When Katie McCamant and Chuck Durrett literally wrote the book on cohousing, they weren’t trying to start a revolution. “It was just the way we wanted to live,” says McCamant with a modest, almost incredulous, laugh. “It was an idea that made sense to us personally.” But, now, ten years after the first American cohousing community opened its doors, McCamant and Durrett’s landmark book has set the standard for over 55 village-like developments across the country. Last month, the movement came home to the East Bay for its anniversary conference, an event that attracted not only three hundred participants but a considerable buzz.
You might say that cohousing is the talk of the town, but cohousers would quibble with the phrase (the whole problem is there are no longer any towns, they say, just impersonal cities and suburbs). “What would it take to have ten percent of housing starts each year be cohousing?” Utne Reader founder Eric Utne challenged conference participants at the start of the weekend’s events. Utne’s goal may be exaggerated, but if in the next ten years you’re in the market to buy a home — especially if you want to live in the East Bay, where what Durrett calls a critical mass of “critical thinkers” has led to the highest concentration of cohousing anywhere in the states — you’re likely to find yourself thinking about cohousing.
When it included the word “cohousing” in its 2000 edition — for the movement, a sure sign of having arrived — the American Heritage Dictionary defined it as “a living arrangement that combines private living quarters with common dining and activity areas in a community whose residents share in tasks such as childcare.” But what you see when you walk into a cohousing community may vary from place to place — even within Oakland. At downtown’s Swan’s Market Cohousing, there are too few families with children to make sharing childcare a community activity; at Temescal Cohousing, space is too tight in the current common house for any activity areas to speak of, while just a few blocks over at Temescal Creek Cohousing, the common house has yet to be built. “Nobody owns the legal trademark on the term ‘cohousing,'” McCamant says. “But we have wanted to make it a clear definition — and some of the groups have been very protective of it.”
While the reality of their situations may differ, most cohousers share a common vision. They are striving for a lifestyle that strikes a balance between a den-like rental home shared by a dozen housemates, and a private single-family residence set on a trimmed yard with a remote-control garage door: none of the invasion of privacy and bickering over dirty countertops of the first; none of the isolation and cold shoulders of the second. “There’s a spectrum,” says McCamant. “On the one hand you have the single-family-house neighborhood behind fences, and on the other hand you have some of the most radical communities with shared income, shared — whatever! Cohousing is in that spectrum, so it’s not just another name for community; it’s a specific type of community, and if that term is to have any meaning, it needs to be clearly defined. We have six points which seem to represent the general consensus of the cohousing world: resident participation in design; neighborhood design that encourages community; common facilities that supplement private homes; resident management; nonhierarchical decision-making; and no shared community economy. That is the definition of cohousing; if you don’t have those, you may be a community — you may be a very lovely community — but it’s not a cohousing community.”If anyone is in a position to define cohousing, the husband-and-wife team of Durrett and McCamant are. After studying pioneering cohousing communities in Denmark in the early ’80s, the couple actively imported the concept to the US by giving slide shows, organizing interested potential residents, and writing the definitive book. They are, as one cohouser puts it, “the rock stars” of the cohousing world, and they deserve it. “There were a lot of times it felt like we were jumping off a cliff,” says McCamant, an energetic but unassuming woman with a warm smile and hands that rarely stop to rest as she talks. She and Durrett, who complements his wife’s enthusiasm with his more laid-back and ironic style, first met in Denmark, where they were both studying while enrolled in architecture programs at California schools.
“It was during that year that we first came across cohousing,” McCamant explains. “I was a little more naive at the time. I assumed if I was finding out about this then surely other people must know about it. But I came back to UC Berkeley after that and realized that nobody knew about it: There was nothing written in English at the time. It was a grassroots movement, so it hadn’t really gotten out of Denmark at all.”
The two came back with three slides of the watershed cohousing development Trusdeslund and, as McCamant puts it, “just enough information to sort of get ourselves into trouble.” The idea represented an attractive architectural model — but it also appealed to the couple on a personal level. Like many cohousers, McCamant regretted the passing of the kind of neighborhood she grew up in. “It was a very typical American life at that time,” she says. “It was a street where everybody knew each other, and there was a real sense of community there. As a kid, you came home and just ran loose and your mom never knew where you were in the neighborhood because there were packs of kids. You didn’t knock on people’s doors because you knew them all and went in and out of people’s houses. I think I’m quite representative of a whole generation. I’ve talked to lots of people who grew up that way.”
