Cohousing: what's so UU about it?
I have enjoyed living in cohousing for more than twelve years: I have found it extremely compatible with my Unitarian Universalism. And coming up with an “elevator speech” in answer to the question “What is cohousing?” is just as challenging as answering the question “What is Unitarian Universalism?”
The cohousing movement began in Denmark in the late 1960s and came to the United States twenty years later. The Cohousing Association of the United States describes cohousing as “a form of collaborative housing that offers residents an old-fashioned sense of neighborhood. In cohousing, residents know their neighbors very well and there is a strong sense of community that is absent in contemporary cities and suburbs. Cohousing communities consist of private, fully-equipped dwellings and extensive common amenities. . . . They are designed and managed by the residents who have chosen to live in a close-knit neighborhood that seeks a healthy blend of privacy and community.”
Perhaps some personal stories will best illustrate the ideals of the cohousing movement.
On a typical morning, as I walk my toy poodle, Bapu, toward the garden I greet my neighbor Mark, who is bringing the morning papers up from the garden gate to leave at our neighbors' doorsteps. I may wave hello to Sarah, seated at the breakfast table in her house, and say hi to Neil, opening his door for his two cats. Later, on my way out through the common house I may pass other neighbors clearing out the kids' room in preparation for their weekly yoga class. Wow. By 7:15 a.m. I've already said good morning to eight of my neighbors.
Since I work at home, I sometimes sign for deliveries, let in service people, and play with Talia, a toddler, while her mom runs an errand or needs some uninterrupted time to finish a sermon (Talia's mom's a Unitarian Universalist minister). I've been called during the day by neighbors away at work to ask if I'd look for a phone number on a scrap of paper they've left on their desk, close windows against an unexpected rain, or move a batch of their laundry from the washer to the dryer.
One recent Tuesday was a common dinner night, and about twenty of us ate together. John and Cheryl prepared a wonderful vegetarian repast topped off with one of John's spectacular desserts. As all our cooking teams do, these two folks did every bit of the meal preparation for that night (menu planning, shopping, cooking, serving, and cleaning up). The rest of us got to relax, eat, and chat with the neighbors during the dinner hour. I cooked the week before, so I could enjoy up to three meals a week for the next five weeks; that's fourteen more common dinners before it's my turn to cook again.
The garden committee was meeting after dinner, while on the spur of the moment Nick let us know that the movie The Matrix would be shown on the new large-screen monitor at his place. Someone volunteered to bring popcorn. As I headed for home, I stopped to commiserate a bit with Madeline, who had been having a very hard time with her teenage daughter, and congratulated Jim on his son's graduation from college. A little down the walkway, Dana asked me to hold a plant while she prepared it for repotting, then invited me in for my opinion about the best second color to paint the small bathroom she and her partner just installed.
ATTEMPTING A DEFINITION
As a board member of the Cohousing Association of the United States, a national nonprofit supporting the development and sustenance of cohousing communities in this country, I have had the privilege of visiting a total of forty-five other cohousing communities in the United States and five in Canada. I've been leading Northern California cohousing tours for three years and have led two in Colorado as well.
Six elements are characteristic of cohousing communities. If nothing else, these at least should help you start to understand what cohousing is not (sound familiar?).
Participatory process. Future residents participate in the design of the community so that it meets their needs. Although some cohousing communities are initiated or driven by a housing developer, a well-designed, pedestrian-oriented community without resident participation in the planning may be “cohousing-inspired,” but it is not a cohousing community.
Neighborhood design. The physical layout and orientation of the buildings (the site plan) support a sense of community. The private residences are typically clustered on the site, leaving more shared open space; the dwellings almost always face each other across one or more pedestrian “streets” or courtyards, and cars are parked on the periphery. The intent is for the design to be one important factor in creating a strong sense of community.
Common facilities. In cohousing, common facilities are designed for daily use, are an integral part of the community, and are always supplemental to the private residences. The common house typically includes a common kitchen, dining area, sitting area, children's playroom, and laundry. It perhaps also has a workshop, a library, an exercise room, a teen room, a crafts room, or guest rooms. Except in the case of very compact urban sites, cohousing communities usually have playground equipment, lawns, and flower and vegetable gardens, and occasionally they have a few acres of open space.
