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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where neighbors don’t know each other’s names and advances in technology are causing people to become even more withdrawn into their homes, this concept is starting to catch on because it offers something that is lacking in most new housing developments: human interaction.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.”
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.
Z Magazine Archive
AnnouncementsLABOR - May 1 is May Day. Workers of the world will celebrate the 124th anniversary of International Worker’s Day. Born out of a call for an 8-hour workday in the United States, this day is an opportunity for all workers to show their solidarity with one another, as well as to renew the call for labor rights.
FARM CONFERENCE - The Farm Conference on Community and Sustainability will be held May 24-26 in Summertown, TN, in partnership with the Fellowship of Intentional Communities. Tour green homes, see sustainable food production, learn about solar installations, alternative education, midwifery, and more.
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RECLAIM THE DREAM - The 2013 Poor People’s Campaign & March from Baltimore to Washington D.C. will be May 11. Communities, schools and unions interested in participating are encouraged to contact the Baltimore People’s Assembly.
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CHILDREN’S DEFENSE - July 15-19, join clergy, seminarians, Christian educators, young adult leaders and other faith-based advocates for children at CDF Haley Farm in Clinton, Tennessee, for five days of spiritual renewal, networking, movement building workshops, and continuing education about the urgent needs of children at the 19th annual Proctor Institute for Child Advocacy Ministry.
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WOMEN/LYNNE STEWART- Radical Women is asking for support letters and cards to be sent to Lynne Stewart. Stewart is a civil rights attorney and political prisoner who is currently in jail. She has breast cancer and authorities have denied her request for transfer from her Texas prison to the New York City hospital where she received medical attention during a prior bout of breast cancer. Send messages and cards to: Lynne Stewart 53504-054, Federal Medical Center Carswell, P.O. Box 27137, Fort Worth, TX 76127.
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HAITI/WOMEN - Haiti’s government is considering a legal reform measure that would prohibit and punish all sexual assault, including marital rape. MADRE and the International Campaign to Stop Rape & Gender Violence in Conflict are launching a petition to raise international support for this push to address violence against women in Haiti.
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COMMUNITIES - The Communities Conference is a networking and learning opportunity for co-operative or communal lifestyles, with workshops, events and entertainment; scheduled for August 30-September 2 at the Twin Oaks Community in Louisa, Virginia.
LABOR DAY - The 29th annual Bread and Roses Festival, a celebration of the ethnic diversity and labor history of Lawrence, MA, will be held September 2, in honor of the 1912 Bread and Roses Strike. There will be music, dance, poetry, drama, ethnic food, historical demonstrations, walking & trolley tours.
Contact: PO Box 1137, Lawrence, MA 01842; 978-794-1655; http://www.breadandrosesheritage.org/.
OCCUPY WALL STREET - September 17 is the two-year anniversary of the Occupy Wall Street movement. Events are planned in New York City and worldwide.
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HAITI - International Action, which brings clean water and chlorinators to Haiti, seeks office space capable of housing up to six people and their office equipment.
Contact: Zach Bremer, Zbrehmer@haitiwater.org; 202-488-0735; http://www.haitiwater.org/.
MEDIA - The Union for Democratic Communications and Project Censored are sponsoring a joint conference on media democracy, media activism and social justice to be held November 1-3 at the University of San Francisco. Proposals for presentations, workshops and panels from activists and critical scholars are invited.