For Durrett, the contrast between community-oriented neighborhoods and impersonal big cities was even more visible. “I grew up both in Sacramento and in a small town in Northern California of 325 people; I spent the winter with my mother in Sacramento and the summer with my father in this small town. I was living in a small town where there was a sense of accountability, belonging, identity, and then I’d go back to this anonymous never-never land, where nobody knew anybody, and it always felt unnatural, it always felt askew.”
Back home in the Bay Area after their year abroad, the two finished school and got married. Durrett landed a job designing childcare centers for the Mayor’s Office of Community Development in San Francisco, and McCamant worked as a tenant organizer for a nonprofit housing developer in the Mission. But visions of the Danish cohousing innovations still danced in their heads. “The idea kept coming back to me,” says McCamant. “So that’s when we decided to go back to Denmark.” Armed only with the intent to study a very new concept, the couple applied for funding but were turned down. “What you’re supposed to do is go to graduate school and find a mentor and work under them and then you get the funding and then you go,” says McCamant. “Well, we were impatient; we knew what we wanted to do: We didn’t want to go to graduate school, we wanted to study this housing type. So we took our pennies and went, and got ourselves into the Danish Royal Academy, and found our mentor there.” They also spent a year living in cohousing communities around Denmark, pitching in to help cook meals and taking notes over evening cups of coffee. “It was a couple of months before we went to watch groups in progress — and it was really there that I got it,” remembers Durrett. “And it wasn’t that new, because anytime you see small groups solving problems together, it looks similar, if they’re actually being successful. It was really, really cool watching them solve problems.”
The couple returned with answers to a whole host of cohousing questions — but that doesn’t mean it got any easier. “We had an idea to publish a book,” McCamant recalls. “Well, here you have two young, unknown architects writing about a completely unknown concept in the mid-1980s when Reagan’s slashing housing budgets left and right. There were about eight years there, from about from 1983 to 1990, when it felt very touch-and-go. We self-published the book, because no publisher would take it. We were the marketing department. If you came over to our house for dinner, after dinner you got to go down in the basement and pack books. I remember a point in my life thinking, if this doesn’t go, I won’t have anything to put on my résumé. I’ll have this whole blank period of my life and I’ll be out there looking for a job,” she laughs.
Talking with cohousing hopefuls now, Durrett is wry about those lean years: “When people complain about their five-year planning process, I say, ‘Look, we wanted to live in cohousing too, but we had to travel to Denmark, we had to write a book!”
Things started to turn around in the late ’80s. “It was really a pretty magical time,” McCamant remembers. “The book was published in July of 1988, but we had already been doing workshops. There were active cohousing groups in the Bay Area and Seattle — none with any sites yet.
“The big break came in December of that year. We did a workshop in Los Angeles, and the woman who organized the workshop got an article in the LA Times. That was in mid-December, and we were on the Today Show by the end of the month. So that’s what took it national.”
The two attribute their success to the sense of loss of community that many city-dwellers were experiencing at that time. “I think there’s quite a number of people who felt, ‘You know, we don’t have to live in the city and be anonymous, alienated beings. We can live in the city and have what small towns have if we decentralize a little bit,'” says Durrett. “The housing most developers build is perfect for the recluse — but what percentage of the population is reclusive? If you want to go box up, genie up your garage door, pop your dinner in the microwave, pop your movie in the VCR, and relate to the planet like that, there’s a whole world out there waiting for you. There’s a lot of marketeers that will sell you a box.”
Much of the credit for the flood of response to the cohousing idea should also go to the book itself, which was written in an accessible, conversational format not found in most architectural treatises. “We always saw that it was for a double audience,” says McCamant. “One of the things we learned in Denmark was, if cohousing is going to get built, you have to have people who want to live there. We knew that architects and planners and professional people interested in housing would think this is a really important model, but we always geared what we were doing toward the people who would ultimately make it happen, the people who wanted to live in cohousing long-term.” Everybody in cohousing knows about McCamant and Durrett’s book; some groups even make it required reading. The couple formed the Cohousing Company to offer consulting, development, and architectural services; they serve up everything from introductory slide shows, to group-forming workshops, to advice on site acquisition, financing, construction, and design. Their bustling office, in a renovated mill next to a public park in Berkeley, employs eight people and works on projects around the country and around the world.
