Cohousing communities

Cohousing communities work to create neighborhood lifestyle of past

By Jay Dedrick, Rocky Mountain News
July 17, 2004

They gather over platters of teriyaki tuna steak and rice, mango salsa and tossed salad, piling their plates high, but saving room for fresh-baked pie. The patter of raindrops on windows and a swinging Glenn Miller tune from a boom box add a secondary soundtrack to the din of laughter and conversation among 30 or so friends and family members.

The occasion? Tuesday night. It's one of two weekly group meals that residents at the Hearthstone community rotate preparing for one another. The Common House serves as cafeteria, town hall, rec room, laundry room and guest cottage for the 66 residents of the 33 surrounding townhomes, tucked tightly together in this northwest Denver development.

The lifestyle is one that requires work. In a lot of communities, people don't want to know their neighbors; Hearthstone isn't like that.

"We say the Common House is an extension of our living rooms," says Kellie Teter, 38. She, her husband, John Connell, 40, and 6-year-old son David Teter moved into the neighborhood 21/2 years ago in search of community. They found it, as have about 800 people living in 10 cohousing developments throughout Colorado.

The word cohousing comes from "community housing." The movement strives to recapture the small-town or neighborhood lifestyle of the past, transplanting it primarily into large metro areas.

Across the country, some 5,000 people have taken up residence in 73 cohousing communities, according to the Cohousing Association of the United States. The association charts an annual growth rate of 12 percent, based on 27 cohousing projects in 1998 and 64 last year.

Colorado is a cohousing hotbed, ranking fifth behind California, Massachusetts, Washington and Oregon. One of the major developers nationally, Wonderland Hill Development Co., is based in Boulder.

In the planning stages of a cohousing community, residents come together to imagine the community they want to live in. It might be a group of acquaintances with a common background - they attend the same church, or their kids go to the same schools - or home buyers who discover the community in an advertisement.

Families share some living spaces, like a common building and playground. They also share responsibilities, managing the properties themselves. Besides helping to buy groceries and cook a group meal about once a month, Teter orders all paper products for the community.

Misconceptions about cohousing abound. "One man here was asked if there's wife-swapping. And my dad is always asking, 'How's life at the commune?' " Teter says, rolling her eyes.

Communes vs. cohousing

Residents of communes and cohousing may share similar spirits of cooperation and togetherness, but the differences in execution are wide.

In cohousing, residences are privately owned, unlike collective ownership in communes. There's no income sharing among cohousing residents, and each home has its own kitchen.

As in communes, though, shared meals and child care are a routine part of life. Work days, with chores for everyone throughout the complex, are scheduled once a quarter, at least. And you can't get away with only seeing your neighbors as they exit and enter their garages: Developments such as Hearthstone are designed to encourage interaction among neighbors.

The biggest demand on cohousing residents: policy decisions. Choices and rules - from the color of window trim and style of cabinets to whether neighborly visits should be preceded by a knock at the door or a phone call - must be reached by consensus. You're free to disagree with your neighbor, but holding a grudge might make for long-term misery, given that issues discussed at two-hour, monthly meetings call for participation.

"Not everybody is going to love each other," says Hearthstone resident Sheana Bull, 39, whose family is friends with the Connell-Teter clan. "But there's a respect and openness among everyone in the community. Our relationships are the most important thing.

"I don't know that it's any more challenging than living in a traditional neighborhood, but I know there's more at stake."

An old-fashioned feel

It's been a decade since the official opening of Lafayette's Nyland, the first cohousing community in Colorado and only the fourth in the country. Colorado's newest cohousing development, Wild Sage, officially opened last month in Boulder; plans are under way for a nearby cohousing community for residents over age 50, Silver Sage.

"We're re-creating the old fashioned neighborhood, the notion of village life that goes back 200 years - or 10,000 years," says Neshama Abraham, a six-year resident of Boulder's Nomad cohousing and president of Abraham Paiss and Associates, a business that works with cohousing communities early in their development.

This spring, Hearthstone's Common House hosted a weekend workshop reflecting on lessons learned during the first 15 years of U.S. cohousing, which migrated here after beginning in Denmark in the late '60s. Connell gave a presentation on informal community meetings, a practice adopted at Hearthstone after several residents complained of too much structure, too many rules.

Cohousing inhabitants derive primarily from three groups, Abraham says: young singles, families with children and retirees. Each group makes up about an equal third of the population.

"It offers intergenerational support," Abraham says. "It's a very healthy way to spend the last part of your life, because you contribute. You count. And if you're single or a young couple, your social life is right here."

Parents enjoy a built-in support system of neighbors who can share sitting chores. "There are other people to help," Abraham says. "You don't have to be totally exhausted all the time."

Though statistics are elusive, anecdotally, cohousing residents say their communities are safer than most, thanks to residents all knowing one another. When outsiders step into a community, residents are quick to approach and ask who they are. Cohousing communities tend to have lower turnover rates than most neighborhoods, too, developers say.

