Cohousing: Collective Living for the 90s

By Eleanor J. Bader

This article is from the January/February 1999 issue of Dollars and Sense: The Magazine of Economic Justice available at

This article is from the January/February 1999 issue of Dollars & Sense magazine.

issue 221 cover

Imagine a community where you know all your neighbors. Where your neighbors would loan you a car if you needed it, or take you to the hospital, or cook dinner for you if you were ill. Think of a place where your children had lots of friends and could safely play in the street. Imagine that you came home most nights to eat dinner with friends in a communal hall down the road. And think of a place where the houses are nestled close together amongst a beautiful natural landscape left as untouched as possible by their presence. What you are thinking of is called a cohousing community.
—From the Cohousing Network website

In the United States, where the two most popular leisure activities are shopping and watching television, people routinely bemoan the lack of community. Urban apartment dwellers rarely know their neighbors, while their suburban and rural counterparts rarely know the people across the way. But that may be changing, at least for those who desire a more connected, collective lifestyle - and who have the financial resources to make it happen.

Cohousing—a combination of private dwellings for individual households and public spaces for community use—has its roots in 19th century Europe and was revived in Denmark in the early 1970s. The credit for contemporary cohousing development belongs to Lies Van Dooremaal, an overwhelmed Danish single mother who, in l969, published a newspaper plea urging others to break their parental isolation and overwork by living semi—collectively. By 1970, 25 households had organized to build collaborative housing in Ny Hammersholt, a small city near Amsterdam.

Since then, about 200 cohousing communities, ranging from six to 80 households, have been established in Denmark. One of the most extensive is Birkerod, north of Copenhagen, consisting of 33 households. A common house is shared by all residents and includes a darkroom, couches surrounding a large—screen TV, a walk—in freezer, guest accommodations, a music room, and a computer area. On any given evening, 50% of the residents eat dinner together. Two adults, assisted by one child, plan each day's menu, shop, prepare and serve the food, and do the required clean—up. Each adult cooks one dinner a month; the diners then divide the cost at the end of the meal. Available to all are a lawnmower and sailboat, and two households share one car. And what's more, a cooperative store allows each household to pick up goods at any hour. They log their purchases into an account book—honors style—paying the bill monthly. The store is run by an "interest group," one of nine that adult residents must choose among to help manage the community's affairs. Other choices: outdoor maintenance, bookkeeping and finance, children's activities, newsletter, building maintenance, special events planning, and Common House scheduling.

While Birkerod is one of the world's most elaborate cohousing developments, less extensive cohousing groups now exist in six countries. In the U.S., 20 communities are up and running in 13 states; 150 more are in the planning or construction stages. The first, in Davis, California, was built in 1991. While the variation between communities is enormous—2,000 to 3,500 square foot townhouses sell for between $300,000 and $425,000 in a Cambridge, Massachusetts development, while 850 square foot efficiencies sell for $90,000 in Boulder; some are built far apart on 1,000 acre plots, while others are attached—all share a desire for a more neighborly, community—centered way of life.

Yet cohousing is not an "intentional community"—residents are not drawn together by similar political ideologies, religious beliefs, or service "missions." Some find cohousing appealing because of its ecologically sound emphasis on shared commodities, from snow blowers to cars, sports equipment, and washing machines. Others find the notion of group meals—even if they occur only once a week—a particular lure. Still others like the mix of residents, young and old, toddlers to retirees.

One of the newest American cohousing developments—fully occupied as of March 1998—is located 100 miles north of New York City, in the tiny village of Saugerties, on a parcel of land adjacent to Escopus Creek in the Hudson Valley. Called Cantine's Island, "the space was found by a man named Bruce Levine in l989," says resident Lee Haring.

He met a woman who lived in a houseboat in the creek next to the land... He convinced the woman living in the houseboat, as well as her husband, to make it available as a cohousing community. They agreed, as long as there would be no more than 12 houses built.

Although the seven—acre plot is zoned for 90 homes, the residents of Cantine's Island are committed to keeping their community small. The 12 households that live on the site include 18 adults and 10 children, all white, with the adults ranging in age from 37 to 65. Of the adults, seven are therapists, two are lawyers, and two are registered nurses. The remainder includes a comptroller, a waste water treatment specialist, a college professor, a fundraising consultant, an ESL teacher, and a retired housewife. Both single lesbians and lesbian couples with children have joined the community. The houses vary in size, from the smallest at 1,100 square feet, to the largest at 1,600, and cost between $140,000 and $180,000. "Cohousing is not for everyone," admits member Susan Murphy. "It takes a long time to manifest these things. We first got together in 1990 and have seen a lot of things change. There are 67 ex—member households. They came, they saw the place, they said they wanted to do it, but ultimately they found that they were unable to."