The couple works as a team on projects in Northern California, McCamant focusing on development work and Durrett leading the design plans. At a recent design meeting, Durrett shows himself as flexible and open to suggestions, but he’s also honest about his own investment in certain ideas, honed from years of trial and error. “Here’s a microwave that meets your specs,” he tells the group, “but usually someone donates one.”
He is full of slightly cynical one-liners that reveal what he claims is the dirty underbelly of the development industry — and pointedly places himself outside that world: “The contractors all want you to use tile because all their brothers-in-law are in the tile business, but I don’t think you need it,” he jokes to the appreciative audience. (On a construction site, both he and McCamant seem eager and enthusiastic. On a recent walk-through at a new cohousing site in Pleasant Hill, where exterior walls are being painted “mango” to set off “Tahoe-blue” roofs, Durrett scrambled up ladders to check roof tiles and tug on closet doors to make sure contractors have replaced faulty hardware with the runners he requested; “It looks just like a little Moroccan village, I think,” he said with satisfaction.)
For many cohousers, McCamant and Durrett are an essential part of the cohousing planning process. “I’m a very big star in a very small circle of people,” says McCamant with a laugh. “You know, at this point it feels really wonderful, because I feel like we’ve made a significant contribution, and we get a lot of appreciation for that. But I know that if we got hit by a car tomorrow, it’s going on; cohousing is here to stay. You can’t stop it now.”
ast month’s conference, organized by the nonprofit Cohousing Network — a group that is independent of McCamant and Durrett — certainly dramatized the movement’s momentum. Cosponsored by UC Berkeley’s College of Environmental Design, the conference attracted private and nonprofit developers interested in offering the same kinds of services as McCamant and Durrett’s Cohousing Company, and an international collection of individuals interested in everything from their first taste of cohousing to new financing models for low-income cohousing. “In the last couple of years, the number of complete communities has doubled, and so the visibility we have is at a new level,” says Cohousing Network Executive Director Zev Paiss. “My expectation is that cohousing will continue to grow. There’s a lot of people who are saying, ‘We’ve been living in the suburbs for so many years, and it doesn’t fulfill us.’ Now that we have so many cohousing communities built, people can start to walk though them and they realize, ‘This is not what I thought it was — I could live here.'”
With over fifty cohousing communities up and running around the country, cohousers agree that their movement has reached a critical mass, a turning point. Durrett points out that Denmark built 20 cohousing developments in the first ten years, and 250 in the next decade; that projection would bring over 500 cohousing communities to the US by 2020.
With growth, however, comes the threat that the movement’s most precious organizing principles may be diluted. Of all of the founding principles developed by McCamant and Durrett, their insistence on resident participation in the design process may be the most vulnerable. Enterprising developers are already considering creating prepackaged “cohousing” and inviting community-starved suburbanites to move in — a process that is anathema to the cohousing old guard, for whom resident participation in the early planning stages is an important piece of the puzzle: “It really changes people’s comfort level with the whole community thing,” explains McCamant. “It allows people to get to know each other and build that sense of community while we’re working on development.”
In McCamant’s view, cohousing hopefuls should meet in groups to plan every stage of their development — even though this planning stage can take years. “They really have to think like a developer through the whole project,” McCamant says. “If it doesn’t work well for the community, if it’s not going to work financially, then it’s not going to work for the development as a whole. So they can’t just look after their own piece.” These early planning groups later transform into homebuyers’ associations (most cohousing developments are structured financially as condominiums).
In most cohousing communities, private homes are clustered around a pedestrian street, courtyard, or shared open space; parking is off to one side; and residents are bound to cross paths at least once during the course of the day. “In a traditional neighborhood, the average distance from front door to front door might be 120 feet,” says Durrett, “But cohousing has an average of 30 feet. That’s significant. You see the expression on the other person’s face when they’re leaving for work on a Monday morning, and that’s really critical to building human relationships.”
