N Street Cohousing: Walls Come Down, Friendships Grow

Thirty years ago, neighbors in Davis, California, tore down fences between their houses to create a cohousing community that is a model for how effective — and fun — sustainability can be.

N Street Cohousing

Removing fences between several rundown suburban houses in Davis, California, made way for the now-thriving N Street Cohousing community.

Photo by Josh Zeldner

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Kevin Wolf has practical advice for anyone hoping to start a Homestead Hamlet: “Tear down the fence between two houses, start using that space together, and you’re on your way.”

He would know. Thirty years ago, Wolf and his fiancée, Linda Cloud, bought neighboring houses in a Davis, California, subdivision and did just that. The subsequent retrofit of these rundown houses created the now-thriving N Street Cohousing community.

“We used to say, ‘Wouldn’t it be great if we could have six houses connected with each other?’” he says. “Now we look back at that and laugh.” Adding one house at a time, the community has expanded to include 21 houses with common, connected yards, and three more homes across the street. Though the number of residents ebbs and flows, Wolf says the current population ranges from 2 to 65 years old, with 55 adults and several children.

The advantage of using existing houses in an established neighborhood is that there’s no need to try to convince a bank or city zoning department of the project’s worth, and no need to try to locate the just-right piece of land, or hassle with architects and each other over the community’s design. If someone decides to sell and move on, it’s just an individually owned home going on the market.

In 1999, the Davis City Council recognized N Street as a planned development, which allowed second units on existing lots and a covenant that bans backyard fences. The core of the block is now open and green with fruit trees, a chicken coop and space for various forms of hanging out.

 “We don’t have bylaws, but we do have rules and guiding principles,” Wolf says (see the community’s website for details). “And one of the key ones is, ‘It’s your house, and it’s your yard.’ We can’t force people to paint their house a particular color or keep their house to a certain standard of niceness. We don’t try to force our neighbors to do things they might not want to do.”

In addition to its balance between privacy and conviviality, one of the strengths of N Street is that about a third of the residents are renters, and several of the absentee landlords are former community residents. This adds to the richness, Wolf says, because residency isn’t limited to a particular economic demographic.

“The thing I love about living at N Street,” says Emma Torbert, a resident for six years, “is how easy it is to connect with people. I have two jobs and am busy all the time, but I still don’t feel isolated. One of my favorite parts is our common meals, where there’s always a lot of visiting and chatter. And there’s this sense that if you want something to happen, you just suggest it and get it going.”

Some of the things that “just happen” include playing at game and craft nights, building an outdoor pizza oven, making music together, and enjoying barbecue in the shared backyard. N Street Music, a regular house concert series in the Common House, showcases local entertainers and traveling musicians.

“If you look at the problems in the world, trying to tackle even one seems daunting,” Torbert says. “But it takes way less effort if you work with your neighbors. You can build momentum for change very quickly.”

Want to learn more about our 2015 Homestead Hamlets? Read Joining Forces for More Sustainable Communities to learn more.

K.C. Compton is senior editor at MOTHER EARTH NEWS magazine, and formerly was Editor in Chief of our sister publications, The Herb Companion and GRIT. A huge fan of the food chain, from molecules to meals on the table, K.C. is passionate about the idea that most of what we need to be healthy can be found in the garden.