Cohousing Options Growing Around the Country

It was back in the late 1970s when Jim Ludden and his wife visited the Twin Oaks cohousing “intentional community” in Virginia. The eco-village struck an emotional chord with them and for the next few decades, they searched, off and on, for a similar place to live.

“We liked the way of life,” said Ludden, a retired 79-year-old software engineer of the eco-village. “We were cruising up and down the Rockies about half-adozen years ago when we found the Valverde Commons just outside Taos, N.M.”

In 2013, Ludden and his wife bought a lot in Valverde, which was started in 2006 and designed for seniors ages 55 and older. Individual homes (now totaling 21) circle a common, grassy area with paths providing access and opportunity for socialization.

Activities, potlucks and meetings take place in the 2,200-square-foot Common House. A barn contains shared landscaping tools, a complete woodworking shop and space for individual projects. The community has monthly meetings and decisions are made by a majority rule vote.

Sadly, Ludden’s spouse died in 2014, but he pushed on and moved into the 1,200-square-foot home he helped design and build six months later.

“I’m a little on the shy side, so it’s been a good fit for me,” he mused. “To be comfortable here, you need to give up some individuality and be willing to compromise, but you gain community. And that’s made it very worthwhile for me. I plan to stay here as long as I can.

“In fact if I have my way, they’re going to have to carry me out feet first,” he added with a chuckle.

Ludden is part of the still small, but rapidly growing cohousing movement, which was started by Danish architect Jan Gudmand-Hoyer, who died in 2017 at age 81. His goal, which he first outlined in the 1960s, was to create neighborhoods where residents would want to work and live together, rather than be isolated and disconnected.

In a nutshell, cohousing cultivates a culture of sharing, in which neighbors commit to being part of a community for everyone’s benefit. Neighborhoods typically comprise 20 to 40 privately owned homes, though some urban projects are set up similar to condominium projects and others mix the two.

By 2018, there were more than 166 cohousing communities in the United States, with 17 under construction and another 144 currently in the planning stage, said Alice Alexander, who served as executive director of the nonprofit organization Coho/US from 2014 to 2017.

Newer ones are popping up in downtowns, while others are rural or are in what might be considered suburban areas of cities. But they all generally share landscaping, gardening and other duties that are not contracted out. They also have frequent potluck meals and form committees that decide everything from maintenance tasks to holiday celebrations. Some include affordable housing options.

And while Valverde is only for residents who are 55 and older, many are multi-generational with members who range in age from newborns to great grandparents in their 80s. They all offer a strong sense of community, aging-inplace opportunities and generally denser housing stock with open space for gardens or orchards held in common.

Alexander, who helped create the Central Park Cohousing Community in Durham, N.C., said she was inundated in her last year as head of Coho/US with people interested in the intentional community, cohousing concept.

“If the 144 communities that are forming are eventually built, that would nearly double the number we have now,” she said. “Primarily the interest in the new project is coming from baby boomers who have the resources, the time and the inclination — because setting one of these up can be a somewhat complicated process.”

Alexander, who is 60, said boomers are the main movers, in large part, “because we’ve seen how difficult it can be with our own aging parents.

“And we are not going to go gently into the good night,” she added, slightly paraphrasing Welsh poet Dylan Thomas.

And rather than “rage, rage against the dying of the light,” as Thomas put it, she said boomers are demanding a better way to live. “We want community and not suburban anonymity. It’s a better alignment.”

“A lot of us have the smarts and the resources to do this. And most of us want the communities they’re creating to be intergenerational. So a lot of these forming communities are actively attracting families — which can mean a lot of kids.”

Alexander said her advice to older folks is not to wait if they are interested in cohousing.

“You only have so many years left, so you should invest in a community where you could be spending the rest of your years. We are social creatures, yet one of our strongest values is privacy. The beauty of cohousing is that you can have both.”

Carlos Wysling, a native of Brazil, moved with his wife, Gwenn, into the Higher Ground Cohousing Community in Bend, Ore., 11 years ago after they’d been introduced to the concept in the San Francisco Bay Area.

“Simply put, it seemed like the right way to go for my wife and me,” he said. “We looked from Mexico to the Canadian border and this was an amazing find for us. We visited here and had dinner with residents who were friendly and engaging. There was a house for sale that my wife liked and it clicked.”

Higher Ground is a neighborhood of 40 privately owned homes on 7.5 acres in part of what was once the Wells family farm on the east side of Bend about 3.5 miles from downtown. The houses share many common spaces, a large organic garden, an orchard, a community-owned house — which was the original farmhouse — meadows and lava flows. Two rooms in the farmhouse are for rent, as is one of the homes.

There is also a hot tub and sauna that residents share, as well as a wide variety of organized activities such as laughter yoga, dance parties, book study groups, movie and singer/songwriter nights, art projects, lectures, community- building workshops, music and storytelling evenings, cooking and baking.