A big part of the site plan is the design of common spaces. In a small, urban retrofit cohousing, that might just mean tearing down the fences to create one big backyard with a shared garden and play structure; more often, though, the goal is to build a substantial common house that can house a kitchen and dining room, a kids’ playroom, laundry, perhaps a workout room, a workshop, and guest rooms. These common facilities let residents build community by eating meals together a few times a week, and they also encourage efficiency (does every middle-class household in America really need its own table saw?). If there’s a shared guest room to sign up for, private homes don’t need to provide extra space; if lots pool their green spaces, you end up with one expansive open space and a large garden instead of cramped lawns. s important as what is shared is what is not: Each private home has its own front and back doors, its own kitchen and dining room, and often its own private backyard. Cohousing is certainly not a commune, residents are quick to point out, nor even a kibbutz. “Communes have a guiding light, a philosophy,” says Durrett. “They haven’t taken the time to build a community, so they need this thing to bind them together. Whereas in cohousing, they’ve spent the time to build community — so in my mind there’s a vast difference.” Also, Durrett points out, cohousing is not a housing co-op: “That’s just a financing technique,” he says. “Co-ops were means of creating affordable housing, but cohousing is a means of creating community.”
“You will do the cohousing movement a huge favor by not using the word ‘communal,'” begs Swan’s Market resident Joani Blank. “Say we have ‘common’ meals. That’s the one thing that really freaks people out about cohousing — they can be sitting in your kitchen in your private residence and ask, ‘Do you have your own kitchen?’ It really pushes people’s intimacy buttons.” She adds, “We’re neighbors. We’re a neighborhood. I don’t use the word ‘intentional community’ — our intention is to live much closer to our neighbors than is common. We don’t share an ideology — except for that. That’s why you can’t start cohousing with ten households that are all your friends — a neighborhood is not like that.”
But this pressure to get the definition of cohousing nailed down reveals significant disagreement on the term even within the cohousing community — residents in the two Temescal cohousing communities, for example, would beg to differ with Blank: Both these groups were started by folks who knew each other through pre-existing connections.
“One of the things that excites me is I now talk about ‘conventional cohousing,'” says McCamant. At Doyle Street Cohousing in Emeryville — at nine years and counting the progenitor for all cohousing in the East Bay — folks poke fun at the idea of a single model: “Some people are definitely ‘more-cohousing-than-thou,'” says Doyle Street resident Barry Harris, “but there’s not just one definition.” And residents stress that participation in community activities is always optional; Harris’ neighbor Ruth Simon chimes in: “I heard that there’s a cohousing community where residents have to come to dinner. That’s not cohousing, that’s fascist housing.”
“Cohousers have very few rules,” says Durrett. “In a typical condo, there’s a rule book that’s about an inch an a half: You can only have one cat; you can’t work on your car in the parking lot; your car has to have hubcaps, and so on. My cohousing has a quarter-inch book, which I’ve never even read, actually, in my cohousing, because there’s a culture, like a village — you know what the issues are. The reason you don’t have to have rules is because there’s dialogue, basically.” t Doyle Street, a recent debate centered on bedtimes: “If you put your kid to bed at 9:30, and I put mine down at 8:30, to what extent are we going to create a schism?” explains Durrett, who has lived in the Emeryville cohousing with McCamant and their daughter since it was built. “So we talked about it, and we worked it out, in the usual way, which is mindfulness: If you put your kid down at 9:30, and I put mine down at 8:30, and my kid happens to be over at your house at 8:30, just send him home.”
Doyle Street, completed in 1992, was the second cohousing community the couple built — the first was Muir Commons in Davis — but Doyle Street was to be their home, and its urban setting, in a refurbished warehouse, was even more unusual than Muir Commons’ newly constructed condominiums.
Today, Doyle Street appears none the worse for wear; its brick and metal facade looks bright and fresh, and residents have added a flower garden and innovations like a gate halfway through the parking lot that can open for parking, or close to provide a secure play area for kids. Twelve loft-style units are squeezed into the foundation of the old warehouse, which gained a second floor in the redesign.
