You’re Only as Strong as the Community You Live With

Last week’s Notes touched on the importance of building networks of people you trust that can help you and that you can help in a crisis.

After reading it, Brandon, my business partner, mentioned a concept along these lines we might want to share with readers. It’s called “cohousing.”

Cohousing is a concept that combines a self-managed neighborhood of privately-owned dwellings with shared resources and shared common spaces. A typical cohousing project might contain a dozen or more individually owned apartments, townhomes, or single-family houses, combined with a community center with shared amenities. For instance, the community center might include a large kitchen, dining room, and a playroom for children. Many cohousing developments also grow at least some of their own food.

The goal of cohousing is to overcome the alienation of modern housing, where few people know their neighbors and there is little sense of community. The community center that is part of most cohousing efforts offers many opportunities for social interaction.

For instance, most cohousing projects offer shared meals at the community center, giving residents recurring contact with their neighbors. However, each unit typically has its own kitchen. The community center also makes it practical for residents of a cohousing community to live in a smaller home than they might otherwise require. This reduces construction and maintenance costs for each unit.

Another advantage of cohousing communities is the opportunity to buy products or services that all residents need in bulk. Food is an obvious example, but some cohousing neighborhoods are set up so that utility services are delivered to a single master location within the neighborhood at wholesale prices, and then distributed to each unit. This is particularly cost effective for internet service, but could also include water, gas, and electricity service.

Cohousing isn’t a new idea. I briefly participated in a cohousing experiment in the 1970s when I attended university in Ohio; the Denison Homestead. More than 40 years later, it’s still going strong.

But the cohousing concept is older than that; humans have sought to set up sustainable communities for millennia. In more modern times, though, cohousing may have originated in 1964, when a Danish architect and his friends purchased land outside Copenhagen and prepared plans for a community of 12 homes set around a common house and swimming pool. Although the project was never built due to the opposition of neighbors and the resultant difficulties of acquiring the necessary permits (still a common problem in new cohousing ventures), the idea spread. By the early 1980s, more than 20 cohousing developments had been built in Denmark.

Today, the cohousing concept has spread worldwide. The Foundation for Intentional Community cohousing directory lists 459 communities, in all stages of development. Some are up and running; others are being built; others are seeking like-minded individuals to build a self-sustaining community.

We spent some time perusing this directory and found cohousing initiatives in every state except Delaware, Kansas, Nebraska, North Dakota, Rhode Island, South Dakota, and Wyoming.

In Canada, cohousing projects exist in every province and territory except for Newfoundland and Labrador, Prince Edward Island, and the Yukon.

Outside the United States and Canada, we found cohousing developments in Argentina, Australia, Austria, Belgium, Colombia, Costa Rica, Denmark, Ecuador, France, Italy, Mexico, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Panama, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, the United Kingdom, and even Venezuela. It strikes us that if you decide to move to a new country, you might want to consider living in a cohousing development there as a means of building yourself an instant community.

Most cohousing schemes listed in this directory are “ecovillages” organized around ecology and sustainability. In many cases, they’re designed from the ground-up to be environmentally sensitive and pedestrian friendly. In some communities, vehicles are shared so that not every resident needs to buy their own car. Many are agriculturally focused and grow most or all of their own food; often organically. Others are urban-based and focus on providing affordable housing. And a few are off-grid and so remote that there’s no internet or cellphone service.

Many cohousing projects seek members of all ages, family types, and social and religious backgrounds. But we also discovered cohousing initiatives built around shared religious affiliation: Believers (here, Yeshua, Hebrew, or Gentile); Christian, Jewish, Pagan (here, all female), Quaker, Yahshua (a Torah-based community), and Zen (a blend of Taoism & Buddhism). There are also cohousing initiatives built on shared beliefs or lifestyles: black empowerment, gay & lesbian, hemp-based, prepper, senior citizens, and women-centered. There’s even a community in Idaho preparing for life on the moon or Mars.

Most of the cohousing schemes we looked into involve purchasing a dwelling to which you take fee-simple title. Your purchase cost also includes “membership” in the cohousing community. (In Canada, this is called a “strata” arrangement.) In some cases, other members of the community must approve you as a new member. In others, anyone can buy into the community. In some developments, owner-members do most of the maintenance of the project itself. In others, there’s the equivalent of a homeowner’s association.

Cohousing obviously isn’t for everyone. But if you’re looking for an opportunity to tap into an instant community, it may well be worth exploring.  

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