For people looking for ways to share resources and build community, cohousing is becoming an increasingly available option. There are now 118 operating cohousing communities in the United States, with almost an equal number in the planning stages. Imported from Denmark, where it began in the ’60s, cohousing is a type of intentional community consisting of private homes with some common facilities. Residents actively participate in designing and organizing their neighborhoods.
“It’s a very attractive way to live,” says Craig Ragland, former executive director of the Cohousing Association of the United States. “Your own power and your own ability to make things happen get amplified by having other people around that care about you and who want to help you succeed.”
Although all cohousing communities — rural, suburban or urban — differ, most have a common house, laundry facility and garden, and community members share some meals and enjoy regular social events. Residents are required or encouraged to contribute to the community by joining committees and offering whatever skills they can. They also typically make decisions by consensus. The result is that neighbors are actively involved in each other’s lives to a degree that’s not often found in modern U.S. neighborhoods.
Of course, life in a cohousing setup isn’t Utopian. Common issues include differing expectations for work participation and unclear boundaries or rules. “Like all communities or any big organization, we have some people who do a lot of the work, and we have some people who do some of the work, and there always are some folks who don’t do any of the work,” says Anne Olson of East Lake Commons in Decatur, Ga., one of the largest cohousing communities in the country, with about 170 residents.
Home prices are typically consistent with market values, but residents in cohousing communities enjoy a decreased cost of living for a multitude of reasons. Eris Weaver, a resident of FrogSong in Cotati, Calif., a cohousing development about an hour north of San Francisco, says she saves money through cheaper utilities because her home has good insulation and shared walls. She drives less, spends less on entertainment, and shares purchases of food, equipment and children’s clothes.
These progressive neighborhoods can take shape in several ways. Sometimes potential neighbors hire a developer to build a new community. Alternatively, current neighbors might decide to retrofit their neighborhood — essentially creating a more sustainable community where they already live. Apartment dwellers, for instance, may decide to dine together or start a garden, or neighbors in a suburban enclave might tear down the fences between their homes to create a shared space. While many established cohousing communities are multigenerational, senior cohousing communities are also growing in popularity.
For those interested in establishing a cohousing development, there’s no need to start from scratch, Ragland says. He suggests reading books on cohousing and perusing the Cohousing Association's website. The organization offers open houses, holds national conferences, and maintains an online directory of cohousing communities across the United States.