After nine years, residents say, Doyle Street has worked out many of its kinks — and responsibilities are now mostly unspoken, simply part of the culture. This is a place where the twelve resident families get together each year for a big pre-Thanksgiving Thanksgiving, and where the return of a now-college-age daughter of one household on fall break means everyone’s planning a welcome-home community dance. Come election night, Superbowl Sunday, or even local city-of-Emeryville televised planning meetings, there’s usually a gathering around the TV in the common house. “Everybody wants to come to your house when you live in cohousing, even people who don’t live there,” Durrett says. “My friend John comes over to watch football — he doesn’t even need me to be there.” On Friday nights, you might find neighbors forming an impromptu delegation heading off to a nearby cinema or diner. “We don’t like to have to plan our social life,” Durrett adds. “True, some of the relationships you maintained before just for the sake of having a relationship do subside. Before, I ended up with my community being my job because those are the people you know. Before I moved into cohousing, my whole community was architects, period. I only hung out with other architects. Very boring. After I moved into cohousing, I know a lot of different people, including — Republicans! Which is important! It’s important, actually. Because, you know, somebody voted for Ronald Reagan; I have to figure out what happened!”
This is the comfort level to which cohousing, in its abstract, aspires. But as it turns out, not all of the promises of cohousing necessarily work for each community. Here at Doyle Street, there’s a shared workshop, and people do share some tools — “But I do like to own my own power tools,” admits resident and longtime McCamant and Durrett friend Joshua Simon. And, says Harris while bouncing his toddler daughter on his knee, “At first I figured there would be cooperative childcare, but that didn’t happen.” ong-established cohousing settlements like Doyle Street represent the end of a long road — which can be rocky. The cohousing at the old Swan’s Market building in downtown Oakland has been owner-occupied for only one and a half years; now, as resident Deborah Kaplan puts it, “Our community is at the point where we need to learn how to deal with each other beyond a superficial level.” It’s clear there are tensions. On one recent community dinner night, the three residents who have signed up to collaborate on the meal forget to provide a veggie entry for vegetarians. One of the few parents is clearly frazzled when her toddler runs screaming through the common house — and there are no other parents around to relieve the burden. There are discussions about whether the group needs to buy new plates for the common house, and whether it’s better to serve the community meal family-style or as a buffet; some neighbors are grumpy at others because sound travels very well in the building’s close quarters; other residents note piquantly that the group paid thousands for a garden design that to this day looks like nothing much more than mud plots, a few plants, and poured concrete walk. And Kaplan, a wheelchair user, grumbles that the common house kitchen is really not all that user-friendly for the disabled.
It’s all nothing more than the daily wear-and-tear of life, but it can damage the measured, congenial relationships cohousers hope to form. For many single cohousers, the chaos of children is a major sore spot. At Temescal Creek Cohousing, singles banded together to protest the addition of yet another family with kids, but solved the problem by creating an adults-only quiet garden. At Doyle Street, former resident Braun remembers the “golden glow” that singles — herself included — felt during the development stage, when they “saw themselves being involved in children’s lives. But once you get into the nitty-gritty, you see the reality. For parents it’s very comfortable to have their children there for someone else to look after, but for a single it may or may not be okay to be asked to baby-sit. That needs to be worked out.”
Most Swan’s Market residents take the long view — and cling to the promise established by the model defined by McCamant and Durrett. “It’s like living in an extended family,” says Harriet Fukushima. “Of course there will be character conflicts, and after you move in you need to learn how to be a community. But we have a group process; we’re trying to refine our consensus model.” In the spacious, sunny common house, a sign of the consensus decision-making process is tacked to the wall. It’s a chart showing the continuum of participation in a discussion. (Possible negative reactions range from “strongly disagree” to “could go other way” to “disagree but will support” and “strongly disagree but won’t undermine” to, finally, “block.”) In this model, residents can block only if they absolutely cannot find a common ground; one long-term Doyle Street resident remembers that a decision was only blocked once, when a community action carried implications for personal ethics: A maid hired to clean the common house was being fired because she was suspected of being an undocumented worker. “Someone with strong principles on that point blocked that, but we took it to a vote and said, ‘We cannot expose everyone here to the legal risk involved,'” recalls former cohouser Joan Braun. the folks at Swan’s Market have clearly moved beyond the inevitable honeymoon stage, it is still quite evident in communities like Cotati Cohousing and Pleasant Hill Cohousing. Pleasant Hill residents are watching their homes being built; Cotati group members are presenting their plans to the City Council. For both groups, it’s an exciting time full of shared feelings — but it’s also an intense period of hard work and risk-taking. “I’ve been working on this for six years, six months, and fourteen days,” says David Ergo, a Berkeley hills denizen who is more than willing to move all the way to the Sonoma County town of Cotati in order to live with his cohousing cohorts. “We’ve learned some very expensive lessons.”
