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Cohousing: Sharing Space

August 2, 2012

The cohousing model is a type of residential development designed to emphasize community interaction while still retaining a certain level of individual privacy. Different from a condominium, cohousing is self-managed.

Steve Pretl was ready to live in a place where he could have his independence yet still have support nearby. After all, he was 61 years old and living in a home in downtown Washington, D.C., which just wasn’t practical for him as he aged. “I read about sustainable living, and it mentioned cohousing,” he says. “It really appealed to me to live where people were on the same wavelength as me, a true community.” That’s when Pretl moved to Takoma Village, a Washington, D.C.-based cohousing community. “I went to a couple meetings and was impressed with the people. Residents were part of the design team, working with the architect, making decisions on everything from unit layout to colors to appliances,” he says.

Eleven years later, Pretl (now 72 years old) is a member of the Takoma Village Cohousing Board and actively touting the benefits of the co-housing lifestyle to others.

The Cohousing Model

The cohousing model is a type of residential development designed to emphasize community interaction while still retaining a certain level of individual privacy. Cohousing communities are typically small — under 40 units — and have units with shared common spaces. Different from a condominium, cohousing is self-managed. There’s no main office and each resident is involved in everything from decision making (designing pet policies, choosing lawn care) to physical work maintaining the property.

Pioneered in Denmark in the early 1970s, according to “Co-Housing for Older Adults,” by the AARP Public Policy Institute, cohousing didn’t arrive in the United States until two decades later. Although each community is unique, most cohousing communities share a set of principles: resident involvement in the planning process; a common house and other facilities and land owned jointly; a physical layout that encourages interaction (e.g. individual homes clustered around a common house); and collaborative community management, says the AARP paper.

“If we look at basic demographics, the population of those ages 65 and up will increase 120 percent between 2012 and 2015,” says Jeffrey Lubell, executive director of the Center for Housing Policy (CHP). “There’s a real need for housing that can accommodate this group.”

Currently, there are about 115 cohousing communities made up of nearly 2,700 households in 23 states, according to Rodney Harrell, Ph.D., senior strategic policy advisor for housing issues for the AARP and the AARP Public Policy Institute in Washington, D.C. “We [the AARP] believe that there must be a range of housing options for older adults at different price points,” says Harrell. “Cohousing creates another option that has some cost and benefits but appeals to a certain group of older adults and gives them the ability to age in place.”

Benefits for Seniors

For Pretl that’s the key to cohousing: It allows him to age in place with support. “I can easily live independently. But, just knowing my neighbors are available to help as I get older is comforting,” he says.
In fact, most cohousing developments are intergenerational, not just for seniors, so the living arrangement is perfect for seniors who need the extra support but are able to live alone. Neighbors are always available to run an errand, drive to a doctor’s appointment or fix a leaky faucet, and weekly group dinners mean healthy living for seniors who don’t cook anymore.

“One of the great qualities is the physical build of the community,” says Rebecca Lane, executive director of the Co-Housing Association of the United States (Coho/ U.S.). “Houses face each other around a common area, so lots of eyes are on the neighborhood. In fact, an elderly widow who moved to a cohousing community from a rural area recently choked on a bone and was able to run out of her house and get help. Her neighbors saved her. Had she stayed at her rural home, she wouldn’t still be with us.” The AARP’s Harrell adds, “By sharing common space, it reduces isolation, a common malady of aging.”

According to a survey sponsored by Coho/U.S., a sense of community was one of the most frequently mentioned strengths by cohousers who were interviewed. Interviewees wrote positively about a feeling of village life and their sense of belonging. They felt emotional support from the interconnectedness of their lives, and having good friends nearby who offered opportunities for easy socialization and an antidote to the fact that, for many, family may live far away.

Not only that, says Lane, but also seniors with mobility impairments aren’t sequestered in their homes alone each day. “The shared meal program, which is pretty typical in each cohousing community, is incredible. The nutrition levels are high and the options varied, so seniors don’t have to cook for themselves, have people with whom to share meals and maintain a healthier lifestyle because of it,” says Lane.

Sustainable Living

However, some of the biggest benefits of cohousing come from the environmental aspects. Says Lane, “The Coho/U.S. survey drew some interesting conclusions that people who live in cohousing have lower energy, food and transportation costs. For someone on a fixed income, this is huge.” Most neighborhoods are close to urban centers or within walking distance to grocery stores and other shopping.