Cohousing communities typically comprise 15 to 35 households in single-family homes or townhomes. Hearthstone consists of 33 townhomes housing 51 adults and 15 children. Home styles range from a 1,300-square-foot unit with one bedroom and one bath to a 2,100-square-foot unit with three bedrooms and 21/2 baths. Some have attached garages. The townhomes are clustered in groups of three to five, and form a horseshoe around a yard and playground.

Nyland's 42 households and 140 residents make it the largest cohousing community in the state. "That's about the maximum number of people you can get to know well," says Abraham, explaining the limit. "You also don't want to overload the common facility."

High cost of cohousing

Fledgling cohousing communities often enlist the help of a developer, and Boulder's Wonderland Hill has carved a niche by offering a streamlined process of establishing a cohousing community. Wonderland has completed 11 cohousing neighborhoods in Arizona, California, Washington and Colorado - including Nyland, Hearthstone, Nomad and Wild Sage - and is working on six others across the country.

Entering into cohousing isn't cheap, at least not up front, with prices running about 10 percent to 20 percent above market, according to Wonderland Hill president Jim Leach. Sizes and prices vary widely, even within one community: Silver Sage plans call for affordable-housing units around $107,000 as well as luxury homes topping out around $650,000.

The Connell-Teter family's three-bedroom, 21/2-bath townhouse at Hearthstone cost $225,000. Teter says a few Hearthstone residents have had to move away because the cost was too high. Besides the initial investment, monthly dues are collected from all households, much like a traditional homeowners' association, for upkeep of the common property. Cost of the common meals averages about $4 each.
For her family, Teter says, the expense is worthwhile, with the 4,800-square-foot Common House's availability for laundry (though each house has washer-dryer hook-ups, about a third of the community does laundry at the Common House) and other functions a big plus. Once the basement is finished, it will provide a guest room for visitors to Hearthstone residents.

Hearthstone's housing units also were built for energy efficiency. Environmental responsibility is another factor attracting folks like Connell and Teter; many cohousing developments, especially those in rural settings like Nyland, incorporate community gardens and farms to provide for the residents.
"And we share resources, from help loading the car to borrowing a ladder or ski equipment," Teter says. "We help each other out."

Spirit of community

That's the kind of interaction the Connell-Teter family sought while living in a traditional neighborhood in northwest Denver, their home for the five years prior to moving to Hearthstone. Natives of the city's suburbs, the couple welcomed the diversity of their neighbors, and assumed that they'd find the spirit of community that they craved.

"We invited a neighbor over for dinner, and she said, 'Oh, that's sweet, dear, but we're not that kind of neighbor,' " Teter recalls. "We were friendly with folks, and they were very nice, but it became clear that they were not going to be interested in the same kind of community and relationships that we were."

Teter, a social-work administrator, and Connell, an EPA enforcer, had read about cohousing, and Connell was sold on it after a visit to Golden's Harmony Village. They learned of plans for Hearthstone - a small part of the Highlands Village redevelopment at the old Elitch Gardens site - a week before groundbreaking, joining just in time to take part in community planning.

"We've been very happy. We get our life out of living here," Teter says. "You can have as much privacy and time away from the community as you want - just close the door, close the blinds.

"Or you can have as much participation and involvement as you want. There's rarely a time I can't go outside or to the Common House and interact. I was not a person with a lot of friends before, and now I have a lot. I can call on these people for advice or feedback or support - a kick in the butt when I need it."

Ethnic diversity a goal

One shortfall, Teter says, is that Hearthstone hasn't become ethnically diverse.

"We would like the community to look like a little cross section of Denver," Teter says. "We want diversity, but we don't want people who aren't interested in community. Even political diversity is a challenge. Most of us are fairly left-leaning. So someone might state as fact that 'George Bush is an idiot,' and then realize they've offended their neighbor."

Striving for tolerance is part of what appeals to Connell. He says he's inspired by cohousing's "experiment in inclusiveness" and making decisions by consensus. "I love seeing how people can transcend their own self-interest and take on the interests of the community."

He can look to his wife for an example of making that leap. Last summer, she had grown unhappy with the neighborhood's unpainted porches, and spearheaded an effort to get them painted. She collected bids on the work and hired a contractor. The only problem: Her neighbors were happy with the porches as-is.

"A lot of people were worried about how I would react, and told me, 'We don't want you to be mad,' " Teter says. "I said, 'I'm not mad - I just want to paint my porch!' And I could, but it would stand out. So my porch still needs painting, but it won't get it, because that would cause concern and conflict. It's not worth it. I'll wait until the community is ready to paint the porches."

That lesson in patience is invaluable, says Connell, who adds that living in cohousing provides ongoing opportunities for personal growth. "You learn how to communicate with others," he says, "and question your own assumptions."

Not a fit for everyone

Bruce Swinehart says he got an education of his own during two years living at Nyland.

"Sometimes I think I should have left with a graduate degree," says the 46-year-old consultant. "I learned a lot about decision making and organizing, and it was an important experience in my life. Neither of us regret moving there."

Swinehart and his wife, Daphne Chellos, were part of the Nyland community during the four years of planning, then moved in as founding residents in 1992. They moved out in 1994, just as the community was officially completed.

