Co-housing: Not your grandparents' communal living

Imagine an extended-family community -- minus your mother-in-law -- where like-minded friends are your neighbors. You regularly share meals, birthday celebrations and a lifestyle vision, yet your living space is private. A collaborative-housing complex, with people you like.

That lifestyle is called co-housing, and it's caught on big time. The movement, in which participants help design the communities of single-family and attached homes from the ground up and make joint decisions about how they're run, numbers about 120 communities nationwide and hundreds globally, according to Craig Ragland, executive director of the Co-housing Association of the United States and a member of Songaia Cohousing Community near Seattle, Wash.The developments range in size from seven to 67 residences; most accommodate 20 to 40 households. Most decisions about the complexes are based on group consensus.

"Life is easier when you have people around who care about you," said Ragland, a former manager at Microsoft. Also, "there's lots of green space for kids to play in, and we help each other out."

Several members of his community, for example, volunteer in shifts to help a resident who has advanced ALS, or Lou Gehrig's Disease. They bring him meals and tuck him in at night. "Otherwise, he'd be in hospice care or assisted living," Ragland said.

OK, sweep away those '60s images of commune babes in flowing pioneer dresses and bearded dudes in overalls. This lifestyle mostly attracts higher-income, white, well-educated residents, a fair number of whom work out of their homes.

The complexes usually are in urban or suburban areas. While the participants enjoy twice- or thrice-weekly group dinners in a common dining room and share communal recreation, laundry and other areas, every unit is private -- with kitchens -- and the level of participation is up to each household, except for upkeep duties that everyone theoretically engages in.

Co-housing participants buy their own units -- most are condos and town houses, although some developments have single-family homes -- typically occupying 800 square feet to 1,400 square feet and surrounding a common courtyard. The complexes are run like condominium associations, so residents pay monthly fees that contribute to the development's common-area upkeep; some communities charge additional monthly fees for frequent communal dinners and other group events.

Founding members pay market-rate construction costs to launch the projects (and often get construction loans like everyone else); buyers of resale units pay the going market rate. At Mosaic Commons in Berlin, Mass., a one-bedroom unit is on sale for $229,000 and a four-bedroom home is listed for $499,900. Interested buyers must pay a 5% deposit, submit a pre-approved mortgage document and sign a purchase and sale agreement.

Any qualified buyer can purchase a co-housing unit when a member moves out; potential new buyers typically attend parties and group gatherings a few times to get the feel of the community and understand what collaborative living is all about.

The current co-housing movement began more than two decades ago in Denmark. The lifestyle was promoted in the U.S. by architects Kathryn McCamant and Charles Durrett in the early 1980s. The first North American community, called Muir Commons, opened in 1991 in Davis, Calif.

Fast-forward seven years to Oceano, Calif., where Tierra Nueva Cohousing opened amid gardens, avocado groves and eucalyptus trees. The complex today is made up of 43 adults and 21 children who live in duplexes and single-family homes. Regular group meetings address Fido's early-morning barking habits and slackers who "forget" their community chores.

What's in it for seniors? Peers, for sure, but the developments are multigenerational.

"I don't want to be with just old people, it would make me crabby," said Joani Blank, 72, a member of Swan's Market Cohousing in Oakland, Calif. "My outlook on life makes me want to be with people who were brought up in a younger era." She clearly loves the scene. She's lived in co-housing communities for 18 years.

Climbing on board the co-housing train takes patience. Communities often take four years to advance from vision to move-in, although it took 10 years for Tierra Nueva to reach completion. All participants have a say in the architecture and philosophy of the community -- imagine that scenario -- and getting permits and the money together to build complexes is no cake walk.

But the payoff is a complex like Sunward Cohousing near Ann Arbor, Mich., where, according to their Web site, ". . . lives are simplified, the Earth is respected, diversity is welcomed, children play together in safety, and living in community with neighbors comes naturally."

Who can argue with that?
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