Says Zev Paiss, COO of Abraham Paiss & Associates, Inc., a marketing and communications company catering to sustainable businesses, “Because most of these neighborhoods are tightly clustered and built with the oversight of the residents, they use less land and use it more efficiently.” While not a senior, Paiss chose to live in a cohousing community for this very reason. “Homes are energy efficient. I find that people attracted to these neighborhoods tend to be concerned about the environment and want features that use renewable energy and green construction.” He says they make good use of insulation, bamboo flooring, energy-efficient fixtures and HVAC systems as well as positioning the homes so they stay cooler in summer. Many are using Photovoltaic systems, which use solar panels to convert sunlight into electricity.

Lane agrees. “One of the trends I’m seeing is taking existing neighborhoods and retrofitting them to build a cohousing community.” In fact, in 1999 a group of five families developed Temescal Creek Cohousing, a retrofit cohousing neighborhood in Oakland, Calif. They transformed an existing neighborhood into a cohousing community, making it more cost effective for residents and rehabilitating a community suffering from a large inventory of vacant and distressed homes.

Lane is also seeing a big push for community gardens. “They’re reaping a lot of food from these gardens, and they’re even bringing in livestock such as chickens and goats.”

Affordable Housing?

As always, with the good comes the bad. A major downfall of cohousing for seniors is that it just isn’t affordable. According to a recent survey, “Housing an Aging Population: Are We Prepared?” by the Center for Housing Policy, 20 percent of those ages 65 to 74 are spending more than half of their income on housing. “A consequence of that is we’ll see an increase in housing affordability problems in this country — incomes are low for this population,” says the CHP’s Lubell. “One of the challenges we have with cohousing is that it’s not designed to be affordable.”

But, Lubell and others are researching alternatives. “I’ve been urging the cohousing folks to link their efforts with community land trusts and other like-minded organizations to provide affordable options for aging seniors,” says Lubell.

The Housing Trust of Santa Fe did just that when developing Eldergrace, a cohousing community in Santa Fe, N.M. “There was an elder support group in town that had been ruminating over an idea to create a community to live together and support each other but was different from an assisted living facility,” says Spencer Haynsworth, the housing development program manager for the Housing Trust of Santa Fe.” Haynsworth worked as the liaison between the Housing Trust and the Eldergrace developer. The key to making it affordable, she says, is the land. “Oftentimes we’ll bank land when we can get it for discounted prices. We had a piece of land that was oddly shaped, and we saw that as a potential fit. We hired an architect and worked with the Eldergrace residents to make it work,” she says. The best part is that Eldergrace is close to an urban center and backs up to a natural area that connects to a nature trail and community center.

However, most cohousing communities trend on the costly side. “It’s an expensive model because it’s new,” says Lane. “Right now we’re seeing early adopters, but as more research is done and more developments are built, the prices will drop.”

Notable Negatives

Another clear challenge, of course, is that you must like to interact with people to enjoy living in cohousing. “It’s a lot of interaction with people and for some it’s hard,” says Pretl. “It’s tough making decisions with so many people involved, and even something as simple as developing a pet policy can take a long time. You generally have some very strong personalities who try to dominate. It may not be simple living, but it does make your life richer and fuller,” he says.

Says Harrell, “It’s an interesting mix. You must live independently but think communally. You have to be the type who wants to share space and make group decisions.”

Alternatives

Overall, the fact remains: “Baby boomers are looking for housing alternatives where they can age in place, feel safe and know they’re in a location that has good amenities,” says Paiss. “There’s an opportunity for REALTORS® to learn about this alternative housing. Real estate professionals can talk to developers who have been foreclosed on or who have had to stop a project. Cohousing may be a way to bring in a group of buyers and reduce developer risk since 70 to 75 percent of the development is presold before the project even begins,” says Paiss.

“Cohousing gives seniors a voice at a time when they’re often not heard in the community,” says Haynsworth. “It brings people together, young helping old; old helping young. What could be better than that?”
Tracey C. Velt is an Orlando-based freelance writer specializing in business and real estate.

Survey of Cohousing Communities

Cohousing creates a sustainable life, according to “Report on Survey of Cohousing Communities 2011” by the Cohousing Association of the United States. The survey touted cohousing benefits such as sharing resources, borrowing and lending possessions and living lighter on the earth by consuming less. Not only that, but talents can be shared as well. In the survey, cohousers wrote about “access to many types of resources, tools, skills and information that one would not have in a traditional neighborhood.” They appreciated the energy savings, efficient design, clustered housing, and walkability of their communities.