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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

Takoma Village, Co-Housing, Exterior, Residences, Livable Communities

Photo by Ellen Ryan

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.

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.

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.

Neighbors, Co-Residents Sit On Sofa And Play With Dog, Co-Housing, Livable Communities

Photo by Ellen Ryan

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

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.

Common House, Great Room, Kitchen, Table, Chairs, Livable Communities, Co-Housing

Photo by Ellen Ryan

A balcony view of the common house great room, which includes a kitchen and dining area.

"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.  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.

Sign Up Board, Volunteering, Co-Housing, Livable Communities

Photo by Ellen Ryan

"Soup 'n Simple" is one of several optional meal planning and sharing activities.

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.

A "For Sale" flyer for a two-bedroom townhouse with a den

Image courtesy Takoma Village Cohousing

Owners who need or want to move typically sell their units themselves and with the help of the community.

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.

Floorplan For Co-Housing Residence, Livable Communities

Image courtesy Takoma Village Cohousing

Above: The floor plan for a two-bedroom condo apartment. Takoma Village Cohousing has flats with one or two bedrooms and two-story townhomes with two to four bedrooms.

11. How is Takoma Park Cohousing an ecofriendly community?

In addition to a solar array and geothermal heating/cooling, all lumber and flooring for the building were chosen for sustainability and the walls were built with extra insulation. Light pipes (similar to skylights) brighten the upper floors. Pesticide use is minimal and food waste is composted. Communal ownership of everything from treadmills to outdoor grills means less consumption. Many residents get by with one car or no car at all because of the nearby bus and train system, taxis, bikeshare station and carshare options. Recycling bins are everywhere, including for unwanted mail. One owner collects batteries for recycling.

12. What are the advantages of living in cohousing?

The most common answer: "mutual support," which residents define in many different ways. Some take part in optional shared meals, which reduce the burden on working parents. In a similar vein, parents appreciate the sense of having a village to raise a child.

"We like the age range, the generations that are here," says Anna Stockdale, whose family is renting. Stockdale has a six-year-old daughter who walks herself to visit a friend. "I feel safe with that," she adds. The child also enjoys being able to hang out in the common house playroom.

Residents with illnesses, injuries or disabilities find that neighbors are quick to help with meals, rides to medical care and more.

On a larger level, there's always someone to socialize with. "This place celebrates everything," residents say, with parties for birthdays, holidays and the Super Bowl. There are movie nights and Presidential inaugural viewing parties. "Sometimes gatherings just materialize," one owner notes. "Someone will bring their dinner down to sit in the piazza, and the next thing you know there's a whole bunch of people chatting and having a good time."

13.  What are some disadvantages?

"Someone [who] has problems with meetings, who can be impatient with process" might have a hard time in cohousing, says resident Mark Headings. People who want to go their own way and not use consensus to resolve issues would likely butt heads with neighbors who do. "It's sometimes more work to live here than to have your own small place elsewhere," says one.

A few residents grumble, a little, about footing the bill for perks or services they don't use, from childcare to the hot tub. Some cohousing communities handle this by charging user fees. Takoma Village Cohousing does not. As one resident points out, "Somebody's always supporting something that they don't use."

Another potential downside is the extra need for good communication. The need for consensus, the need to communicate expectations of community, the need to clarify whether people are working — all these require more effort than in a typical condominium or homeowners' association.

Man Does Laundry In The Shared Laundry Room, Co-Housing, Livable Communities

Photo by Ellen Ryan

Owner Peter Kent folds towels in the shared laundry room. Not having to buy and maintain one's own washer/dryer saves money and opens up space for other uses.

14.  How does the community handle conflicts?

Some cohousing communities have a formal dispute resolution group. Takoma Village Cohousing does not. Owners did conduct nonviolent communication workshops early on, which several mentioned finding valuable. The advice for problems among neighbors is low-key communication — in person or over the Listserve for something systemic.

An example of low-key communication, per Headings: "I really know it's so inviting to bounce a ball in the piazza, but please don't do that because of the way the sound reverberates." The group paraphrased another owner's words to live by: "Please don't either give offense or take offense easily."

