Bridget Newsham is a writer sharing today's guest article about the cohousing model. Read more housing stories here.
Communal living is on the rise in the United States, particularly in the form of cohousing — when strangers live in separate living quarters, yet share a common area, meals, and often, more intimate parts of their lives such as childcare. The modern-day communal living arrangement, whether that be single-family home communities, or apartment complexes for young adults, is a far cry from the hippie communes of the 1960s — in which residents would often share everything, finances included. Modern day cohousing arrangements seek to marry a need for community, and a more traditional American obsession with privacy and individualism.
So why the increase? Simple: Americans are reporting ever increasing feelings of loneliness, much of which, according to architect Grace Kim, can be attributed to our built environment. “The danger of achieving [the American Dream] is a false sense of connection, and an increase in social isolation,” she said in a recent TED talk. Our single-family homes and our suburban lifestyles are created for individualist living, and contributing to our global isolation epidemic. This increased isolation is leading to earlier deaths for our elderly, and higher rates of depression and other serious health issues amongst the population at large, forcing people to reconsider what the ideal living arrangement may look like for them.
“There are plenty of people in the mainstream seeking an alternative to the alienation of suburban living, people who want more connection and community in their lives," said Tony Sirna of Dancing Rabbit Ecovillage in northeast Missouri.
The Roots of Cohousing
The concept of communal living has existed for millennia; however, our current iteration of communal living can be attributed to a cohousing movement which began in 1960s Denmark. By definition, traditional cohousing, as modeled after the Danes, entails an intentional community of private homes clustered around shared space, and typically features a common house, a large industrial kitchen, dining area, and ample lush green space; it emphasizes both private and personal space, with a central goal of coming together in the common area.
The movement came to the U.S. in the 1990s, and has been steadily increasing ever since. Largely spearheaded by aging adults who were tiring of their large, single-family homes, and seeking an alternative as they grew older. “American’s want to be able to close their doors, pull down the blinds and sell their homes, but at the same time, they want more opportunities for community,” said Raines Cohen, a board member of the Cohousing Association of the United States. “A lot of people also realize that not everyone has to have their own washer and dryer, their own lawn mower, and their own backyard pool. Sometimes it makes sense to share.”
According to the Cohousing Association of the United States, there are currently 148 communities of this variety throughout the country, and over 140 in the planning stages. This includes both intergenerational communities and age restricted — meaning that some house residents of all ages, while others are specifically for older adults, typically over the age of 60. Although most communities share commonalities, each is unique and differs in the wishes and desires of the group, how finances are shared, and what the design of the community will look like; this can range from style of homes, number of dinners shared a week, and what expectations neighbors can have from fellow community members.
Young People Embrace the Cohousing Model
As the movement gains momentum, new versions of the cohousing model are beginning to emerge, many of which are geared towards young professionals and their lifestyle preferences, most prominently their desire to move often and throughout the country. This new version is a significant diversion from the traditional form of communal housing, though still maintains many of the same core characteristics including communal space, shared meals, and the intentionality to live cooperatively together.
Unlike most traditional set-ups however, the housing offered through cohousing start-ups such as Star-City, WeLive, and Common are rentable units, and are often available on shorter term leases, allowing for flexibility. Most units also offer luxury amenities including laundry, maid service, and gourmet kitchens — qualities many young people are seeking but cannot necessarily afford on their own. Some, like Star City in San Francisco, even have a “community manager” that organizes events, dinners, and volunteer activities for residents.
In essence, these communities make it as easy as possible to move from place to place — with all the luxuries one could possibly want and the comfort of community in a new or large city. “If you look at all the stresses involved in uprooting your life, and moving to a new [city], moving into Common was completely stress-free… the chance to instantly meet new, like-minded people that make you feel part of a community made a huge difference,” said Reino, a resident of Common. In other words, as young people continue to move about the country, these cohousing communities allow them the opportunity to have both the amenities they seek, and the community they need.
Design is Key
What unites these two cohousing ideas, is the design of the space, which emphasizes and encourages shared living. This is achieved through expanded living rooms with space for the entire community, and large, inviting dining rooms, and communal courtyards or lawns — which you must often walk through to get to your own personal space.
While from the outside, these cohousing arrangements may appear no different than traditional neighborhoods or apartments, those living and designing these spaces explain that they have a different feel altogether. “Most housing in major cities is created with families in mind — people who live and share space very differently than roommates. Common set out to offer renters a better alternative,” Spokeswoman of Common, Rachel Petersen, said in a recent interview. “By moving into a Common home, members are moving into a community of people who are looking forward to getting to know one another. A sense of togetherness can be hard to find in major cities.”
Financial Barriers to Cohousing
Admittedly, while the more traditional forms of cohousing, and the new, trendier millennial version both seem utopic, there are several barriers for most people looking to achieve this type of lifestyle. The prohibitive price point is the most substantial barrier — whether that be in creating a community from the ground up, or affording the cost of a single room in one of the millennial-variety communities.
Sandra Kurtz, a resident of Chattanooga, Tennessee was interested in creating a community of her own, “We get to things a little slow down here in the south. There were no existing communities around us,” she laughed. However, after two failed attempts with eight different families willing to invest, she gave up. “It was hard to finance it. The bank was leery because they had never heard of such a thing. [...] Because we were owning a lot of it together, they weren’t willing to give us a loan,” said Kurtz. “And so, we were all going to end up paying $250,000 to $300,000 for an 800-square foot apartment. That wasn’t going to happen.”
There are no grants, or special loans available for people interested in creating this type of community, making it a challenge for people without a significant amount of wealth to make their dream into a reality. So, unless you are living in a region where there happens to be an abundance of cohousing communities, you may be out of luck. Even AARP, a major advocate for communal living for older adults, sites on their webpage: “Cohousing may not be an affordable option for older adults with limited assets or income.” And while there have been creative solutions to the expense of building communities from the ground up, such as a retrofit of an old monastery in Denver, Colorado, it is largely unattainable for any of the Americans who live on limited incomes.
As for start-ups like Common, Star City, and WeLive, outside of the obscene cost of creating one from scratch ($18.9 million in venture capital for the Star City development, to be exact), the rooms themselves do not scream affordability for anyone that is not living a middle- or upper-class lifestyle. The price-tag for a bedroom ranging in size from 130 to 250 square feet typically goes for a cool $1,300 to just under $3,000 a month, meaning that, at minimum, residents would need to make anywhere from $47,000 to $100,000 to comfortably afford rent at these developments.
So, while affordable options are certainly available in some developments such as a selection of low-income units at the Wild Sage community in Denver, Colorado, and the fully affordable housing Common has proposed for 2019 in New Orleans, for those of us living in the Midwest (me) or other regions where communal options are few and far between, it is important to consider how we can make this seemingly idealistic dream an available lifestyle for all, regardless of income level.
Undoubtedly, interest in the benefits of communal living and cohousing has begun to permeate the conversation around new housing developments across the U.S. However, accessible, affordable, and intentional cohousing communities — while on the upsurge — remain few and far between. The groundwork to make cohousing a financial feasibility for people across age and financial demographics is still a ways into the future.
(Top photo source Joe Mabel)
About the Author
Bridget Newsham is an editor, writer, and social media guru based out of Chicago. She loves covering new and creative housing, architecture, and urban issues at large. In her free time she loves a good swim (when its not too cold!), biking, and building sculptures.