A Livable Lesson

20 Questions and Answers About Cohousing

Private homes and apartments with common (not 'commune') spaces can be supportive, affordable and great for people of all ages

 

Exterior view of the Takoma Park Cohousing complex

An exterior view of the Takoma Village Cohousing common house, which includes, among other features, a kitchen, dining area, living room, children's playroom, reading nook, laundry and guest rooms that owners can rent if they don't have enough space in their own homes for visiting friends and family. — Photo by Ellen Ryan

Strangers who decide to create a community and live in their own dwellings — yet share common spaces, activities and various aspects of their lives — are part of a growing movement referred to as "cohousing."

An example of an intentional community, the concept originated in the 1960s in Denmark and spread in part thanks to the 1988 book Cohousing: A Contemporary Approach to Housing Ourselves. According to the Cohousing Association of the United States (Coho/US), as of the fall of 2015 it had more than 150 cohousing communities as members, from Fairbanks, Alaska, to Atlanta, Georgia.

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"Cohousing's growing appeal trades on concerns and aspirations that are part '60s counterculture, part '00s 'sharing economy,' and bound into the American DNA all the way back to Plymouth Rock," reads a 2015 article in Portland Monthly. Its focus was the 15 homes of Oregon's Sunlight Holding Co., which dates to the 1970s. "It's not as if everyone is my close friend," a longtime resident explained. "But there isn't one person who wouldn't be there if I needed them."

That's the idea behind Takoma Village Cohousing, a 43-household condominium-townhouse complex near the Maryland border in northwest Washington, D.C. Since the first owners took residence in 2000, Takoma Village has solidified into a vibrant, self-governing community that's home to activists; federal, nonprofit and private-sector workers; retirees; young parents and children who live and play on 1.4 acres of urban infill.

"By its nature, cohousing is an efficient way to live," reads a Takoma Village brochure. "By owning real estate in common and sharing appliances and tools, each household owns less 'stuff.' For example, each household owns 1/43 of the lawnmower and the exercise equipment."

Practical! Also fun, ecofriendly and people-friendly, if not necessarily right for everyone.

AARP Livable Communities sat down with 10 Takoma Village residents ranging in age from 36 to 76 to learn how the community came together, how residents balance privacy and shared space, and how work does indeed get done by consensus.

The following residents contributed their thoughts: Janet Braun, Mary Jane Cavallo, Genowefa Fiuk, Alicia George, Mark Headings, James McDonough, Libia McDonough, Anna Stockdale, Sharon Villines and Ann Zabaldo. Where comments are not in quotes, they are paraphrased or combined from several speakers.

HERE'S HOW IT WORKS

WHAT: Takoma Village Cohousing

WHERE: 6827 Fourth Street NW, Washington, D.C.

1. Who lives at Takoma Village Cohousing?

At the time of the discussion with AARP, there were 70 adults and 17 youngsters in residence, ranging in age from less than a year old to nearly 88. Eight out of 10 residents are white, and six percent of the residents identify as LGBT. People of varying abilities live at Takoma Village Cohousing, and the common house is Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) compliant. After 15 years, 60 percent of residents are still founding owners.

Residents of Takoma Park Cohousing gather in the common room

From left, Libia McDonough, Mark Headings, Genowefa Fiuk, Ann Zabaldo and Fiuk's dog visit in the common house great room. — Photo by Ellen Ryan

2. How did Takoma Village Cohousing come together?

In the late 1990s, a few of the founding owners say, there was interest in having a cohousing community in the area. A developer had found the infill property and contacted Ann Zabaldo, a national cohousing leader. "Would cohousing work there?" he wondered.

"Give me 30 days and $600, and I'll find out," Zabaldo recalls saying. Fliers distributed in local neighborhoods brought about 65 people to the first couple of meetings, from which 15 households signed on to launch Takoma Village Cohousing. "That's the way cohousing gets done," says Zabaldo, who lives in the community she helped create. "People who know people who know people."

The Takoma Village Cohousing pioneers were able to pre-sell 75 percent of the units within nine months. Owners had input into the design, from colors to floor plans. Groundbreaking was in the fall of 1999, and the first owners moved in on November 17, 2000.

3. Is cohousing a co-op, a homeowners' association, a commune?

Co-owners say their living arrangement is technically a homeowners' association because it's a condominium and is legally governed by a board and condominium documents. But more to the point, cohousing is an intentional community.