15. How much privacy do residents have?

"Cohousing neighborhoods are designed for privacy as well as community. Residents balance privacy and community by choosing their own level of engagement," states the Coho/US website. "I thought it would be a bit of a fishbowl, like we'd all be in each other's business," a woman at Takoma Village Cohousing shares. But living in fairly close quarters — as in any form of multifamily housing — with the added interaction with neighbors hasn't meant complete transparency. Several owners nod when one offers, "I do think there is a sort of visual privacy. We see stuff going on, but we don't intervene."

16. What attracts potential buyers to Takoma Village Cohousing?

"Cohousing is really hot for a certain niche of the population," says one woman, to general agreement. "Most of the people who move here do so because they like the idea of a community, of knowing their neighbors, interacting with neighbors, the social aspect." The Metrorail station two blocks away is a major draw. Other selling points, says Headings, include a neighborhood swimming pool, a library, a popular farmers' market, a food co-op and the walkability of the neighborhood around them.

Girl Plays In Courtyard, Residences, Co-Housing, Livable Communities

Photo by Ellen Ryan

A young girl plays in Takoma Village Cohousing's shared piazza.

17. Is there an approval process for new owners, like in a co-op?

There's no approval process for buying an apartment in Takoma Village Cohousing, but there is an education process. Because cohousing is about community, fellow owners want to make sure new neighbors truly buy in to the concept.

Takoma Village Cohousing's resale/rental pod tries to take the place of a real estate agent by finding a pool of informed buyers or renters. As one member put it, "You want to sell your place, right? We want to make sure the next person coming in is a good fit. So let's work together."

Newcomers are invited to a tour and a meal and urged to read about cohousing and Takoma Village Cohousing specifically and speak with current owners. Says one owner: "We want them to educate themselves so they really know what they're getting into. We're more organized about that than we used to be."

18.  Do Takoma Village Cohousing residents encounter stereotypes or misconceptions about cohousing?

There are grins all around at this question and the stereotypes come quickly: Commune, Tree huggers, Hippie housing. Even what New York Times columnist David Brooks called Bobos, or "bourgeois Bohemians."

Although Takoma Village Cohousing residents tend to be well read, socially and politically aware, highly opinionated — and, safe to say, largely left leaning — they scorn the "hippie housing" label. "We're upper middle class," says Headings, pointing out that Takoma Village Cohousing owners can afford to purchase housing in an expensive city on the edge of a leafy suburb.

19.  Were, or are, there zoning or other special requirements to create cohousing complexes like Takoma Village Cohousing?

According to the Cohousing Association of the United States, all but two or three American cohousing communities among its membership are condos, townhouse complexes or a mix like Takoma Village Cohousing. So generally, the requirements are simply those of any multifamily housing.

A main concern early on, residents Ann Zabaldo and Mark Headings note, was making sure Takoma Village Cohousing's common house kitchen was not ruled to be commercial because then, they explain, "we would have needed commercial licenses, commercial hoods … we would have been a restaurant!"

Zabaldo says the developer asked the fire marshal's office to think of the common house kitchen as it would a church kitchen: It prepares meals, has potlucks and communal dinners and special events, but does not sell anything. "This is where we really need a cohousing zoning code," explains Zabaldo. "We're like 98 percent or 99 percent just straight condo, but that one percent can make a difference."

20.  What might local leaders — elected officials, policy makers, housing planners, even developers — do to make cohousing an easier or more available option for older adults or people of all ages?

"Reduce the conflicts in zoning and condominium laws for cohousing," says Zabaldo. "Better still, draft legislation specifically for cohousing." Second, "provide development tax credits for developers of senior cohousing communities [and] provide city-owned development sites or tax credits for individuals purchasing a home in a senior cohousing community."

Learn More:

Ellen Ryan is a Maryland-based freelance writer and editor. She has written for AARP the Magazine and for The Washingtonian, where she served as the monthly magazine's managing editor.

Published January 2016

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