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Can Boomers Make Cohousing Mainstream?

Popular in northern Europe, cohousing is still a fringe option in the U.S. But the number of cohousing communities here is set to climb, thanks to Baby Boomers.

Residents chat on the porch of a home in Mosaic Commons, a cohousing community in Berlin, Massachusetts. (Tim Pierce/Flickr)

When architects Kathryn McCamant and Charles Durrett made their first pilgrimage to Denmark in the early 1980s, they were out to learn whatever they could. What they brought back would earn them a reputation as the mother and father of cohousing in the U.S.

They visited communities like Copenhagen's Trudeslund (where they would later live), noting the common spaces that linked small clusters of private residences with public life. Kids ran along car-free paths; families gathered around meals in a common house or stayed in their private homes as they pleased.

Trudeslund, in Copenhagen (seier+seier/Flickr)

"I think the thing that really impressed us," says McCamant, "is how normal it is. It seems [there] like the single-family house world is the strange one. That still is what baffles me, that people think it's some radical thing."

Cohousing refers to a kind of shared housing in between that single-family world and the hippie communes (or hipster co-ops) it's often confused with. Danish architect Jan Gudmand-Høyer pioneered the model in the late '60s and early '70s, bringing together friends and like-minded utopians to co-design and develop multi-unit homes that would foster a sense of community among their residents. He talked about reintroducing "play" into daily life or, as he put it, "moving from Homo productivo to Homo ludens"—from worker drones to more joyful beings.

The idea has caught on in Europe, where somewhere between 1 and 8 percent of Danes live in a form of cohousing. (In the U.S., that figure is less than one hundreth of one percent of total housing units.) Gudmand-Høyer's Skråplanet and Trudeslund communities still thrive. But in the U.S. it has been a slow climb.

About 130 cohousing communities exist in the U.S., according to the Cohousing Association, a nonprofit based in Durham, North Carolina. McCamant, whose firm Cohousing Partners has built dozens of communities, predicts the number will double within 10 years. If that happens it will be thanks to one demographic force of nature: baby boomers.

"A large majority of these communities are being driven by baby boomers looking at downsizing when they retire. For whatever reason, cohousing didn't work for them earlier, but now they're in a transition in life," she says.

She could be referring to Alice Alexander, executive director of the Cohousing Association. Alexander, 57, and her husband are residents of one of the nation's newest cohousing communities, or "cohos": Durham Central Park Cohousing.

Mostly empty-nesters, its members came together several years ago to plan a 24-unit cluster of condominiums with solar water heaters and shared resources, like a media room and performance space for the community's numerous artists and musicians. They successfully petitioned local authorities for a single electric meter, instead of 24.

That communal spirit extends beyond the utility bill. Alexander says daily life among her "true neighbors" is a stark contrast with the suburban subdivisions of her native northern Virginia, where she lived in single-family homes for decades before discovering cohousing.

"I did what everybody did. I was in commuter hell, I didn't know my neighbors, all that. There wasn't a choice, or we didn't know another choice existed," Alexander says. "Baby boomers are demanding a better way to live. We want to be sustainable; we want community, happiness."

Currently there is only one resident under age 20 at Durham Central Park, but other cohos are designed with kids in mind. Early cohousing began for families with young children, but became something else when those children grew up—an evolution Alexander predicts could eventually happen in reverse, as childless cohos for baby boomers are supplanted by a new generation of younger people seeking community beyond the nuclear family.

The EcoVillage at Ithaca in Ithaca, New York, has about 175 residents. Roughly a fifth are retired, and another fifth are stay-at-home parents. (em_diesus/Flickr)

McCamant sees room for growth in all types of cohousing. Valverde Commons, a senior coho under construction in Taos, New Mexico, offers 10 bucolic acres of land and 28 community members committed "to helping our neighbors as they age." In contrast, McCamant and Durrett live in a coho that they designed in Nevada City, California, where less a third of the roughly 100 residents are over the age of 55.

Last year, Harvard University's Joint Center on Housing Studies looked at the housing needs of America's 50-and-over population. It called cohousing "an increasingly popular option for those seeking communal settings and some support outside of institutional living," but noted that the model's wider adoption faces zoning challenges. AARP said in 2010 that cohousing makes sense for seniors, who might use a common room for live-in caregivers, and can otherwise rely on their existing network of community members for a ride to the doctor or help with a vexing household task.

A play area at the EcoVillage at Ithaca (em_diesus/Flickr)

Joani Blank, 77, lives in Swan's Market Cohousing in downtown Oakland, California. She has spent 22 years across three cohos and has visited dozens more. Blank says senior citizens struggle with the public perception that cohos are like other senior housing or retirement homes.

"I like living with younger adults. I want to live in a diverse community. That's the way humans used to live—in multigenerational groups," says Blank, who founded San Francisco's Good Vibrations sex shop in 1977.

The financial structures of cohousing are diverse, too. Blank's Oakland coho is technically a condo association, where every household is a member of their homeowner association board of directors. Some are structured as townhouse associations. Most groups acquire a plot of land and enlist a developer, although Alexander's Durham coho is self-developed.

So far cohousing isn't necessarily less expensive than other market-rate housing options, despite its residents pooling their resources. They have to hire architects, consultants, and often developers to help custom-design their communities, typically specifying extra facilities and sustainable features that may have a long payback period.

Alexander says the price of her coho compares favorably with standard condos in downtown Durham, but concedes that cohousing is not currently an answer to the growing problem of affordable housing. Her organization is involved with initiatives to try to change that, such as Partnerships for Affordable Cohousing.

McCamant has found developers to be "pretty skeptical of cohousing, until they see a group that is organized and moving forward." She advises those thinking about cohousing to form limited liability corporations and start contributing money early. It can start with a core group of just four or five households that a share a vision, she says, but like all development it takes years to realize.

In addition to zoning hurdles, prospective cohos face financial challenges. It may be difficult for a group to get construction loans or especially mortgages, so they often need a lot of cash upfront. Christopher Leinberger, a nonresident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, says although cohos mesh philosophically with what many aging baby boomers want—dense, walkable communities—so do a lot of traditional developments that don't come with so many legal and financial headaches.

"Banks still underwrite experience every bit as much as they underwrite balance sheets," says Leinberger, who has friends who live in cohousing, but predicts the trend will stay niche in the U.S. for the foreseeable future. "There's a lot conspiring against these things."

Supporters, though, point to the intangible benefits. Alexander says her husband wakes up earlier than he has in years now that they live in cohousing, excited to take on the day in a way he hadn't been before.

The market, too, may be waking up.

"I feel like as a movement we are just taking off," says Alexander.

About the Author

  • Chris Bentley
    Chris Bentley is a freelance journalist based in Boston. Formerly Midwest Editor of The Architect's Newspaper and a reporter for WBEZ's Curious City, his work has appeared in The New York Times' Green blog, The Chicago Tribune, Next City, and many other publications.