“When we realized a few years back that the original residents’ children had grown and moved away, we began Baby boomers are interested in the intentional community, cohousing concept. to recruit younger people,” he said. “We now have eight families with children and another baby due soon. We also have three residents turning 80 and one who is 85.”

Wysling said each household pays $96 a month, much like homeowners’ association or condominium dues, to pay for upkeep and community projects. In addition, members are expected to donate four to six hours a month of their labor and serve on committees.

“We have a community meal every Wednesday night that brings people together and some breakfasts, too,” he said. “Members look out for one another; watch each other’s pets and things like that. We have a board of directors that acts like a homeowners association, but we like to have consensus. And when there are conflicts, we try to resolve them with mediation.”

Madison, Wis., is home to three cohousing communities, including one that is now being formed. Brendon Panke is a stay-at-home dad with a 5-year-old son, named Calum, who has lived in the Arboretum Cohousing Sustainable Living Community (Arbco) for nearly seven years. Out of a total population in the 90s, there are more than two dozen other children at Arbco, as residents call it, including several babies.

“My wife and I were in a renting situation that wasn’t working well when a friend from grad school told us about Arbco,” he said. “We wanted to have our own place, but live in a community where like-minded people were interested in cooperating with each other. We were fortunate to find that here with a lot of nice people. I’m more than happy to volunteer, and I now serve on the board of directors.”

There are a lot of helpful baby boomers at Arbco, said Panke, who was baking whole-wheat muffins and making pasta in the communal kitchen when I interviewed him recently.

“So it really is like having a big, extended family around in a lot of ways, with lots of grandparents who have been willing to babysit,” said Panke, who is also co-coordinator for the Madison Storytellers group. “I think it’s easier being a parent here.”

Arbco was started in 2003 by a small group of people affiliated with the Madison Meeting of the Society of Friends (Quakers). They found a site next to St. Mary’s Hospital that is less than a mile from the University of Wisconsin campus and downtown Madison.

With help from Madison’s flagship cohousing community, Village Cohousing, they broke ground in 2007 and residents moved into the first condominium-like buildings the next year.

Arbco currently has six affordable units, made available in part because residents decided to inflate the units’ prices in order to make some of the condos less expensive for lower income residents. It’s a diverse community, demographically, economically, and racially and includes some members with disabilities.

Four units were sold at discounted prices to buyers whose income was under 70 percent of the area median income. They must be resold as affordable units to new members of Arbco. In addition, two units were constructed by Habitat for Humanity and were sold to buyers with incomes under 60 percent of area median income.

John Merrill, a former UW–Madison Extension housing specialist and one of Arbco’s founders, said the community has a total of 40 units, including six free-standing houses, a triplex and a duplex that was built by Habitat. There’s also a piano room, play areas for children, a community garden, a chicken coop, a woodworking shop, canoes that can be borrowed for a paddle on nearby Lake Wingra and a tree with a tire swing in the backyard for children and playful adults.

“My wife and I were empty nesters living in a singlefamily home,” explained the 76-year-old Merrill, who said cohousing communities are self-selecting and tend to attract moderate to liberal members. “We were in our 60s, wanted to be part of an intentional community and we didn’t want to move into traditional senior housing. So an age-integrated cohousing community with kids was just right.”

Arbco residents, many of whom dine together on Thursday and Sunday nights, agree when they move in to do at least four hours of community service a month, though many — such as Panke — tend to do a lot more.

Janet Murphy, a retired nurse who lives at Arbco, said she believes cohousing is growing in popularity in the United States and abroad because the model of living in single homes with big yards where people have little contact with their neighbors is broken.

“It leads to alienation and is not what the human condition needs,” she said. “People seek community in a variety of ways and this is one of them.”

To govern itself, she said Arbco uses a consensus model to make decisions. “We try not to use words like vote or majority,” she explained. “If we want to decide something about the kitchen, for example, we try to exchange enough information while keeping an open mind. We do ultimately have a backup vote, though.

“And while it sounds crazy, we’ve only had to use it twice,” added Murphy, who said she moved into Arbco seeking ‘casual social interaction’ after she divorced, her kids grew up and she tired of living in a big and lonely old Victorian house.

“The consensus process is slower, but the end result is people are more content with decisions and feel more like they are part of a community.”

Janet Kelly, an Arbco resident and a lawyer, said people who want 100 percent control over their property and lives are probably not a good fit for cohousing.

“You need to be relaxed about some things to be part of an intentional community like this,” she said. “You have to be able to compromise and work on those skills … But for most of us who live here now, it’s working out quite well.”

Brian E. Clark is a Wisconsin-based journalist and a former staff writer on the business desk of The San Diego Union-Tribune. He is a contributor to the Los Angeles Times, Chicago Sun-Times, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Dallas Morning News and other publications.
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