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Is ‘co-living’ a housing solution for modern times?

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Cohousing, an intergenerational type of community living originating in Denmark, is on the rise in the US.

At times it can seem that our modern lives are more individualized than ever. Dinner tables often feature a different meal for each person, prepared according to food sensitivities. Homeschooling centers promise ways to calibrate education precisely to every child’s needs. Ride services like Uber and Lyft allow passengers to plan a micro-trip for one at a moment’s notice. In lots of modern scenarios, there’s little to stop you from forging a unique path, and going it alone. And that can be a very freeing, wonderful thing.

But when it comes to living situations, being an island may not be all that good for the soul. Studies have shown that modern living, especially in affluent communities, allows for very little interdependence. By not having to rely on friends or neighbors for things like childcare or emotional support, those in wealthy suburban communities can miss out on feelings of deep social connection.

One counterpoint to this is community living (and I’m not talking about a golf resort or your grandfather’s retirement complex— although both can provide forms of community). Perhaps the most intriguing subset of this idea is something called cohousing — a concept imported from Denmark more than 25 years ago. Cohousing communities are intentional neighborhoods, commonly in the suburbs, planned from the ground up by those who will live there. They’ve been enjoying a small resurgence lately, even pushing into urban areas like Seattle and Oakland, California.

What is cohousing? 

In cohousing, income is not shared, and every family has a private home or condominium. But houses are close together on a much smaller parcel of land than a typical suburban community, which appeals to those seeking a smaller carbon footprint. Large amenities like chef’s kitchens and outdoor spaces are shared and most homes have only a small kitchen and small backyards or decks. Cars are typically relegated to the perimeter of the community, which encourages walking and getting to know your neighbors, and allows children to play freely. Community members often eat dinner together a few times a week, and food is either cooked by different families on a rotating basis or potluck style.

Cohousing shouldn’t be confused with self-sustaining eco-villages, where residents pool some income, or with buildings designed for coliving in cities like New York, where ambitious young office workers have embraced stylish, furnished apartments with built-in housekeeping and communal rec rooms where they need never to binge-watch Netflix alone.

According to a report from the CoHousing Association of the United States, there are now about 160 cohousing communities, with more than 130 in process. The association said that baby boomers seeking to downsize and live a more community oriented, environmentally-friendly life are driving recent interest. Cohousing is also gaining traction among millennials as they search for neighborhoods more conducive to raising children while holding two jobs outside the home, the report said. Current residents of cohousing tend to be well-educated, middle- to upper-income, female, white and come from more eclectic religious backgrounds than the general population, including more atheists and agnostics, according to a survey from the Cohousing Research Network.

Another group that cohousing appeals to are the widowed. Robert Boyer, an assistant professor of geography and earth sciences at UNC-Charlotte who studies cohousing, said that results from a nationwide survey administered by YouGov last fall showed a high interest in cohousing among widowed respondents.

Seniors-only cohousing communities are becoming more popular, though the traditional cohousing model is intergenerational, and residents say they love having surrogate grandchildren or grandparents right next door. Older residents like being able to have built-in social supports as they age.

Helping relationships bloom

Jean Weiss, who lives in the Pleasant Hill community outside San Francisco, where she is raising her 8-year-old son, said she loves the fact that he has surrogate “aunts and uncles and grandparents” so close by. She says there was a need for her to have this type of community as a single parent. “Many people,” she said, “wanted that cross-generational fertilization of joy and light. And I see it as both a very viable and vibrant social experiment. There is a really high meaning quotient in what we’re doing.” She said one of her son’s best friends happens to be 70 years older than he is but is just as obsessed with trains. The older woman took her son to an open house when Bay Area Rapid Transit unveiled 20 new train cars, and they oohed and aahed together. “There is a high level of trust here,” Weiss said.

Barbara Lynch, who is 73, helped found the Pleasant Hill community with her late husband, Ted. When her husband was ill and dying five years ago, she said, word went out that “if you wanted to say goodbye you needed to come now.” All the parents that came brought their children, “which just blew me away,” she said.

“Children drew pictures and we hung them up. It was an absolutely gorgeous day when he died in July. I looked over and saw a teenage boy in a gathering space. He sat here and sat there. He finally came over — he had come to say good bye to Ted.” She was extremely touched.

Kathryn McCamant, president of CoHousing Solutions and one of the couples that brought cohousing to North America, said these communities allow for a wide variety of relationships to bloom. “Some are your walking partners, any number of people would be glad to pick up something for you at the store or provide a ride to the doctor, and a couple might very well be willing to be the person on call if you fall out of bed,” she said when asked about how this type of living can help support aging in place. “You end up offering to help your neighbors in ways you never would have imagined when you moved in.”

Living like they did in the old days

These intentional communities have precedent, Professor Boyer of UNC-Charlotte said, and in fact, it’s isolated single-family homes that are newer from a long-term historical perspective. He cited the work of Dolores Hayden, a professor of architecture and American studies at Yale who has written about the intersection of intentional housing and feminism. In her book The Grand Domestic Revolution, she wrote about so-called “material feminists” like Melusina Fay Peirce, who envisioned physical spaces to create housewives’ cooperatives, kitchenless houses, daycare centers, public kitchens, and community dining halls. They insisted that women be paid for domestic labor and promoted the reorganization of housing around the needs of employed women.

While I can choose to mourn that this feminist vision never fully came to pass as I tackle yet another heap of laundry, I can also look around my own typical suburban neighborhood and see the blessings of fellowship: kids playing in the street, the older ones keeping watch over the little ones; the young mom who organized a meal train for another mom undergoing breast cancer treatment; my friends and walking partners who impart wisdom to help me support my 84-year-old Dad. It could be right there in your community too.

While out for a stroll the other day, I saw that someone’s trash can had been upended by the wind. I set it right. For today, maybe community simply starts with a gesture.

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