What is Cohousing?
Cohousing is a form of collaborative housing that offers residents an old-fashioned sense of neighborhood. In cohousing, residents know their neighbors well and there is a strong sense of community that is absent in contemporary cities and suburbs.
Cohousing communities consist of private, fully-equipped dwellings and extensive common amenities including a common house and recreation areas. Residents are involved in the development of the community so that the community reflects their priorities.
What are the defining characteristics of cohousing?
Future residents participate in the design and development of the community so that it meets their needs. Some cohousing communities are initiated or driven by a developer, which may actually make it easier for residents to participate. However, a well designed, pedestrian-oriented community without resident participation in the planning may be “cohousing inspired,” but it is not a cohousing community.
The physical layout and orientation of the buildings (the site plan) encourages a sense of community. For example, the private residences are clustered on the site leaving more shared open space, the dwellings typically face each other across a pedestrian street or courtyard, and/or cars are parked on the periphery. The common house is centrally located so that it is easy to pass through on your way home. But more important than any of these specifics is that the intent is to create a strong sense of community with design as one of the facilitators.
Common facilities are designed for daily use. They are an integral part of the community, and are supplemental to the private residences. The common house typically includes a dining area with a high end kitchen, sitting area, children’s playroom and laundry and may also have a workshop, library, exercise room, crafts room and/or one or two guest rooms. Except on very tight urban sites, cohousing communities often have playground equipment, lawns, and gardens as well. Since the buildings are clustered, larger sites may retain several or many acres of undeveloped shared open space.
Cohousing communities are managed by their residents. Residents also do most of the work required to maintain the property, participate in the preparation of common meals and meet regularly to develop policies and do problem-solving for the community.
NON-HIERARCHICAL STRUCTURE AND DECISION-MAKING
In cohousing communities there are leadership roles, but no one person or persons who has authority over others. Most groups start with one or two “burning souls” but as people join the group, each person takes on one or more roles consistent with his or her skills, abilities or interests. Most cohousing groups make decisions by consensus, and although groups typically have a policy for voting if consensus cannot be reached, it is rarely necessary to resort to voting.
NO SHARED COMMUNITY ECONOMY
The community is not a source of income for its members. Occasionally, a cohousing community will pay one of its own members to do a specific (usually time limited) task, but more typically the task will simply be considered to be that member’s contribution to the shared responsibilities.
If I live in cohousing will I have my own kitchen?
Yes. You may well wonder why we have put this seemingly insignificant question so close to the top of our list. Frankly, because it is the single question most frequently asked of cohousing enthusiasts. Yes, every cohousing community does have a common kitchen, but community meals are usually prepared and served in the common house only two or three times each week. Can you imagine 25 or more households each trying to separately prepare 18 or 19 meals a week in one kitchen? That would be well nigh impossible. So yes, each residence has a fully equipped, private kitchen. Really.
How does cohousing differ from other kinds of shared living or from other “intentional communities?”
Some people involved with cohousing like to describe their communities as “intentional neighborhoods” rather than “intentional communities.” This is probably because the term “intentional community” frequently connotes a shared religious, political or social ideology rather than simply the desire to have much more of a sense of community with their neighbors, some of whom might be quite different from themselves. There are places where groups of families jointly own land on which several have them have built homes, but usually there are no common facilities. In many other shared living situations, individuals don’t have a lot of privacy or space where they can do whatever they want because the kitchen, living-dining, and perhaps bathroom(s) are shared. So in those situations, residents probably cannot paint walls their favorite colors, play their favorite music loud in the living room, or have a late night party without imposing on others who share their space.
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We’d like to live in a cohousing group just with people who are already our friends.
“We want to live in a cohousing community that’s all vegan/Christian/gay/women/older people/artists/single moms….”
Well, then you’d have to find 15 or 20 more people like that who also:
Also, most people who are attracted to cohousing are actively seeking diversity in the communities they are planning; they want to live in a community with others who are not quite so much like themselves.
are financially able and emotionally prepared to buy a home,
are able and willing to take risks and can spend a good deal of time, money and energy well before the community is ready to move into,
really want to live in cohousing, and
want to live in the same area that you and others in your core group do.
Please tell me about common meals.
Cohousing communities usually prepare between two and five meals per week in their common house. The meals are prepared by a team of 2-4 persons for however many eaters sign up for the meal in advance. Eating common meals is always voluntary. In a few communities cooking is also voluntary, but in most cases it is not. However, there is a good deal of variation in the way the cooking (and cleanup) responsibilities are structured. Typically, however each adult is involved in meal preparation and/or clean-up once every 4 or 5 weeks. There is also variation in how the common meals are paid for, but one only pays for the meals one eats, Common dinner prices typically range from $2.50 to $3.75.
Many of us feel that common meals (even if some people’s schedules permit them to attend only irregularly) are the glue that holds cohousing communities together. A common meal may be the only time in a busy week when we get to have a real conversation with our neighbors. And if we are lucky enough to have a little extra time for some after-dinner coffee or tea and conversation, while the kids romp around in the playroom or outside if the weather is fine, so much the better.
