Solution 5: Cohousing

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There are hundreds of cohousing communities in the United States and Canada. Cohousing is often thought of as "cooperative neighborhood," and it typically contains 15 to 30 households, give or take. In cohousing, each household usually owns a complete dwelling unit and shares ownership of extensive common facilities, such as a large commercial-scale kitchen for shared meals, dining and living areas, a guest house, storage for shared household goods, and specialized rooms such as a workshop, music room, hobby room, or kids' play room. Cohousing is typically designed to feel like a neighborhood, focused around common areas and community-oriented outdoor spaces. Residents usually take part in many shared activities, including mealsharing, gardening, game nights, and more.

Characteristics of Cohousing

"Cohousing" is a word brought to the United States in the early 1980s by architects Kathryn McCamant and Charles Durrett, and was inspired by shared housing communities in Denmark. According to McCamant and Durrett, cohousing has these characteristics:

  • Residents participate in community design. Most cohousing communities are planned, designed, and built by the residents.
  • Intentional neighborhood design. Although each household has its own space, cohousing intentionally creates community through a centralized design, which often puts parking at the periphery of the properties, and incorporates inviting landscapes and pedestrian pathways.
  • Extensive common facilities. Residents often share extensive outdoor areas, and a common house that usually has a large kitchen, dining area, and community living space.
  • Complete resident management. While many condo and apartment complexes are managed by outside companies, cohousing groups manage their own community, typically by forming committees to oversee things like maintenance and repair, landscaping, new resident recruitment, group activities, meals, and environmentally sustainable practices.

Others would add two more defining characteristics to the list:

  • Non-hierarchical structure. Typically residents make decisions as a group, by consensus (for more on consensus, see Chapter 4). According to cohousing architect and pioneer Charles Durrett, "the single most important attribute in the creation of a cohousing community is a coherent, fair, thoughtful group process."
  • No shared economy. Cohousing residents have their own jobs and earnings; they don't share income.

Any existing retirement community can adopt many of the sharing mindsets and practices of cohousing communities, and even retrofit buildings to create more shared space. For a wonderful book on forming senior cohousing communities, read Senior Cohousing: A Community Approach to Independent Living, by Charles Durrett (Ten Speed Press).

Forming a Cohousing Community

It can take years to form a cohousing community, especially if you are building from the ground up. It's far beyond the scope of this book to describe the process and varieties of cohousing; see Appendix A for resources on creating and joining cohousing communities. Typically, groups follow these basic steps in some form:

  • Gather a group of people interested in forming a cohousing community.
  • Begin initial planning by meeting, getting to know each other, and discussing hopes, desires, needs, and concerns.
  • Form a legal entity, such as an LLC, so your group can sign contracts. (This also ensures member commitment and investment during the planning and building stages.)
  • Search for a location; typically, a large, undeveloped piece of land, zoned to allow high-density housing with some open space.
  • Consider partnering with a developer that specializes in cohousing, such as Cohousing Partners or Wonderland Hill Development Company. The developer will consult at every stage of the process, and make the development affordable by sharing the investment and risk with your cohousing group.
  • Get financing to buy the land and build; this may come from many sources, including future residents, the developer, loans, and grants.
  • Purchase land.
  • Develop a community design with an architect and contractor.
  • Obtain all zoning and building approvals and start building.
  • Consult with experts, such as a lawyer, who will help you choose and form an ownership structure (typically, condominiums).
  • Recruit additional residents, if necessary.
  • Upon completion, each household obtains an individual mortgage and purchases a unit.
  • Move in and thrive!
Solution #5: Cohousing
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