Cozy Living Cohousing




L


ate
one unseasonably warm winter afternoon I was headed west on Route
26 just outside of Libertytown, Maryland with a breathtaking sunset
in front of me when I was momentarily distracted by a sign advertising
a housing development named Liberty Village. I was curious to know
what new houses were going for in the area so I made a mental note
to look up their website when I got home. Upon doing so later that
evening, the following question appeared on my monitor: “What
is cohousing?” 


I
hadn’t the foggiest idea so I read on and found out that it
is basically a housing concept that combines private home ownership
with a resource-sharing community. It started in Denmark in the
early 1970s as a moderate alternative to the extreme of communal
living where everything, including money, is shared by the community.
It was introduced to the United States in 1988 by Kathryn McCamant
and Charles Durrett who studied the concept in Denmark for many
years and wrote a book titled

Cohousing: A Contemporary Approach
to Housing Ourselves

. Today, in a society of suburban isolationism
where neighbors don’t know each other’s names and advances
in technology are causing people to become even more withdrawn into
their homes, this concept is starting to catch on because it offers
something that is lacking in most new housing developments: human
interaction. 


 The
basic premise of cohousing is to achieve community without entirely
surrendering privacy. Residents own their own homes and have their
own private spaces, but they also share ownership of the community.
The centerpiece of the community is the “common house,”
which has a public kitchen, dining area, game room, children’s
playroom, guest rooms, workshops, meeting rooms, or whatever else
the consensus decides to use the space for. 


 The
physical layout of a cohousing community is designed to stimulate
interaction between neighbors. Houses are clustered around a common
area such as a courtyard or a garden and the sizes of backyards
are kept to a minimum in order to leave open more shared community
land. Perhaps the most effective and striking feature of cohousing,
however, is that cars are not invited to be part of the community.
There are no garages or driveways, and, instead of streets, there
are pedestrian-only walkways similar to those found on a campus.
There is a shared parking lot on the outskirts of the community
property, which means that residents have to walk through the neighborhood
instead of just climbing into their cars through the garage or driveway
and pulling away. 


Since
social gatherings usually take place at the common house and the
sharing of resources such as tools, lawn equipment, and other large
items reduces the need for personal storage space, houses tend to
be on the smaller side. Front porches are another means of eliciting
neighborly interaction, as are kitchens, which are typically located
in the front part of the house because they are considered to be
the most public area of the dwelling. More private spaces such as
the living room and bedrooms are normally situated in the back of
the house and upstairs. 


 Cohousing
communities average around 30 households, which seems to be the
threshold of maintaining a feeling of “extended family”
that may be lost in a larger development. They are designed, built,
and managed by their own residents. While they are not self-sustaining
communities (residents typically work regular jobs and children
attend public schools), there is a sense that leaving the community
for any period of time is a venture to the “outside world.” 


I
wanted to find out a little bit more about Liberty Village and cohousing
in general, so I called the number on the website and spoke to a
woman named Martie Weatherly, who seemed very eager to tell me how
much she loved living in a cohousing community. She informed me
that Liberty Village is a work in progress that currently has 18
homes built and occupied, all of which are “doubles” (their
preferred term for “duplexes”). Twenty more houses are
planned, but construction has been halted by the county until a
new sewer pipeline is put in to accommodate the additional homes,
which they hope will be in the fall of 2006. The common house has
yet to be built, so in the meantime residents squeeze into each
other’s houses for community activities and meetings. The community
owns 23 acres of land, but only 8 will be used for housing when
construction is completed, an environmental benefit that Weatherly
wanted me to take note of. She invited me to visit and we made arrangements
for me to stop by the following week. 







When
I get there the parking lot is nearly empty, it being a weekday
when many of the residents are at work. It is very cold and no one
is outside, yet walking along the pedestrian “street”
I could picture people sitting on their front porches watching the
kids run around without having to worry that they will be hit by
a car or confronted by a stranger. Village seems like a very appropriate
name for the place, the absence of regular streets and sidewalks
creating a much more inviting atmosphere than that of your everyday
housing development. There is a sign indicating where the common
house will be and I imagine the finished product to be something
like the main lodge of a resort. It almost seems as if the community
is designed to make living here feel a little like being on vacation. 