Many communities encourage their cooks to provide a vegetarian option at most meals, and special food requirements are respected, although not every one of them will necessarily be accommodated at every meal.
How are people selected to be members of a particular cohousing group?
For the most part, groups require attendance at an orientation, regular meetings, and perhaps some involvement with a committee before a household can apply for membership. Some groups have associate memberships that require little in the way of a financial contribution, but do give potential full members the chance to participate fully in the planning process, and to get to know others in the group. A full membership usually requires an equity investment, part or all of which is eventually credited toward the final price of your house. This investment can range from a few thousand dollars up to 15% of the final cost of your home.
The disadvantage of joining a group early is that your cohome may take a long time, not to mention energy and money, to materialize. The advantages are that the earlier you come into the group, the more opportunity you have to be a part of the design and planning. And you get an earlier place in the order in which units will be selected. Also, in many groups there is a financial incentive for joining the group early in the way of a discount applied to your final house price.
How is home ownership legally structured in cohousing communities?
Although one or two cohousing communities in the U.S. are organized as limited equity cooperatives, most are structured as condominiums or planned unit developments. In what is called the “lot development model,” members jointly own the common property and facilities, and are the sole owners of the lot on which they build their own single family house. Sometimes they own just the land directly under their homes (the footprint), or that plus a small back or front “private” yard. In “retrofit” cohousing, existing buildings are used or renovated so that certain spaces can be used by the whole community for its common activities. The ownership structure varies considerably in retrofit cohousing.
What if I want to or have to move out of the community and sell my unit?
Except in a cooperative, any household leaving the community can legally sell their property to anyone they choose, but some communities maintain a “right of first refusal” which means that the seller must offer his or her unit for purchase by the community or to an individual or individuals within the community before putting it on the open market. In other communities, residents sign a voluntary agreement that they will not lease or sell their unit to a person or persons who do not wish to participate fully in the community. Some communities maintain a waiting list of persons interested in being informed if a unit becomes available and it is to the benefit of the seller and to the rest of the community if everyone lends a hand in finding new owners. When it comes to resales, experience has shown that homes in cohousing have held their value or have appreciated faster than the market as a whole.
I can’t afford to (or don’t want to) buy into cohousing. Are rental units available?
In some cohousing communities, a few individual households own homes with attached “granny” apartments that are available for rent. And from time to time, a homeowner may rent their unit for an extended period during which he or she is unable to occupy it. A few communities have (or are planning) one or more units which might be shared by two or more individuals or households. In this situation the unit might be held by more than one person as joint tenants or tenants-in-common. Alternatively, one person or household could own the unit and others sharing the home would be renters. At the present time, there is no community in which the homeowner’s association owns a unit and rents it out. Renting residents usually have all the same rights and responsibilities as owners, except in matters relating to expenditure of money. Typically, renters are welcome to attend meetings and participate fully in discussions of community matters, but usually they cannot block consensus.
How large are these communities and what kinds of households live there?
Cohousing communities in North America range in size from 9 to 44 households. At CoHousing Solutions, we feel that 25 to 35 units balances development economies and social dynamics. Communities of this size are small enough so that you know all your neighbors by wave, but large enough to accommodate a diversity of people.
Cohousing attracts a wide range of household types: single people of all ages, couples and single parents of infants, toddlers and school-aged children, couples whose children are grown, young couples without children.
How much does cohousing cost?
Cohousing homes typically cost more than other new condos or townhomes, for several reasons:
In addition to energy savings that cohousers experience after moving in, cohousers often find that common meals and other shared costs help reduce their daily living expenses.
Cohousing neighborhoods offer generous common facilities that are unheard of in traditional attached housing developments.
Cohousing projects typically incorporate environmentally sustainable features that cost more in the short run, although they often pay off over time.
Cohousing neighborhoods are built on a smaller, more intimate scale than most new neighborhoods today.
How does cohousing provide for residents of different economic means?
In some states, counties or municipalities, housing developers of multi-family housing are required by law to have a certain percentage of the new units meet a standard for “affordability.” People in cohousing usually welcome this, and as a matter of fact often wish they could make even more than the required percentage affordable. Unfortunately, unless the developer can get public or private subsidies or grants, there is a limit to how many affordable units can be built without driving everyone else’s costs sky high.
What about safety and security?
Because we know all our neighbors, we have an excellent neighborhood watch system built in to our communities, as someone who does not belong in the community is very easily recognized. If your child falls off a swing when he or she is out of your immediate sight line, another adult will surely pick him or her up. Then there’s more than one person to watch out for the property of an absent resident. “All eyes on the common areas” means that even in quite an urban area, many cohousers will feel comfortable leaving their front door unlocked when they go to the common house to pick up laundry, and will not require that their community be accessible only thorough a locked gate.
How did cohousing get its name?
Kathryn McCamant & Charles Durrett met at the University of Copenhagen in Denmark. While studying there, they discovered bofællesskaber (cohousing). In Denmark they decided to call these communities ‘cohousing’ instead of this lovely but oh-so-long Danish word. The phrase is now listed in the Oxford English dictionary.