The kitchen and dining area in the common house

A balcony view of the common house great room, which includes a kitchen and dining area. — Photo by Ellen Ryan

"We live together because we want to know our neighbors and interact with our neighbors," says one owner. "It's like the old-fashioned neighborhood of the future," says another. Adds resident Mary Jane Cavallo: "We have common meals when we want to, although we have our own places too. [A common meal] saves me a lot of work."

4. What's private property and what's public property in a cohousing complex?

Takoma Village Cohousing features two rows of privately owned condos and townhouses that face each other across a green. (See the next page for a condo floor plan and sales sheet.) The rows are connected by a 3,800-square-foot common house, which is a three-story, elevator-equipped structure where meetings, parties and other gatherings take place. The common house has community mailboxes, a kitchen, a great room with dining tables and a fireplace, a playroom, a TV room, workshop, exercise room, two guestrooms, an office, a laundry room and reading nook. Outside features include a hot tub, garden, playground, piazza and backyard hammock. The grounds and parking lot are common space as well.

5. What's the governance structure?

As with any condo, a board of directors complies with the legal structure of the condominium. Early on, says Mark Headings, a founding owner, all owners also met weekly because "there was a lot of organizational stuff to figure out. But now we can have meetings scheduled even once a month, and sometimes they get canceled for lack of pressing business." The board doesn't issue edicts. Instead, important decisions are made by consensus of the whole, not by majority vote. "We discuss it until we come to agreement," explains one owner.

"Soup 'n Simple" is one of several optional meal planning and sharing activities. — Photo by Ellen Ryan

6. Everyone has to agree? How does anything get done?

"It takes a long time," says one, laughing. Or it can. Often, enough communication happens in person and online before a meeting that official decisions come easily. Other times, such as with the pet policy, contention has meant trouble agreeing and time spent in discussion. (By the way, cats and dogs are allowed in the private residences, and dogs on leashes can visit the common areas.)

Budget matters have become easier over time, owners say. "Early on, in our first year, when we realized the condo fees were not going to be sufficient — that there was going to be a significant increase — we had little, what we called mini-meetings, separate from the main meetings, for those who were really interested and concerned," says a resident. "But overall, we were a pretty agreeable bunch most of the time." If there's ever an issue about which owners can't agree at all, it gets tabled or dropped.

7. How does cohousing work financially?

Owners pay their own property taxes plus a monthly condo fee. Takoma Village Cohousing residents note that common ownership of such amenities as the guest rooms, washers/dryers (though some people have their own) and exercise or garden equipment means that housing spaces can be smaller than in many homes. Also, economies of scale work to everyone's advantage. (There's a common Internet provider, for instance.) And because so much of Takoma Village Cohousing was built or improved with green technology — from geothermal heating and cooling to solar panels — both individual and common energy bills are relatively low. In addition, labor provided by the residents lessens the financial burden for all and makes the community "work together." 

8. Residents' labor? What do they do?

Everyone is expected to put in at least six hours of community-related work each month, although most do considerably more. There are eight to 10 scheduled workdays a year in which residents do everything from repairs to groundskeeping to heavy-duty cleaning, and those days alone fulfill most of a resident's labor expectation.

Adults are assigned to one of three teams — facilities, administration or community — and subteams called "pods" keep everything running, from bookkeeping to party planning to systems maintenance. Some work is regular and structured, while other work is as needed, like shoveling snow. Residents' labor has a dual purpose, the owners say: It saves an enormous amount of money and it builds community. Takoma Village Cohousing hires for particularly specialized tasks, such as electrical and plumbing work, and for plowing the parking lot.

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Owners who need or want to move typically sell their units themselves and with the help of the community. — Image courtesy Takoma Village Cohousing

9. What about people who can't do physical labor? Or people with odd schedules?

There's plenty to do for everyone, residents say. An older or disabled owner might take minutes at meetings or confer with consultants or plan events. People with odd schedules are considered an asset. Those around during the day let in repair people, accept deliveries and even handle emergencies. "Those of us who stay up late at night also take care of things," says Cavallo, noting that one resident enjoys weeding in the garden during the quiet of the night.

10.  Does the work system ever break down? Do some people not contribute?

There is the occasional orphan task, and the problem of not contributing is also occasional. "I think all cohousing communities struggle with that," one owner says. "We don't have enforcement mechanisms."

One way to avoid the problem is to educate potential residents. To that end, the resale/rental pod, the subgroup in charge of finding suitable new residents, stresses the importance of community work. Another helpful point, several owners say, is realizing that perception may not be reality. "Some people participate in different ways, some in ways you don't always see," notes one. Because some work is done individually or not during prime time, people may not realize it's being done or that a certain neighbor has been putting in the time.

Next page: Pros and cons »  


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