Because would—be Cantine Islanders wanted to have all 12 households assembled before beginning the design and construction of their community, the process crawled slowly along. In large part this was due to the downsizing at IBM, one of the area's largest employers, in the early '90s; an economic depression swept the Hudson Valley in its wake. "A lot of people, wonderful people, dancers, singers, and painters, came to see us. They liked the idea of cohousing but they couldn't afford the down payment to build," says Murphy. "People have to be more than ideologically committed; they have to have the resources to participate. There's also the issue of trust. To take part in cohousing you not only have to be able to trust others, you have to believe yourself to be trustworthy. You have to believe that you can live semi—collectively and have people rely on you."

Cantine Island's residents

"I'm a single mother of two teenaged girls," says Sabrina Greensea. "I moved to Saugerties a few years ago after living in California for 10 years. I have family here, but I didn't know very many other people. After a while I realized I wasn't getting to know many people. I've always wanted to live in a place where people drop in on one another. I never wanted to live in isolation."

Similarly, Ruth Hirsch, a single woman with no children of her own, found the idea of building ties with kids particularly appealing. "If you want to have relationships with kids, they need to be able to come into your house and help you or get your help with something, or complain about stuff that's going on in their lives. Kids don't do that—they don't hang out—by appointment."

"It's really a process of self selection," Murphy adds. "But there were two occasions where we had to turn people away. We ask prospective members to come to meetings and work on a committee—there's finance/legal, site maintenance, membership, and grounds—for three months as 'participating members' before we consider their application for full membership. In one couple, the man did his committee work but the woman did not. We asked them to take one more month before reapplying for full membership. Instead, they went west and moved there. We later found out that the man was a liar and a crook. In the other instance, the man did not want to join a group, he wanted a group to join him. He had a personal agenda a mile wide."

The ability to compromise is essential for members of any cohousing community. Like most such developments, Cantine's Island makes all of its decisions at biweekly meetings; four to six hour sessions starting with a potluck meal are routine. "All decisions are made by a basic rule of consensus," explains Murphy. "But there is an out. You can abstain. For example, if you decide that, all things taken together, the issue is not important enough to block consensus over, this is what you do. If we do have blocked consensus, there is a process. At three consecutive biweekly meetings we make good faith attempts to reach consensus. If we fail, and it's a decision that has to be made, we go to a vote. But we've never had to invoke a vote yet."

And that is not because everyone agrees with everyone else on all issues. Take building materials. Although the group decided to utilize prefab modular structures that were adapted to household specifications by an architect, choosing the siding for the dwellings required debate. "All of us have very strong environmental concerns," says Lee Haring. "But the cheapest, most durable way to side is to use vinyl. It's now made in a sophisticated way that is no longer offensive looking, so there was a real pull in this direction. Others of us argued that if vinyl burns it sends off toxic fumes that are environmentally destructive. We debated, and eventually agreed to use cedar instead."

Then there are the issues of garbage pick—up and recycling. Should each household pay $18 a month to a hauler, or should Cantine's Island residents take their trash and recyclables to the dump themselves? A meeting held shortly after the residents moved in addressed this topic. Forty five minutes into the discussion, the community remained divided. The resolution? Some will pay, while others will handle the matter themselves. All, however, will compost their organic waste.

Other issues, from the scheduling of community suppers (once a week, on alternating Wednesdays and Thursdays) to the imposition of work requirements (six hours a month for each adult), are subject to sometimes contentious, but always respectful, debate. For example, can money be traded for one's community work share? asks Murphy. That is, can a resident pay someone to do a particular assigned chore? Tempers seem to flare until someone suggests tabling the issue for a later date—not to silence the argument, but to allow all parties to fully think through their points of view. Also tabled is a discussion of the Common House, to be built later this year. Everyone seems relieved, ready to move on. The meeting is adjourned.

"The only common values you need to live in cohousing are a sense of humor and the ability to enjoy good food," quips Ruth Hirsch. Add financial security and the ability to pay both a monthly mortgage and condo—style maintenance fee, and the formula seems almost right. Indeed, changing demographics are expected to make cohousing an increasingly appealing option for American home buyers. According to the Trends Research Institute, the number of professional one—person households and single—parent families will continue to rise in the 21st century. For those desiring a combination of privacy and community, cohousing may fit the bill.

Will problems arise as cohousing moves past its developmental phase? Of course. But residents are optimistic that the compromise, hard work, and patience that govern their communities will, in the long run, pay off. "Look, we've got to move past the way we currently live, where it's me and my TV, me and my car, me and my possessions," says Michael Samboro, a Brooklyn resident interested in setting up an urban cohousing community. "We're all languishing under the weight of individual consumption. And we're lonely, many of us. I want to live in a place where I know people will watch my back, watch my kids' backs, and who trust that I'll do the same for them."

For more information on cohousing, contact The Cohousing Network, P.O. Box 2584, Berkeley, CA 94702. Their quarterly Cohousing Journal costs $25 a year. Sample copies are $5. Residents of Cantine's Island may be reached by calling 914—255—8601 or writing Susan Murphy, 29B East Bridge St., Saugerties, NY 12477.
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