Weatherly
greets me at her front door and inside seated at her kitchen table
with steaming cups of tea are two other Liberty Village residents,
Beth Arnone and Emily Daniels. Weatherly invites me to take a seat
and offers me some tea. 


 “It’s
absolutely wonderful,” she says. “The idea of cohousing
is that you shrink a little bit the size of your own personal house
and then you have more community space. It’s a kind of development
that really speaks to what a lot of people are looking for right
now, which is small, safe neighborhoods where you know your neighbors.
I wanna be with people who are working together, doing things together,
and children, and having them around. I really like having all ages.” 


“You
never feel alone,” Arnone says. “The amazing thing about
our community is the depth of friendship and responsibility. We
have a community space, a community room, where we have all our
meals and we tend to have 20 to 25 people a meal and we have anywhere
from 6 to 8 a month.” 


“Then
we have smaller groups that get together,” Daniels says, “and
sometimes there’ll be spur-of-the-moment of, ‘Oh yeah,
I just made a lot of food, do you wanna come on over?’ And
that kind of thing. The little sharing of resources, I like that
a lot, that we share food and we share other things that we need.
My husband and I have both lived communally when we were young adults
and there were families with children and we liked that until we
saw cohousing 13 or 14 years ago. We really liked it because it
was a way to have your privacy and your own individual household,
but to be connected with lots of other people. This is kind of a
nice middle ground.” 


“We
have a closeness in our neighborhood that is very precious and unique,”
Weatherly says, “but it’s also a mix because you have
your own private home. Some days when I’m in here and I’m
just working all day, I can choose to be in here, and then if I
wanna go out and find somebody to go walk around, I can do that.
There’s a nice freedom in being able to balance and still keep
your privacy. Another thing that’s really great about this
community is that the houses are semi-custom, so in the same community
we have houses that are small like this one, which is essentially
two bedrooms, a kitchen, and a living room, and then houses with
a kitchen, a living room, and five or six other rooms. So, they’re
very flexible.” 


One
of the things I am most curious about is if there is some kind of
screening process involved in moving into a cohousing community,
but the only criteria seems to be a desire to be a part of the community
and a willingness to share part of your life with the other residents. 


“People
don’t usually come into this kind of community to live unless
they want that community part of it,” Daniels says. “There
are definitely people who have come and looked and said, ‘Well,
that’s interesting, but it’s not for me.’ We really
encourage people to get to know us and so we really try to give
them a realistic picture of what it’s like to live here before
they come so that they don’t come in with unrealistic expectations.” 


“In
the past we’ve had several families or individuals that are
interested,” Beth says, “and they’ll hang around
for two or three months. We’ll see them at the meetings, and
they’ll be at all our meals, and then they decide it’s
not for them and then they don’t come in.” 


“The
first thing that people see that is the most different is that they
can’t park right next to their house,” Weatherly says.
“They’re like, ‘How am I gonna get by without doing
that?’ But it works out very well. People are looking for safe,
secure neighborhoods, and that is what this is. There are some people
who know they don’t want to live in this kind of a community—they
just want to go inside, close the door, and be by themselves. That’s
fine, you know, then this is not for them.” 


“As
far as someone selling their house,” Arnone says, “these
are your own private homes, so you would just sell it, usually through
a realtor. We can’t discriminate who buys houses, but we’re
in the process of developing a members pathway to help newcomers
incorporate into the community.” 


 The
most challenging aspect of cohousing may be that all decisions regarding
the community are made by consensus. While this can lead to some
spirited debates, the ability to resolve these issues tends to draw
the community closer together. 








