What Is Cohousing?

What is cohousing? is both a simple questions to answer and a varied answer. It is the result of a group of people who intentionally build a multi-family complex that becomes a neighborhood.    Each one is uniquely planned and developed, but there are many common characteristics.

Where Did It Start? What About Today?

Cohousing started in Denmark in the early 1979s when dual income professionals were searching for better daycare and a safer neighborhood. It has matured into an intergenerational mix of family types and is attractive to young families and single parents, as well as retired couples and singles. There are well over 200 projects completed in Denmark since the first was finished in 1972. In 2014, there are 111 built communities in the United States plus 22 under construction, 21 with purchased land, and others in various stages of optioning land and forming groups. A total of 221 known communities in 36 states.

Cohousing is a synthesis of several of the best features of multifamily housing and ranges in size from 12 to about 55 units. It is designed and often developed by the future residents and centered in the concept of balancing community and privacy as in an old fashioned village.

Because of limited government support for the early projects they have tended to be market-rate housing rather than low income. However, in Denmark much of the cohousing that is currently being developed is government sponsored rental or cost-controlled affordable ownership.

Essential Characteristics

While coho using developments vary in size, location, type of ownership, design, and priorities, the common characteristics are:

  • Participatory Process: Future residents participate in the planning and design of their community. They are responsible as a group for most of the final design and cost decisions.
  • Intentional Neighborhood Design: The physical design encourages a strong sense of community. With central pedestrian walkways or village greens, cars are generally relegated to the edge of the project, and sometimes to underground parking structures.
  • Private Homes & Common Facilities: Communities are generally designed to include significant common facilities, however, all residents also own their own private homes—with kitchens. As an integral part of the community, common areas are designed for daily use to supplement private living areas.
  • Resident Management: Unlike a typical condominium homeowners association, residents in cohousing usually manage their own community after move in, making decisions of common concern at regular community meetings.
  • Nonhierarchical Structure and Decision-Making: They say, “there are leadership roles, but not leaders in cohousing.” Decisions are made together, as a community, often using decision-making models such as consensus, or sociocracy.

Cohousing is NOT… There is no shared income in cohousing. Employment and business endeavors are privately organized. Common ideologies and charismatic leaders are generally not a part of cohousing. And of course, cohousing is not like a commune.

Design Considerations for Successful Cohousing

Cohousing is usually designed as clustered multifamily housing where each home is self sufficient, with private living, dining, and kitchen areas. Unlike housing built by a developer, a single cohousing project may have many unit types, ranging from studios to four or five bedrooms. And to avoid economic segregation, small and large units are interspersed. Cohousing is often designed with more compact and efficient living units in order to leave as much open space for natural areas, gardens, and recreation as possible.

Parking is segregated to the edge of the community, or possibly under the buildings, as at Trillium Hollow. Pedestrian circulation is designed to encourage interaction with neighbors. Private entries are located off pedestrian streets, pathways, and courtyards, allowing for a safe environment for children as well as gathering places for adults.

Smaller, more efficient private units accommodate a larger “common house” typically programmed to include daycare, laundry and dining facilities. Since prioritizing the common uses is done by the residents prior to construction, rarely does a common house include personal recreational uses. Residents often choose to include amenities such as a kitchen and dining area, children’s play areas, a library or lounge, and workshop facilities.

Ownership

As a matter of legal and financial convenience, most cohousing communities in North America have chosen the condominium legal ownership structure, known as strata title in Canada. This is due, primarily, to the expectations of lenders. For most people it’s important to make sure that you can get a mortgage.

Many would prefer to be organized as cooperative housing associations, since this tends to be more consistent with the goals of shared resources and the experience of community. A small number of groups have successfully adopted the cooperative ownership structure when they were able to locate the required financing.

Winslow Cohousing and the first two neighborhoods at the Ecovillage in Ithaca are the only cooperatively owned cohousing communities that we are aware of in the United States.