The group meets at the suburban, custom-built house of one member’s parents in the Marin hills to review design choices for the common house. “This is the piece that cohousing groups often get bogged down with,” says Durrett. “But we can [reduce the time] from months to hours by bringing the consensus research of what is the favorite cohousing toilet, the favorite cohousing light switch.” Cohousers insist that aesthetic decisions about members’ individual homes fall by the wayside as they focus on relationships, which become all-important. “At this point, I don’t care about the toilets; I just want to live in cohousing,” says one long-deferred cohousing hopeful at the Cotati meeting.
As a small pack of members’ children stampede on the floor above (one wanders by in a yellow fireman’s helmet, pushing a younger friend’s pink stroller, to call hello to some of his “cohousing friends”), group members ooh and ahh over the honey-brown and azure tiles Durrett suggests for the kitchen. Before long, though, it becomes clear that there’s a lot of hard work behind these tantalizing choices. Someone has researched the technicalities of decibel blockage: Will the planned insulation be enough to keep noise from a planned commercial building out of homes? Another member has logged countless hours tramping from appliance store to appliance store trying to find a better 24-inch stove; someone else offers to look into the efficiency of various heating systems. The group conducts extensive polls: How many residents want bathroom fans, and how many can make do without? And how much storage does each household need in the garage? Who has a kayak? Where can we put bikes? One future community member snores slightly in the back of the room.
Each of these decisions entails a cost-benefit analysis: If enough members want a given option, it’s much more cost-effective to program it in at the beginning than for individuals to pay for the add-on themselves. But if a majority is willing to forgo the possible amenity, the group as a whole is forced to try life without whichever traditional suburban convenience is up for discussion. In Pleasant Hill, that convenience is a doozy: air-conditioning. In Contra Costa’s heat-trapping valleys, it’s practically unheard of to build a new development without air-conditioning — especially for condominium units that range in price from $180,000 to $400,000. “It’s hot out there — they have 113-degree days out there,” Durrett concedes. “But we have 32 houses, and zero air conditioners. They have bitten the bullet; they have decided to cross their fingers and hope that all these really groovy passive cooling devices that are going into their houses really work.” The buildings have extended overhanging eaves and radiant barriers on the roofs; there’s a swimming pool on-site, and the common house has a cooling tower. “I’m crossing my fingers too,” says Durrett. “We’ll find out if it works. They’re making a heck of a commitment. They’re aspiring to the best we have to offer as a society, as opposed to paranoia and worst-case-scenario planning at every level. And that only happens when you have 25 households sitting at the table who learn enough about each other to be safe in their decision-making and safe in their joint financial endeavor.” For the Cohousing Networks Zev Paiss, the fact that for most communities these planning stages run relatively smoothly, is one of the movements great achievements of the past ten years. We know how to build buildings, but how to live in a community is something we all need to relearn, he says. Everyone says they want diversity, but learning to deal with idiosyncrasies and quirks is not something were taught to do in this culture. Cohousing is the longest and most expensive personal growth workshop you will ever take. Its very much a growth experience.
Everyone agrees cohousing is not for everyone, and the most-often cited frustration is long meetings. Most cohousing groups pool finances to send at least one member to facilitator training, but for newly formed groups, the meetings can be endless.