“Consensus
is a way you make your decisions where you listen and you honor
and respect each other’s points of view even when they’re
completely different,” Weatherly says. “You make a decision
that everyone can live with. It might not be the thing that we each
want the most, but it really does work when we listen to each other
and we look at what we’re trying to solve. Now that’s
for most decisions—there’s some decisions that it doesn’t
work for. The secret to consensus is that you don’t sit around
making all your decisions together all the time because that takes
forever. That’s one of the complaints people have about consensus,
so we’re learning to do a lot of delegation. We’re learning
to say, ‘Okay, here’s this job, we want you to do it,
we’ll let you do it within these boundaries,’ and then
we let them go ahead and do it. It’s really a fascinating growth
for us all. It’s wonderful to be able to really feel as though
we’re working together, even when we’re struggling with
something. So that’s the challenge of cohousing. We have things
in our community where people get upset with each other, and we’re
consciously working at how as a community we can work those out,
and that to me is wonderful. That’s not present in a lot of
places in our lives.” 


“Sometimes
it’s a little challenging,” Daniels says, “because
you’re getting to know people pretty well and some people have
very different personalities or ways of dealing with things than
you do. But it’s really nice though when there’s a bump
and you make the bump better. But it does take time.” 


“The
longer you’re here,” Arnone says, “the more skills
you develop and the bumps seem to be worked out a little easier.
It’s time-consuming and it’s a drag, but then the main
thing is once you do work it out, you’re at a new level with
this person. I’ve never lived anywhere or worked anywhere where
there was such a goal to do that. Most people would stop and say,
‘Forget it, I don’t want to deal with you anymore,’
and then that would be the relationship. I never was aware of how
much time it takes to build community because of those issues that
come up that have to be dealt with. So the amount of time is a drag,
but the reward is phenomenal.” 


According
to the Cohousing Association of the United States, there are around
80 established cohousing communities and 40 more under construction.
While the popularity of cohousing is rapidly increasing, most people
in the U.S. are still unfamiliar with the concept. Even so, it has
come a long way in the past decade and is gaining acceptance, especially
now that misconceptions have faded significantly with its rise in
popularity. 


“I
think initially the Libertytown people were a little leery about
what was going on out here,” Daniels says, “but as we
got to know them, they see that we’re normal people that have
families and singles and the groups and things. There’s actually
been more openness there with people. Even 14 years ago you kind
of had to go against that we’re all a bunch of hippie-commune
people who have festivals to the sun and nude parties. There’s
a lot of stuff that goes through people’s minds because it
is a little different.” 


 “That
was actually brought up more 14 years ago,” Weatherly says,
“and now it’s not, which is good. We’ve gotten to
know all the people along here and they didn’t object to us
at all. They’ve been very supportive. Socially, people are
beginning to realize that people are healthier when they live in
neighborhoods that are strong and supportive and that’s what
this is. The place where we haven’t yet made an impact is it
hasn’t yet gotten to be accepted by government in a way that
it can be supported by government. The time will come, I think,
when the state government and local governments will realize that
it’s to their benefit to have this kind of community, who will
be able to help us out through the development process so that we
can get more of these communities built.” 


One
of the biggest challenges still facing Liberty Village is how the
residents will adjust to its eventual doubling in size. With construction
having been halted because of the pending sewer line, residents
have become accustomed to having a community of 18 homes. 


“That’s
one of the big changes this community is gonna have,” Arnone
says, “because we haven’t continued to grow. It’s
kind of stopped, and then it’s gonna have major growth. I think
that some people are a little concerned about how we’re going
to adjust to all these new people.” 


“My
experience here has been,” Arnone says, “that there’s
a group of people that are your best friends and you spend a lot
of time with them and you do things outside the community together
and stuff like that, and then there’s people that you are a
little less closer with, and then there are people that you just
don’t interact with hardly at all except at meetings and stuff.
I would think that would continue when you do get a little bigger.
The interesting thing is that in the past we’ve had major struggles
we’ve gotten through and I think many of us have been shocked
that we’ve gotten through them and we’re still together
and we still like each other and still talk to each other. We still
have a lot of challenges coming up with building new homes and bringing
in new people, but I have no doubt that we’ll be fine. It’ll
be work, but we’ll be fine. And then we’ll grow and get
better.”


 





Richard Daub
has lived in various locations throughout the country. He currently
resides in Taneytown, Maryland with his wife Emily, dog Gabby, and
cat Spaulding.