Longtime Boulder residents, the couple found that the Lafayette location - and community responsibilities, such as working to maintain Nyland's 35 acres - made for greater distance than they expected.

"As wonderful as that community was, and it included good friends, we already had an established social network in Boulder that we were missing," Swinehart says. "We felt like we were a little isolated from our friends."

Community living also brought the pressure of expectations from neighbors. For someone whose career entails sitting at home alone with a phone and computer, or who stays busy with homemaking and child-rearing, the community interaction of cohousing can be a welcome, vital part of a social life, Abraham says. She estimates about a third to a half of cohousing residents work at home.

But for those who work outside of the house and with the public - Swinehart worked for Boulder human services at the time; Chellos is a teacher and psychotherapist - the home's role as retreat from the world is important.

"We were looking for a lifestyle in which we could get home at the end of the day and have a sense of privacy, and not feel a sense of obligation and responsibility to a larger community," Swinehart says. "That expectation was an extra challenge for us."

Still, Swinehart misses the days when he could pop in at the next-door neighbor's and grab an avocado off the kitchen table, or enjoy occasional after-school visits from neighborhood kids.

"I felt it worked well on a micro level, day to day, in terms of informal interaction," Swinehart says. "But on a macro level, how do you get a community of 100-some people to move in the same direction? That was hard work."

Like Swinehart, David Schneider, 56, and his family also moved into Nyland at the very beginning. His two children have grown up and moved out, but he and his wife, Sheila, remain. Besides the idea of intentional community, they were attracted by the goal of living gently on the land and maintaining an organic garden. An insurance agent, Schneider makes his 3-mile commute to work on a bicycle.

The pluses of cohousing outweigh the minuses, he says, likening the lifestyle's difficulties to those encountered in family life.

"It's like a very small town, and a lot like an extended family. Sometimes you depend on other people and things don't happen," Schneider says. "Or you'll have disagreements because of different expectations. In a community with 125 people, there's always going to be someone who has a different style.

"I mean, we'll have two or three meetings on roof colors, and it seems ridiculous. But it's those kinds of things that brought us together as a community."

Longtime friendships

Their satisfaction with the community they found has Teter and Connell convinced that their family will be at Hearthstone for the next 20, 30, maybe 40 years.

"Knowing that you're going to see your neighbors for most of the rest of your life really makes a difference, both in how you work at the relationships and in terms of what you're willing to let go," Teter says.

"The spontaneous encounters, spontaneous picnics in front of our house - those are the best," Connell says. "And I really like the group meals. Those are pretty much where the community really happens."

Schneider says that Nyland already feels like an old neighborhood where residents have known one another for decades.

"At the very least, we're a very close, safe neighborhood to live in," he says. "If that's the worst-case scenario, it's pretty darn good."

Living in cohousing

• Versus communes: Residences are privately owned. No income sharing. Separate kitchens.

• Versus regular neighborhoods: Regularly scheduled common meals. Sharing of some living spaces, like common house with kitchen, and playgrounds. Cohousing residents manage property themselves and take part in scheduled maintenance days. Informal shared child care.

• Home costs: About 20 to 30 percent higher than comparable non-cohousing home. Monthly dues for community upkeep and common meals.

• Environmental responsibility built into communities with gardens and chores for everyone, including kids.

• Committees govern policies on everything from home cosmetics to visiting etiquette.

• Safety: Residents say crime and safety concerns are less than elsewhere because homeowners all know one another.

Cohousing resources

For more information on cohousing and to learn about communities in development, contact the Cohousing Association of the United States,

• Presentation: Wonderland Hill Development Company will present a slide show and information session on cohousing at 7 p.m. Tuesday at the Lyons Soda Fountain, 400 Main St., in Lyons. Jim Leach, founder and president of Wonderland, will speak. A proposed 18-home cohousing site in Lyons will be previewed with audience participation and opinion encouraged. Call Annie Russell, 303-449-3232, ext. 115 for details.

Other resources on the Web, the site of Wonderland Hill Development Co.

• At bookstores and libraries, look for these titles:
Cohousing: A Contemporary Approach to Housing Ourselves, by Kathryn McCamant, Charles Durrett, Ellen Hertzman ($29.95, Ten Speed Press)

• Creating a Life Together: Practical Tools to Grow Ecovillages and Intentional Communities, by Diana Leafe Christian ($22.95, New Society Publishers)

Colorado's cohousing communities

• Nyland, Lafayette, 42 units, completed 1993

• Highline Crossing, Littleton, 40 units, 1997

• Greyrock Commons, Fort Collins, 30 units, 1997

• Harmony Village, Golden, 27 units, 1997

• Nomad, Boulder, 11 units, 1998

• River Rock Commons, Fort Collins, 34 units, 2000

• Heartwood, Durango, 24 units, 2000

• Hearthstone, Denver, 33 units, 2002

• Casa Verde, Colorado Springs, 34 units, 2003

• Wild Sage, Boulder, 34 units, 2004

Others being developed in Boulder, Carbondale, Fort Collins, Lyons and Longmont

dedrickj@com or 303-892-5484