TOPICS > Economy

How We Live: Co-Housing

December 23, 2002 at 12:00 AM EDT
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RAY SUAREZ: This could be a weekend neighborhood get- together almost anywhere, neighbors and their kids sharing a casual potluck, but this is Monday after work, after school. Volunteers made soups, salad, and apple crisp for a community meal enjoyed up to three times a week.

MAN: Do you want a lot of noodles?

RAY SUAREZ: These 19 families who make up Blueberry Hill Cohousing, an enclave in Northern Virginia, have rolled the dice, embracing an experiment in living together. This is not a commune. As in 75 other cohousing communities in the United States, the residents of Blueberry Hill own their own homes and the land those homes sit on, but designed the place out of a commitment to creating something like an extended family. They share and celebrate many aspects of their daily lives.

MAN: Is she awake inside yet?

MAN: Yeah.

MAN: Can I peek in?

MAN: Hey, Paul!

MAN: Can I see the baby?

VOICE: Yeah! Come on in!

RAY SUAREZ: They aren’t brought together by a religious, ethnic, or political affiliation. What binds them is a desire to live, long-term, as close, interdependent neighbors. Architect Jack Wilbern designed most of Blueberry Hill and in the process decided to live there.

JACK WILBERN, Blueberry Hill Cohousing: There’s a lot of things in people’s lives that compete for this, but if all 19 households pull together, at least some basic level, it goes pretty easy.

RAY SUAREZ: Including after- school child care…

SPOKESPERSON: Okay? Which ones do you want?

RAY SUAREZ: Supervising homework, sharing items such as washing machines, and cooking for 20 to 40 people.

SPOKESPERSON: I just got home, and we’ve got to do lunch, and I might be a few minutes late.

RAY SUAREZ: Betsy Erikson is a lawyer for the IRS. Her husband Kenyon manages information technology at the red cross. They say that when they moved to Blueberry Hill with their three children, they found a real alternative to the isolation of their previous suburban neighborhood.

KENYON ERIKSON, Blueberry Hill Cohousing: Being in a safe zone and being able to go… send the kids to any other house– you know that they’re safe in this, this little zone. Sense of community I think is the thing that goes… that gets it for me, the sense that I can count on my neighbors for almost anything.

RAY SUAREZ: But getting to that point has not been easy. Finding a group of like-minded people willing to take a risk took hundreds of meetings. Two sisters, Anna Bradford and Hana Newcomb, helped keep the cohousing project on track during the seven long years of design, development, and construction.

ANNA BRADFORD, Blueberry Hill Cohousing: We had a very long engagement, and during that engagement we were offered lots and lots of opportunities to determine how we are going to deal with conflict, and how we are going to deal with making decisions, and how well we’re going to make dreams come true that are close enough to all of our dreams together.

RAY SUAREZ: By 2000, the 19 families began moving into a cluster of homes on a steep hill at the back of an organic vegetable farm, Anna and Hana’s family farm. They got bitten by the cohousing bug in the early 1990s when they were looking for a way to avoid turning the family farm into another suburban subdivision.

ANNA BRADFORD: A friend of ours found a book about cohousing which we were handed, and my husband looked at it and thought it was wonderful, and he handed it to me and said, “I think we should do this.”

RAY SUAREZ: The book, “Cohousing: A Contemporary Approach to Housing Ourselves,” was written by architects Kathryn McCamant and Charles Durrett. It’s the handbook, the cohouser’s bible. The husband-and-wife team introduced the concept to the United States in 1988 after a yearlong study of Danish cohousing.

CHARLIE DURRETT, The Cohousing Company: Katie and I grew up in neighborhoods where there was a great deal of connection between the neighborhoods, and when it came time for us to raise a family, couldn’t find those neighborhoods very readily at all, and so we kept hearkening back to this cohousing concept that started in Europe, where neighbors just decided that they were going to create the kind of neighborhood, consciously, that used to happen much more naturally.

RAY SUAREZ: Out of their initial search for a close-knit neighborhood, McCamant and Durrett have created a business and a movement. The result has been a mixture of urban and rural cohousing communities intentionally designed to help neighbors get to know each other better. Bob Finn and Barbara Lynch live at Durrett designed cohousing in pleasant hill, near Oakland.

BARBARA LYNCH: In my old house, the garage jutted out in front. We had a garage door opener, and just zipped into our garage, closed it, and went in the house, and never saw our neighbors when we came and went.

RAY SUAREZ: In most cohousing communities, attached garages are a no-no. Parking areas are built on the periphery so people have to walk past their neighbors to get home.

BOB FINN, Pleasant Hill Cohousing: The design of this community bring people together, whereas the design of a lot of other communities separates people.

RAY SUAREZ: And taking driveways and roads out of the home design makes the space around the houses safer for people on foot and easier to share.

SPOKESMAN: The key to cohousing is, whenever you walk onto the site, people feel like you have as much privacy as they want or as much community as they want, and… which ends up turning the houses, the whole house-design process upside down.

