As a Portland realtor specializing in senior downsizing, I get lots of questions about cohousing, particularly as it relates to the senior living community. To really understand cohousing, it is important to understand both what it is, and what it is NOT.
The concept of cohousing was first pioneered in Copenhagen in the 1970’s by a Danish architect and psychologist, who was inspired by Bodil Graae’s 1967 article, “Every child should have 100 parents.” Many other co-housing communities immediately sprung up in Scandinavia and Europe as a result. What a great idea – access to a privately owned home as well as shared community space and resources! The concept has since come to the United States and developed into further iterations, including communes and coops. It presents a great way to downsize while still remaining autonomy and a sense of community.
What is Cohousing?
According to the firm McCamant & Durrett Architects, who have established over 50 cohousing communities in the United States, “there are distinctive qualities that cohousing communities hold which ensure a high-functioning community”. These are:
1. They are co-developed, organized and designed together as a group. There must be a “genuine and authentic participating process.”
2. They have extensive common facilities that supplement and facilitate each member’s daily life. These common facilities are considered to be “an extension of each household’s own private house.”
3. They are designed to encourage community interactions, with handicap accessible walkways connecting the homes and no motor vehicles beyond a main parking lot.
4. They are totally managed by the residents alone
5. There is no hierarchy in the decision making process
6. There is no shared economy
While not for everyone, the concept of co-housing provides solutions to a number of common challenges, notably for senior citizens and parents of small children. It prevents social isolation and facilitates a sense of community support. Seniors are able to mix with different ages and attain a feeling of being part of the community, and simultaneously are able to give back to their neighbors and achieve a sense of achievement and well-being, often in the form of helping families with younger children. It also allows seniors to effectively downsize without entering a retirement community.
What is it NOT?
Co-housing differs from communes in that each family has their own private space, which they purchase individually and can sell on the open market. There is usually an shared fund, similar to an HOA, which members pay into to maintain common areas and outdoor space.
A commune is much more egalitarian in nature, and defined as a group of people living together and sharing possessions and responsibilities. In order to qualify for recognition by the Federation of Egalitarian Communities (FEC), a commune must “hold land, labor, and income in common, advocate nonviolence and ecological sustainability, and practice some form of direct decision making.” The Atlantic has an interesting piece on this topic of egalitarian living, which is worth a read. Essentially, communes have a lot more grey area and involves much more cross-over when it comes to sharing just about everything.
A cohousing community is also vastly different from a Co-op, which is essentially a multi-unit apartment building where residents have a vested financial interest in the entire building. Co-op owners are actually shareholders, and have a “proprietary” lease on the unit rather than owning it. Management and financial decisions are made by co-op unit members, either by voting or via an elected board of directors. Prospective purchasers must be approved by a membership committee made up of current co-op owners. Though many co-ops do offer a community vibe, it’s main goal is not focused on creating common and shared community values and space.
There is no doubt that cohousing presents a pretty fabulous option for those looking to downsize, live a simpler and more community oriented lifestyle. Simplifying life by using one shared lawnmower rather than storing and maintaining your very own sounds like heaven to many people – and to others, perhaps not so much.
To learn more about cohousing in your area, check out the Cohousing Association of the United States.