Resident management. Cohousing communities are managed by their residents, with regular—usually monthly—meetings, where the whole group, supported by a number of committees, develops policy and solves problems. Residents also do most of the work required to maintain the property, each community creating a work-share arrangement unique to itself. More and more cohousing communities are learning what works and what doesn't from others who have been down the road before.
Non-hierarchical structure and decision making. Many groups start with one or two “burning souls” but as new people join the group each person takes on one or more roles consistent with his or her skills, abilities, and interests, and leadership broadens. Most cohousing groups make all of their decisions by consensus, although many groups have a policy for voting if consensus cannot be reached after a number of attempts. It is very rarely, if ever, necessary to resort to voting.
No shared community economy. As a group, the community does not engage in any income-generating activity. Occasionally, a cohousing community will employ one of its own members to do a specific (usually time-limited) task, but more typically the task will simply be considered to be that member's contribution to the shared responsibilities.
There are sixty-five or so built cohousing communities in the United States, with several dozen more in various stages of development. I personally expect the cohousing movement to move in the direction of finding ways to spread these ideas far and wide.
For the most part cohousing is market-rate housing, so the cost depends on local property values. For someone who has been living in a single-family house, it should be less expensive. Also, though my cohousing condominium costs as much as a similar new condo in the same neighborhood might cost, a cohousing community will have much more extensive common facilities (proportional to the size of the community) and often, except in the very urban communities, much more open space. That makes it significantly less expensive than “similar” housing, because the similar housing isn't really similar. And this doesn't even try to estimate the added value of the sense of community we have in cohousing.
All but a few of the cohousing communities in the United States are structured as condominiums or planned unit developments, whether they are flats, townhouses, or single family houses (sometimes called the lot-development model). In most cases, someone who needs to or wishes to sell their unit will find a buyer eager to live in such a community, and some communities ask their members to sign a participation agreement which includes an agreement not to lease or sell their unit to anyone who is not interested in participating in the community culture. Technically, legally, they can sell to whomever they wish, but usually they, as well as the people they are leaving in the community, want a potential buyer to visit several times and know what living there is like before they buy.
The cost of a new unit in a market-rate housing project does preclude some households with more modest incomes from buying in to a cohousing community. Unlike many other upper-middle-class folks, however, a significant majority of cohousers would really like to live in more mixed-income communities, and many groups have worked hard to get subsidies to make some of their units more affordable. Also in several communities the more well-to-do families have been willing to roll some of their share of the “profits” they would otherwise receive as co-developers into making one or more units permanently affordable. And groups are usually eager to work with developers who wish to maximize rather than minimize the number of affordable units and who are willing to seek creative ways of financing the construction of those units.
I hope the Cohousing Association will eventually have the capacity to work with nonprofit housing developers to encourage them to build some of the principles of cohousing design and process into at least some of their projects, invest some of their funds in market rate projects so as to make several units affordable, and/or work with governmental agencies to bend some of the rules that govern the building and rental or sale of affordable/low-income units.
IDEA RESONATES WITH UUs
I've long noticed that Unitarian Universalists seem to be overrepresented in cohousing groups-in-formation and in completed communities (in my community we are six households out of twenty, or more than 25 percent), so a few months ago I raised this question on a cohousing e-mail discussion list, and the discussion that ensued supported my observation, including the fact that in a number of places, the “burning souls” who had started the community were UUs.
Also, cohousing professionals consulting with new cohousing groups frequently recommend that the group promote their project to the local community of UUs if there is a church or fellowship in the area. Since most cohousing groups welcome any household or person who is sufficiently attracted to the project to make the necessary commitments—that is, there is no “screening”—we must have the notion that UUs are the sort of people who will be drawn to cohousing, that cohousers and UUs share certain values.
I've identified several values that are shared by Unitarian Universalists and most cohousers in four of our seven principles.
The inherent worth and dignity of every person. Cohousers agree to treat one another with respect and dignity in our formal meetings, and for the most part, this mutual respect carries over into our daily interactions with one another. Our non-hierarchical structure encourages people to explore and bring their gifts to the community. And our commitment to consensus process, when we practice it conscientiously, assures that everyone feels that his or her perspective has been heard and understood.
