Common needs spur growth in cohousing developments

Desire for community, shared resource savings are cited by proponents

For 39-year old Katherine Journeay of Marlborough, it started with a group of friends who complained that they never saw each other; they fantasized about owning land at the end of a dead-end road and putting up a bunch of houses. After a year of discussion they hired a cohousing consultant to see if they could really make it happen.

They started hunting for a site and the following year, in 2004, they purchased land in Berlin. Last May they broke ground and this summer they’re planning on moving into “Camelot Cohousing.” With 34 homes, it is situated on 68 acres abutting Mosaic Commons, another cohousing community under construction, with another 34 units.

Advocates for cohousing, a term used for private housing developments that include common facilities and offer communal meals and other shared benefits for residents, say interest in these types of neighborhoods is growing as more people look to build stronger communities, cope with increasing economic pressures, and live with others who share their concerns about the environment.

Hotbeds for cohousing communities include Denver, Washington state, California, and New England, according to the Cohousing Association of the United States, based in Boulder, Colo.

Zev Paiss, founding executive director of the Cohousing Association, said that over the past 18 months he’s been getting more calls from developers and landowners “who are up against the wall with either a stalled project, land, or huge inventory, and looking for ways to get themselves out of it.”

While Paiss said he thinks that cohousing developments could be an opportunity for builders and landowners to sell something that they normally couldn’t, he cautions that they have to be willing to partner with the future residents.

“We’re taking advantage of the hard economy right now, and they’re poking for new ways to present what they’ve got,” said Paiss, who runs Abraham Paiss & Associates Inc., a consulting company for the cohousing industry, and is cofounder of the Elder Cohousing Network for seniors.

Between 1991 and 1995, 16 completed communities registered with the Cohousing Association of the United States; between 1996 and 2000 there were 31; and between 2001 and 2005 there were 37 more. There are 11 completed communities in Massachusetts and many more are either building, forming, or seeking a site. Not all have registered with the Cohousing Association (for a list of states visit cohousing.org/directory).

“Many cohousing communities with land come to see themselves as actively preserving natural spaces and become stewards,” said Craig Ragland, executive director of the Cohousing Association.

Many, he said, use their land to host organic farms and community-supported agriculture. Ragland lives in Songaia, a cohousing community just outside of Seattle that has 15 homes with 38 people living on 11 acres.

Many communities also offer support for small-business ventures.

The office of Kraus-Fitch Architects in Amherst, for example, is located within Pioneer Valley Cohousing where both Mary Kraus and Laura Fitch have each lived since 1994; a number of residents living in Jamaica Plain Cohousing are psychotherapists and share an office within their community; and 43-year-old Larry Anderson, a lobsterman who lives at Two Echo Cohousing in Brunswick, Maine, builds his traps and stores them on community property.

Anderson throws an annual lobster bake as payment for use of cohousing land. He and his wife Clare are also in the rotation for cooking dinner once a month as their community offers two shared meals a week to its 100 residents.

“The average price for dinner is $3.50 per adult and $2.50 per child,” said Anderson quickly adding that when they use organic food the price is sometimes as high as $4.50 per adult. “There’s a real knack learning how to cook for a large group, but once you get it down it works really well and it’s a lot of fun.”

Anderson and his wife also run a preschool out of their home, which a number of children from the cohousing attend. The couple and their own three children have lived at Two Echo for the past eight years.

“I wouldn’t tell anyone that when you move in everyone is going to be your friend, but we coexist pretty well, I think,” he said.

Katie Clark, 45, and her husband Rob Wiener, 51, decided to move to Two Echo a decade ago in order to have greater contact and cooperation with neighbors. They also wanted to find land that they could preserve.

“We own 90 acres, 70 of which is in conservation easement with a homeowners association,” said Clark. Their own home sits on one-eighth of an acre.

One of the criteria in citing whether a living arrangement can be considered cohousing is that it must have shared facilities that are used, or could be used, daily. The most popular is a common house, which has a large kitchen and dining room. Some communities have a living room, a fitness center, and a children’s playroom.

At Songaia, where Ragland lives, there is also a large barn with a ceramics room, a café area, and three food pantries that they draw from as a community. There are even guest rooms, which his college-age son uses when he returns home (his former bedroom was converted into an art studio). The shared space enables individuals or families to live in smaller homes and share costs. The people who form each community decide what they want to share, and what they do not.

Of course close living can have problems as well, but Ragland said that his community has been pretty successful in handling some very major stresses, like divorces.

“We’re pretty much ordinary Americans with the added sharing component in our lives,” said Ragland.

That sharing component is where the financial savings comes into play. Instead of buying 15 snow blowers or lawnmowers, they only need one or two. The same goes for building a fitness room, guest rooms, and play spaces. Some families, like two in Jamaica Plain Cohousing, have gone as far as sharing a second car.

“Now it seems as though the movement has moved very urban,” said Kelly Scotthanson, chief executive of Cohousing Resources, a cohousing development consulting company with offices in Washington state and Boston. “People are looking for more of a community within the context of a city environment.”

The 2008 National Cohousing Conference will take place from June 13 – 15, 2008 at Bentley College in Waltham. For more information go to cohousing.org/cm/news/2008conferencedate .

Susan Chaityn Lebovits can be reached at Lebovits@globe.com

© Copyright 2008 Globe Newspaper Company.

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