLTs is only one step away from the cohousing design. Bob Swann, co-founder of the Institute for Community Economics, designs cluster housing on CLT land and believes a cohousing group could lease land from a CLT. The CLT not only offers a viable solution for individuals who could not otherwise afford the expenses of a co-housing project but also ensures socio-economic diversity and permanently affordable housing for the community.
The future holds many possibilities for CLTs. Most importantly, the CLT model responds to the question posed by Burlington's former mayor Bernie Sanders at the Third National CLT Conference:"...how do we build on our communities, in our states, and in our nation, a political movement which finally says that this country belongs to all the people and not just the rich?"
Excerpted with permission from In Context Quarterly, (#21, Spring 1989), $18/yr, P.O. Box 11470, Bainbridge Island, WA 98110. Originally adapted from the authors' book Cohousing (see "Resources"). Authors and architects Kathryn McCamant and Charles Durrett have been spreading the word about cohousing through workshops, media appearances, and books. They founded the CoHousing Company, a design and consulting firm assisting groups in the cohousing process.
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