RAY SUAREZ: Living rooms are generally in the back of the house, where there’s more privacy, kitchens in the front so people can look out and see neighbors and watch children. Instead of the ever-larger houses being built in many subdivisions, cohousing homes tend to be smaller and closer together. When a larger space is called for, residents use the common house. Usually placed in the middle or at the entrance to the complex, it serves as a communications hub and has a community kitchen and dining room. The resident-owners may also add a common laundry room, workshop, guest room, or play area, depending on their budget.

KATHRYN McCAMANT: We don’t have, you know, big entertainment areas in our own houses, but you go to the common house, you have… to me, that’s sort of the big, the big house, but it feels as if it is an extension of my living room.

RAY SUAREZ: For the maintenance of the shared spaces, residents are charged monthly or annual fees. At Blueberry Hill, Hana and Anna say it has taken them months to learn how to use their common house.

ANNA BRADFORD: Oh, my goodness! For the first two, three months, we were…

WOMAN: Tiptoeing around?

ANNA BRADFORD: Tiptoeing around, having heart palpitations about who’s allowed to use it when, and is it being used enough, and then we worried that it’s empty too much, and now it’s…

SPOKESPERSON: It’s a party house.

ANNA BRADFORD: It’s a party house.

RAY SUAREZ: Their kids seem to agree. They’ve found all sorts of possibilities for the common house, sometimes to their parents’ consternation. The big attraction for many families is that cohousing provides a great place to raise kids.

BETSY ERIKSON, Blueberry Hill Cohousing: There’s a lot of opportunity just for informal games and playing. It seems raising kids is way too hard to try to do it all by yourself, and I see a lot of families do that, where they’re sort of insular. They, the parents and the kids, are home, or the kids are their… the parents are driving their kids constantly to activities, they’re very programmed. Our kids have the luxury here of not being very programmed.

SPOKESPERSON: One, two, three…

RAY SUAREZ: In many new neighborhoods, intergenerational friendship happens by accident; cohousers design it right in.

KENYON ERIKSON: Lydia at five loves to go visit two of the older women. She loves it, and they love her, and we don’t feel any sense of that danger sometimes that you find in other, other neighborhoods– you know, “oh, no, you don’t want to have them going to a strange home.”

RAY SUAREZ: Residents are effusive about the joys of co- housing. Does it all sound too good to be true? Some cohousers complain about the obligations to the group, such as cooking a common meal every six to seven weeks or required work days doing maintenance. Durrett, who lives in a co- housing community in Emeryville, California, replies that sharing the work actually takes less time per month than doing all your own work for yourself, by yourself.

SPOKESPERSON: And you’re going to clean this one again for me, right?

RAY SUAREZ: But there are a lot of committees, and cohousers from Virginia to California complain about the same thing:

SPOKESPERSON: Meetings and making decisions as a group.

SPOKESMAN: The difficulty of living in a community and the amount of extra effort that it really takes.

SPOKESPERSON: Some people leave cohousing because they just can’t stand all the meetings.

RAY SUAREZ: Cohousers use a consensus-driven decision-making process where at the end everybody has to agree, a process cohousers hold sacred.

BOB FINN: It can be difficult to make decisions when a single person objecting throws the whole decision out. I mean, it can be 46-1, and that one person can prevent the decision from going forward. But we always manage to do it. We haven’t hit a complete impasse ever. It just takes a lot of discussion.

RAY SUAREZ: That’s exactly what happened as the cohousers at Blueberry Hill were passing their annual budget. They got stuck on the size of each household’s monthly fee.

SPOKESPERSON: So the short answer is, you can’t live with it, the $100 per month.

SPOKESPERSON: The question is, can you live with it?

SPOKESPERSON: Can you live with it?

SPOKESPERSON: Yes or no.

SPOKESPERSON: $100 a month.

SPOKESPERSON: I’m still concerned that maybe…

SPOKESPERSON: Is that no?

SPOKESPERSON: …We could take a few more minutes to think about should we live with $100?

SPOKESPERSON: I’m hearing that you’re one of those “I can’t live with a $100,” okay.

SPOKESPERSON: There’s never been anything that we’ve locked out permanently. We, as a group, we’ve always been able to come back and readjust and make those changes as necessary down the road. At least we walk away from here with a budget.

RAY SUAREZ: While many people might find it tedious to arrive at decisions this way, Betsy Erikson says it’s been important to her own growth.

BETSY ERIKSON: One of the unexpected things is how much I’ve learned about interacting with other people, and how to work cooperatively to get something done. I’m kind of impatient, and you get into these meetings, you know, there are a lot of meetings, and they sometimes drag on, and there are certain people who always talk slowly and say the same things, and they’ll, they’ll drive you crazy, but you, if you stick with it and let them listen, everyone has some value to add. Even the people who drive you crazy have a lot to contribute and are part of what makes this community so special.

CHILD: Thank you, lord, for all Christmas Eves.

RAY SUAREZ: Cohousing may never be the choice of large numbers of American households, but its innovations may encourage new community and housing choices in a country that’s graying and raising its largest group of children ever all at the same time.

SINGING: …All I need, the sun the rain, and the apple tree, the Lord’s been good to me!