Cohousing: Old-Fashioned Neighborhoods

“It takes a village to raise a child” is an ancient African proverb that rings true with any generation. Feeling a sense of community is paramount among people who value social interaction and alliance with neighbors. This type of environment is integral in the lives of people who live in cohousing developments. Cohousing is a community-centered residential housing development that is similar to condominiums or townhouses. However, in addition to the private residences, there are a number of common facilities such as a common house with a large kitchen and dining area where members meet and share meals two or three times each week.

Cohousing developments are usually planned and constructed by the members. The units all have similar floor plans and features. All of the housing units as well as the common house are connected by a central walkway and parking is located around the outside of the property. The buildings are clustered together in order to preserve most of the open land for shared space.

The lifestyle that cohousing residents enjoy is community driven where members share their expertise and assist each other with things like gardening, home improvement projects, car pools, and child care. Similar to condominiums, there are membership fees that help pay for amenities like building improvements, playground equipment, and furnishings for the common house. All residents are members of the cohousing community and everyone is expected to attend the meetings and take turns serving on the many committees that keep the place functioning. Members discuss every policy, activity, and housing project at length and make their decisions based on consensus.

The concept of cohousing was first introduced in Denmark in the 1960s. The idea was developed by a group of families who felt that their families would be safer and benefit from more of a community environment. The first cohousing development in the United States was constructed in Davis, California around 1989. It was designed and developed by a team of architects who visited a number of cohousing communities in Europe. The first cohousing community developed in Utah is called Wasatch Commons in Salt Lake City, (1411 South 1605 West) which was designed by MJSA Architects and completed in 1998. The focus of the cohousing community is determined by the homeowners who help plan and develop the property. Some groups seek to develop multigenerational communities while others set out to create senior communities.

Cohousing residents are primarily homeowners who are familiar with the community lifestyle. However, some homeowners move out and choose to rent out their homes. The leases that renters sign contain an overview of cohousing as well as instructions for how all residents contribute to the community.

While the residents regularly interact with other members of the cohousing community, they do not isolate themselves from the surrounding neighborhoods. In fact, the cohousing members commonly invite people in the community to their dinners, parties, and other events. The entire community commonly enjoys rewarding experiences from these expanded activities.

Most residents find cohousing to be an ideal lifestyle for their families. However, it does have its share of downsides. While all decisions are made through consensus, there is the potential for conflict to rise among residents who are dissatisfied with certain decisions. Some members might discover that other families have different parenting styles and house rules that differ from their own. This can result in confusion and frustration among the kids. Members encourage direct communication in resolving conflicts. In some cases, members have employed the services of mediators or conflict resolution teams.

Living in a cohousing environment requires commitment and energy to participate on the member committees and attend all the meetings. However, the members rarely enforce participation from all residents. Obviously people need to attend the meetings if they want to contribute to the decisions. But it is appropriate and common for members to help out if a tenant or homeowner is struggling with a personal crisis or is overwhelmed with employment responsibilities. The reason most people choose to live in cohousing developments is because of the community involvement and willingness of the members to interact and assist each other.

Cohousing developments usually contain anywhere between 15 and 35 units ranging from 900 square-foot, single bedroom homes up to 1700 square-foot, four-bedroom homes. The price ranges vary according to market and unit size. Salt Lake’s Wasatch Commons consists of 26 clustered dwellings on 4.5 acres and looks similar to other PUDs (planned unit developments) in the area. Size ranges from 1,000 sf to 1,650 sf per town home.

By Salt Lake Digs Contributor, David Jensen

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