Co-Housing Communities: A Life Shared

BlogHer Original Post

Recently, I moved to a co-housing community with my beau and the "How's life at the commune?" inquires began. Sadly, the 60s commune is the only reference most people have to community living. Well, I'm here to provide an updated concept of group living that is spreading across a nation full of people struggling to disconnect from their devices and connect with one another. With a resolve to cultivate more real-life connections in my own life, co-housing is precisely the atmosphere I crave.

"Building a better society, one neighborhood at a time."
--tag-line of Co-Housing.org

Co-housing is an organized, collaborative community that shares weekly meals, chores and other life activities, such as child-rearing; it is a neighborhood with a consciousness connection. With all the bright primary-colored homes facing one another like circled wagons, it feels very 'deliberate'. I have taken to calling it The Village because that is exactly what it feels like.

We'd long discussed the appeal of living this way and had our names on several co-housing waiting lists in Colorado. When a sudden opportunity to rent in a decade-old co-housing community appeared on Craigslist, we pounced on it immediately. There are few renters here at Hearthstone but we were welcomed warmly. (There are 33 homes in our community and approximately 75 residents, including 32 children.)

When I tell people I live in co-housing, the first question is always, "Is it difficult to share your living space?" Let's be clear, the houses are not shared, life is shared. There are no dorm rooms.

"Our vision is to live creatively in supportive and sustainable relationships with each other, the neighborhood and the environment."
--Heathstone Vision Statement

In fact, the quality of my surroundings has improved significantly for maybe $100 more a month than my previous dwelling. (This includes HOA fees, approximately $140 per household, which covers general landscaping and snow removal, among other things.) I went from living alone in a 750 sq. ft. apartment to reigning over a 2024 sq. ft. tri-level house with four bedrooms and four bathrooms. Although a man and a cat have been added to the mix, I now feel like one of those women who owns napkin rings. Our kitchen feels like a command center and we've got a jacuzzi tub in the basement. Some sacrifice.

Much like the Mexican zocalo (town square), the Community House (CH) is the center of the community. It's where common meals are held (approx. 2x a week), where I practice the piano, do yoga, get my mail, check the community calendar and chat with neighbors. I also love to hear the squeals of delight coming from the Kid's Room, which is usually filled with adorable munchkins playing with wild abandon.

The CH also houses numerous VHS tapes, DVDs and CDs available for borrowing, a laundry room, guest room/bathroom (which can reserved in advance for a visiting guest), wood shop, gym, huge ass TV, craft area, meditation room, business center, music room, BBQ patio and - swear to Shatner - an archery range.

In the mailbox area where we pick up our bills and letters in the CH, a plaque on the wall offers, "Top Reasons People Want To Live In Co-Housing" and includes, among others: "Intergenerational Living," "Diversity," "Sustainable Design," "Positive Environment for Raising Children," and "Safety & Security." It's all true. Our community includes young and old, working and retired, married and single. I think the only common thread that runs through everyone is an open mind and a willingness to share.

The co-housing idea originated in Denmark, around 1964, and there are now hundreds of co-housing communities worldwide, including the US, Canada, Australia, Sweden, New Zealand, the Netherlands, Germany, France, Belgium and Austria.

The concept arrived on American soil when US architects Kathryn McCamant and Charles Durrett spent a year studying and photographing over 50 co-housing Danish communities, resulting in the 1988 book, "Co-Housing: A Contemporary Approach to Housing Ourselves". It took just three years for the concept to sink in and the first American co-housing community was established in Davis, California in 1991 - Muir Commons, which still exists.

Since then, the concept has taken off. At last count, 35 states contain at least one co-housing community within their borders. The top five states for co-housing are: California (52), Washington (21), Massachusetts (18), Colorado (16) and Texas (12). Already at this early stage, I can't picture myself going back to regular, disconnected living unless it involved a winning lottery ticket, lots of horses and a yurt.

Just a few weeks after we moved in, the community had a Work Day, which takes place every other month. A list of necessary chores was listed in the CH and you simply signed up for a task or two. My man saw, "Organize the wood shop" and was gone.

It was overwhelming for me so I just picked up a rake, went out outside and tried to look busy. I ended up getting to know two of my funnier neighbors, Jim and Howard, plus a couple of cuddly dogs, Ginger and Muddy. Later, I helped Joe clean up the archery range and finally, found a permanent home in the composting area with Brett and Will. The three of us now make up the entire Hearthstone Composting Committee. Woo-hoo!

Despite my glee, I can see that co-housing is not for everyone. I've heard stories about intensely private people moving in to the community who express no interest in sharing or participating in anything. I'd love to ask these people what made them move there in the first place. What exactly were they expecting? One person was even a real estate agent who seemed to have zero knowledge of the concept. Do your homework, lady.

At this point, I should also mention that I am vehemently against suburban HOAs where some busybody still bitter about not being elected class president knocks on my door to haughtily inform me that my mailbox is the wrong color. Such small-minded "community" thinking has regularly stood in the way of true progress, such as solar panels - a fact that infuses me with white hot rage.

The difference that I've seen so far in co-housing is markedly different. With regards to change, the questions are, in order: "Will it benefit the community?" and "Can we afford it?" Discussions are held, perspectives exchanged and then votes are cast. I'm not saying there aren't challenges and personality clashes, but I've been impressed with how open all these conversations are and no one is afraid to speak their mind. Very encouraging.

We're still new to the community but so far, we really love it. The community meals are especially worthwhile. Getting together regularly with our neighbors, cooking, chatting and enjoying creative dishes (meaning no dirty dishes at home) is a real treat.

For me, the best part of being on a cooking team is the formal announcement: When dinner is ready, usually at 6:30 p.m., you go outside, grab a giant rock and bang the big copper bell so everyone knows that dinner is served. Creating a giant "BONGBONGBONG!" noise is almost as fun as watching people stream out of their homes and head down to dinner. At that moment, it's like living at your favorite childhood camp. (It's also delightful to be in your living room, hear the BONG! and walk to your dinner.)

Our favorite moment so far? Easy. One night at dinner, our neighbor, Thea (who is 7), discovered that she had lost a tooth during the meal. Her mother, Stephanie, got up to announce the milestone and had Thea hold up the tooth. Everyone broke into applause and congratulated Thea, who shyly smiled, showing off a new gap. This is real life, the one I've been seeking. Life that cannot be found in my email, on my iPhone, on my Twitter feed, on my Facebook page or even on TV.

Right now, a shared life feels like exactly what the soul doctor ordered.

Interested? Check out Co-Housing Bus Tours
These are organized in different regions throughout the year. It looks like 2011 will see tours in Seattle, Portland, San Francisco Bay Area, Washington DC, Boulder/Denver, New England and Durham/Chapel Hill. Tours are generally scheduled March-November. Dates are TBD.

Really, really Interested? Check out the National Co-Housing Conference in Washington DC, June 15-19.

Or, you can always ping me with questions. If I don't have the answer, I'll find someone who does.

Happy living!

~ClizBiz

BlogHer Contributing Editor, Animal & Wildlife Concerns, Proprietor, ClizBiz

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