Even established communities have their problems. At a conference session called “Dealing with Difficult Community Member Before and After Move In,” cohousers fill the room, overflowing the circle of chairs and reaching for the microphone when it’s their turn to share a horror story. “My pet peeve is that people love to process details ad infinitum, and eventually they get their way because no one else is left,” says one; “We have one member who says she’s mentally ill so she’s not responsible for her actions,” complains another. Someone tells a story of a couple who decided cohousing wasn’t for them — but weren’t about to leave their new home. “They won’t come to any dinners, they’re talking about not paying fees, and if they sell, they may put the fences back up to get a better price.” There are quite a few stories of communities celebrating when a resident decided “this wasn’t the place for her,” but others take a more philosophical view. “I have a hard time labeling some one ‘difficult,'” says one. “I’ve learned to let go, not to let things bother me so much. Sometimes I realize I had a vision of Nirvana, that none of the problems would be there — but all neighborhoods have problems.” Adds another, “I see every difficult person as a lesson. I had expectations of what a community is, and I realize now, this is what a neighborhood is: acceptance, tolerance, compassion.” Cohousing is often described as a return to the village life that has dominated so much of human history — but how can residents avoid the cliquish power struggles and judgmental gossip that caused so many people to flee small towns for life in the big city? Theres no guarantee those problems wont come up, admits Deborah Goldberg, a resident of the lush and charming Berkeley Cohousing — itself a legend in cohousing circles for its renovated turn-of-the-century farmhouse-turned-common-house. Theres a certain security in having your own house with a white picket fence. But a lot of good neighbor things happen here — sharing a cup of sugar, sharing kids toys, sharing, well, great joys and sorrows. Weve had three births here, a wedding, and one death. Once that happens, it cuts deeper. Well see each other in sickness and in health.
Some communities outlaw gossip; others try to turn it to good. “We had to get rid of the rule that you can’t say behind someone’s back what you wouldn’t say in front of them,” admits Dave Ergo. “It’s a junk rule — we’re not saints. It’s okay to gossip — it’s how you handle the negative gossip. Say what you need to, but keep it from spiraling out of control.”
Durrett concedes that a small-town atmosphere only works when cosmopolitan values are an a priori assumption. “You do need a level of tolerance that stick-in-the-mud Victorian-type villages don’t have,” he says. “After our cultural revolution, people were able to have long hair, live together unwed — you know, important things happened. It’s the ‘I’m okay, you’re okay’ mentality. Certainly if you look in the US, the places that we have cohousing — California, Colorado, college towns — are where people have a fairly broad perspective.”
For Durrett, the challenge that remains for cohousers is accountability. “I don’t have any patience for people passing judgment on what I do or don’t do, as long as I am responsible in my cohousing community, which I do feel like I have to do,” he says. “If I say I’m going to make dinner on Tuesday night, there’s no ifs, ands, or buts about it: I’m making dinner. You are accountable — and that’s just like a small town.”
Durrett recounts the case of a prospective member of a cohousing group that had yet to move into its new development. He was hitting on too many women, and the rest of the group decided he needed to go. “I advised them not to do that,” Durrett says. “So, okay, he was coming on to a few women — you just need to tell him that’s not okay. In a small town, people are highly accountable for their behavior — that it’s a safe place to be even if there is a creep in your community. Do you realize Jeffrey Dahmer killed and ate seventeen people in his apartment before anyone noticed? That’s what happens in an anonymous society.” Durrett and McCamant teach communities to expect a long, participatory process that builds trust through acceptance. Some groups choose a much shorter path. At Temescal Cohousing, residents met and organized through the Rockridge United Methodist Church. “We wanted to live in community, and be kind to creation — and all of this, for us, comes out of our faith,” says Temescal resident Cheryl Garlick. “For other cohousing communities, their reasons may come from a different place, but for us, it comes out of who we think God is. And if you’re going to embark on such a big project, it’s nice to do that with people you share a common faith with. If I were going to build with a bunch of strangers, maybe I would have had to say, okay, I do need my own private garden, or more space.”
As it is, Temescal Cohousing is a small outpost of nine units, two of which are carved out of existing older buildings. The lot is small, and the common house offers few amenities, but gardens are growing, a workshop may soon be cleaned up for use, and on community workdays even the kids pitch in.
Karen Hester of nearby and similarly named Temescal Creek Cohousing argues that a base of friendship and trust is the easiest way to get cohousing off the ground. Her community, a collection of four former private homes along two parallel streets (their former backyards are now shared spaces, including a kids’ area and an adult garden), was started by a loose collection of friends and acquaintances who knew of each other through the world of East Bay organizing and progressive politics. Temescal Creek Cohousing has hired McCamant and Durrett to help them develop a master plan and a common house design, but Hester now runs her own a small business, which she calls Co-Housing Consultants — a community organizing and bridging service that locates potential retrofit sites and advises groups on the process. “Most people go in with people they don’t know, but it makes more sense to me to go in with people you might already have an affinity with,” she says. “Then you have shared values and interests, and that creates a feeling of trust, of long-term commitment. We like to socialize, have holidays and parties together.”
