Cohousing catches on

December 15, 2008 12:00:00 AM PST
Many people here in the Bay Area looking for cozier communities and closer neighbors are fueling a boom in what's known as cohousing. The idea's been around since the early 1990's, but has taken a while to catch on. However, now a string of successful developments has paved the way for a new style of living.

It's dinner time at the Swan's Market Cohousing Community where three times a week residents sit down together to enjoy a meal. This time it's Jane and George Collier's turn to cook.

"A mushroom barley soup," says George Collier, a cohousing resident.

Swan's Market is 20 townhouse-style homes built inside a historic market in downtown Oakland. Legally they are condominiums, but when you buy in, you get a lot more.

"Instead of building a custom-made house, we are building a custom-made community," says Joani Blank, a cohousing resident.

Blank helped found Swan's Market Cohousing eight years ago. She's also a volunteer with the Cohousing Association of the United States. Blank says to understand cohousing you should think of it as an intentional neighborhood.

"We are intentionally creating a situation where we are going to be very close to our neighbors," says Blank.

Everyone has their own private home, but they are designed to encourage togetherness. All the front doors open on to a common patio so neighbors will run into each other often. Each unit has its own kitchen, but there's also a shared kitchen. Residents are required to help cook a group meal about once a month and also share some of the property maintenance.

"Couple weekends ago we had a workday. You know there were 12 different people involved in cleaning the roof gutters and working on the garden," says George Collier, a cohousing resident.

Some of the equipment in the workshop is private property, but a lot is shared. There's a shared guest room, playroom, and when residents make decisions here -- everyone has to agree.

"We make all our decisions by consensus. So we don't have anything that's a majority vote or two-thirds vote," says Blank.

There are now more than 100 cohousing communities in the country, with almost 100 more in the planning stages. The weak economy may slow the building of new developments, like it has with traditional homes, but many cohousing communities are willing to be creative to get what they want.

"Imagine there was a six foot fence here, but we tore that down," says Karen Hester, a cohousing resident.

The Temescal Creek Cohousing unit in Oakland was developed by using three already existing duplexes. A group of first-time homeowners bought the units. Then they took out the fences and created a common yard. Later, they added other nearby properties and eventually built a common house in the middle.

"The community members are involved in the design and then the way that the community functions. So it's not like necessarily developer driven," says Hester.

It's an oasis for families.

"We have two kids and wanted them to grow up with other adults and kids around them that they saw on a regular basis and could interact with and learn from," says Tamar Schnepp, a cohousing resident.

Kathryn McCamant and James Leach from Cohousing Partners, have been planning and building cohousing communities for almost two decades.

"The communities have thrived. We find people are very attracted to them and they do well over the long term. They attract new people who are interested in living in a strong neighborhood," says McCamant.

Most cohousing is multi-generational and it's increasingly attractive to aging baby boomers.

"If they move into a cohousing community, they are really connected with their neighbors right away in a very positive, social environment that works extremely well for people that are at or near retirement age," says Leach.

Cohousing advocates admit this kind of living is not for everyone. You have to want a lot of social interaction and be prepared for residents who don't always get along.

"There are some issues that are contentious and it's hard to get consensus," says Blank.

Still, a growing number of people are trying cohousing and many of them like it.

Many of these new cohousing developments put a big emphasis on sustainable living and the communities currently under design aim to be as green as possible.

The Cohousing Association of the United States:
www.cohousing.org

CoHousing Partners (Cohousing development company):
www.cohousingpartners.com

Written and produced by Jennifer Olney.


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