Justice, equity, and compassion in human relations. Cohousing communities are committed to fairness and equity in a number of respects. For example, we try to divide the work of maintaining and managing the community fairly, but our desire to make sure that everyone participates more or less equally is tempered by compassion for those who can't (or just plain won't) do their share.
Since cohousing communities are multigenerational, and to some extent culturally diverse, those who join a cohousing group are often challenged to treat folks quite different from themselves as equals. In my community, for example, we have all learned a great deal about the challenges and the rights of persons with disabilities, as two of our neighbors use wheelchairs.
. . . use of the democratic process . . . Frankly, I've always had a bit of difficulty with the phrasing of this principle because I believe that there is more than one democratic process (if only the word “the” were omitted, I'd be happier). Neither “voting” nor “Robert's Rules of Order” appears in any dictionary definition of the word “democratic.” Although both of these are crucial to the practice of democratic process in our congregations and at General Assembly, neither has any place in cohousing.
However, cohousers are committed to another equally, if not more, democratic process called consensus. Dictionary.com found two definitions of the word “democratic” that apply to consensus process at least as well, if not better, than some other so-called democratic processes. One is “of or pertaining to the people in general,” the other is “believing in or practicing social equality.”
By these definitions, consensus process is about as democratic as group governance gets. Learning consensus decision-making can be difficult, even painful, at first for those who are new to it, but eventually most cohousers can't imagine our communities governing themselves any other way. Indeed, for a few people, active engagement in the consensus process almost rises to the level of a spiritual practice.
The interdependent web of existence of which we are a part. One reason people are initially attracted to cohousing is because they want to start living out the awareness they already have about the interdependence of us humans with each other. But well beyond that, it is safe to say that most cohousers, whether or not they are UUs, have a high level of environmental consciousness.
We cluster our homes, leaving more natural open space, and preserve energy by having more attached housing. We drive our cars less because so many of our social and other needs are met right where we live. We own one lawn mower instead of twenty, and two sets of socket wrenches instead of ten. Beyond recycling and composting, which virtually all of us do, some communities are conscientious about preparing healthy, even organic common meals, using nontoxic finishes and cleaning products, and practicing integrated pest management.
Also, virtually all of us aspire to using green building techniques to the greatest extent that we can afford them—hydronic heating, blown cellulose insulation, Hardiplank, so-called advanced framing of our buildings (which uses up to one third less wood than standard framing), geothermal heating and cooling, straw bale construction, solar heating, and integrated photovoltaic roofs, to name a few.
At General Assembly 2003, Kathy Huff reminded us that the communitarianism (if it can be called that) of some of our founding fathers was based in radical individualism. In modern times our commitment to individual spiritual freedom, to freedom of religious belief, remains strong. Unfortunately however, most Americans (and I daresay many Unitarian Universalists) desire and support community only to the extent that it serves them as individuals.
When I heard Kathy say this, I couldn't help but think how true this is for so many folks considering cohousing. Yes, we all are genuinely seeking more of a sense of community in our lives. On the other hand, many of us are oh so reluctant to let go of ingrained notions of what we as individuals need or want in the places we choose to live.
Countless times I've heard:
“How can I be sure I'll like everyone in the community? I'd only want to do this with people who are already friends or at least those who are like minded.”
“We just can't manage without three bathrooms in our home.”
“I can't even cook for myself. No way could I cook for thirty or forty people.”
“I really don't want to live in that neighborhood!”
“I'll only consider joining if there are no kids (or lots of kids) in the group.”
Speaking now for myself, I want something more from the place I've chosen to live and from the group of neighbors who end up living with me. I want us as a group to be committed to something larger than ourselves, both individually and collectively. After living in cohousing for more than twelve years, I think I'm beginning to understand what that “something larger” is for me. Although it is hard to put into words, it hangs in the air of every cohousing community I've ever visited.
It is the sense that the people living there care about each other, care about the wider neighborhood and the world around them, and care about the planet.
It's kind of like your favorite UU congregation—with any luck the one you belong to now—with the big difference that at noon on Sunday, you don't have to say “see you next week” as you walk out the door, because you live there; you are already at home.