Hester urges people interested in cohousing to organize their friends into solid groups. And if you don’t happen to have a cadre of friends all ready to lay down a down payment? Hester hopes to allow cohousing hopefuls to post profiles to a Web site where they could browse through potential instant neighbors — “cohousing matchmaking,” Hester says.
Cohousing certainly has its discontents. Joan Braun was one of the founding members of Doyle Street; she moved out in 1999. For her, a key disappointment was the continual process of reshaping the community as founding households were replaced by new tenants. “I just wasn’t ready to build community again over specific issues,” she says. “You’d find yourself going over the same territory.
“Consensus is a messy project, and it very seldom flows well. It did have a dark side. I think there were times that people felt pressured into consenting to something, and they would have stood a firmer line if they didn’t feel compelled to be a good neighbor. And conversely, people invested more sometimes than [issues warranted] because they had something personal about being validated. The personal became very closely aligned with the political. Sometimes people would make long impassioned speeches, but then say, ‘But it’s okay with me.’ So why did we listen to them for twenty minutes?”
Braun still says cohousing was a wonderful experience that she would “never have not done.” But ultimately, for her, it came down to a question of just how much community a person really wants out of life. “There are differing levels for how much individuals want to feel joined. It was clear to me from the first day that I was holding down one end of the spectrum — and after a while, I was tired of holding down that end of the spectrum. And as we changed, the balance between those who wanted more and those who wanted less also changed. It was going towards being slightly more than I felt comfortable with. You felt bad if you didn’t show up for dinner, because everybody else did. You start not doing things that you would otherwise do. You are aware that you haven’t showed up for something — you think, If I were doing this right, I would go.”
When Braun moved out two years ago, she chose a new spot where should could join a neighborhood association or other local groups — if she wanted. “There are things I could do to know my neighbors, but I find I do them less now,” she muses. “I think I’m taking a vacation from community.” While McCamant and Durrett may agree with the goal of capturing ten percent of the new housing market during cohousing’s second decade, they are much more inspired by the hope that the principles and practices of cohousing will shift conventional wisdom on the built environment. Cohousing now is a mostly a white, middle-class movement — although cohousers like to point to the high concentration of immigrants that diversify their communities, and they also note that most cohousing communities contain a greater diversity of household incomes than traditional suburban developments. “To a certain extent, the white middle class needs an injection of community more,” says McCamant. “We’ve done the best at destroying it, and therefore have a stronger desire for it.” But she and Durrett are also committed to bringing cohousing concepts to nonprofit developments. They’ve already designed a single-room-occupancy hotel in San Francisco where formerly homeless residents cook meals for one another and manage their own building; other current projects include a community for single moms on welfare, where shared meals and childcare leave time for homework. “We have quite a number of projects on the boards right now where nonprofit developers have come to us and said, ‘We can’t do cohousing for this reason or that reason, but we want community in our project,'” says Durrett. “‘We want there to be a viable social experience in our 41-unit project. We don’t want to just warehouse people.'”
“One could argue we needed to prove it works first, and I think we’ve sort of done that,” adds McCamant. “Now we’ve got a base to build on; we know this works; now maybe we can have better luck pushing into other places. That’s what I’d like to see happen over the next ten years.”
In the end, McCamant and Durrett say, it’s less important how much cohousing is built than how far the terms of the debate are shifted. Innovation is hard to achieve in city planning, the two say, because consumers aren’t even given choices to advocate for. “As a consumer, you’re looking at this from the perspective of what you know,” McCamant says. “But when you’re looking at a site plan, you can say, yes, we can do it that way, or we can do it this other way, and what does it give you this way? Over and over again I’ve seen people do 180-degree turns on what they thought was important when they hear other people and really see the impacts and begin to understand how one thing affects another. It takes time. When you’re doing something that hasn’t been done before, or you want to push the limits, it takes time.”