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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 ā€” and fun ā€” sustainability can be.

| October/November 2015

  • 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
  • Cargo Bike Hayride
    A cargo bike hayride is part of the fun at the N Street Cohousing community in Davis, California.
    Photo by Josh Zeldner
  • Removing Fences
    Removing fences between several rundown suburban houses in Davis, California, made way for the now-thriving N Street Cohousing community.
    Photo by Barbara West

  • N Street Cohousing
  • Cargo Bike Hayride
  • Removing Fences

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.”

9/1/2015 10:55:58 PM

I want to thank K.C. for the well written article. The only correction I have is that our community is about 2/3rds renters and not 1/3rd. I also want to point out that the blue thing in the mouth of the mast is an easter egg. Cohousing communities are great places for massive easter egg hunts.

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