Feeling a need for community? Cohousing can provide affordable space and neighbors to share it with.
I wrote a feature about cohousing for the Summer 2012 issue of YES! Magazine and thought it would be a fitting contribution for the Intentional Community Research and Development group here on Daily Kos.
Temescal Creek cohousing community in North Oakland.
The full article below the squiggle, sprinkled with some extra photos I took during my visits with three Bay Area cohousing communities.
“She didn’t even know I had been pregnant,” Sarah remembers. “After two years we didn’t even know all of our neighbors’ names.”
With no family in California and feeling isolated in their tiny apartment, Sarah and Andy were dreaming about a place with a feeling of neighborliness, where people watch out for each other and Greta could have space to run around. “We had no outdoor access except for the parking lot behind our building,” Sarah recalls, “and I felt this deep sadness, wondering where Greta would learn to climb a tree.”
The yearning to live in community is not a new one. Human beings evolved sharing common space, resources, and neighborly support, not only for physical survival but also for a sense of belonging and togetherness.
But modern society values autonomy, often at the cost of the social connection offered by traditional communities. Cohousing, an idea that originated in Denmark in the 1960s, has been increasingly filling the gap. Each household in cohousing has an individual residence but takes part in the design process, consensus-based decision-making, shared meals, and socializing.
The model is flexible enough that each cohousing community has its own aesthetics and sense of place. In San Francisco’s East Bay alone, several cohousing communities have been in existence for more than a decade, showing not only their staying power but also how they can evolve and mature over time.
Doyle Street cohousing in Emeryville
Doyle Street Cohousing in Emeryville is the second oldest such community in the United States. Led by architects and American cohousing pioneers Katie McCamant and Chuck Durrett, the original group moved into this urban industrial neighborhood in 1992. The complex consists of two buildings—one housed in the shell of an old factory—that form an “L” on two sides of a garden courtyard with outdoor dining and play areas. Indoors there’s an expansive common room, an industrial kitchen, a children’s playroom, and 12 loft-style flats that range from 700 to 1,600 square feet.
Gunkel says that Doyle Street has deepened his life beyond anything he could have imagined. “I’ve lived in single-family homes, and you might run into your neighbors and chat or even hang out,” he says, “but for the most part you’re not really sharing with them your concerns and feelings of day-to-day life. You don’t get that support and empathy. You get that with your friends, but your friends aren’t all right there.”
Swan's Market cohousing, downtown Oakland
A few miles south, in a downtown Oakland area that is still recovering from 1960s and ’70s style urban renewal, Swan’s Market Cohousing is proof that it’s possible to build a thriving intentional community in even the most challenging inner-city environments. Completed in March 2000 as part of an innovative historic preservation project, the abandoned old market is now a brick and ceramic tile complex with affordable rental apartments, shops, restaurants, professional offices, and the Museum of Children’s Art. The original cohousing members worked with a local developer on the building’s design. It includes units of 600 to 900 square feet and a spectacular common facility with a meeting room, living room, and a state-of-the-art kitchen.
“We have a really good structure to support the sign-up system. The cooks post the menu four days ahead of time, and closing for sign-up is two days before. We’ve also got a good system with the money—a meal ends up being between three and four bucks per person.”
Two miles up Broadway in North Oakland is Temescal Creek Cohousing, where the Karlsons have found neighbors to know and trees for Greta to climb.
This “retrofit community” was started in 1999 by five families who purchased three adjacent 1920s duplexes. Once they were settled in, they added a new upstairs unit and built a solar-powered common house.
The common house at Temescal Creek
“None of us who started this would have been able to afford a single-family house, especially in this neighborhood,” says Karen Hester, one of the founders of Temescal Creek. They bought the duplexes for $785,000, which she says was inexpensive by the standards of the day, but still no easy feat. “Everybody was working in non-profits and nobody had much money. We were all pretty stretched. We all got loans, mostly from family and friends. It’s certainly the best financial decision I’ve ever made, no question. And for my sense of community, it was also the best decision I ever made. It was the right decision on so many levels.”
Karen says that even though the beginning was a ton of work, she likes the retrofit model because, unlike other communities where everything gets built and arranged in advance, the Temescal Creek members had to figure things out as they went along. “It was so organic. We just jumped in together and made it up from there,” she says. They still had to put some things down on paper, like their shared meals schedule (twice a week) and work days, but to Karen the most important thing was that they were all pretty much on the same page in terms of basic expectations. “We wanted to be a loving and welcoming place for kids, but also for a range of adults.”
Things to do on a work day, inside and out.
Regardless of the physical set-up, the common thread that seems to run through all cohousing communities is that the most important values and benefits cannot be measured in dollars and cents. Neil Planchon describes cohousing communities as high-functioning neighborhoods. “Out in the world there’s so much—too much—it’s diluted. And here there’s an opportunity to do more meaningful work and make connections to help our brothers and sisters.”
These connections in turn empower and enable individual cohousing neighbors to have a positive impact on the broader community. Whether it’s Karen Hester running a weekly local food event called “Bites off Broadway” or Doyle Street’s Jennifer West running for (and getting elected to) the Emeryville City Council, having the community’s organization and support is huge. “I think that society is getting more creative as a whole,” says Brad Gunkel. “To be able to pool resources, to not just buy your way out of everything,” he adds, “there’s a lot of value that comes out of that.”
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