Picture a neighborhood where doors are left unlocked, 20 families gather to eat in a common home twice a
week, solar panels help heat homes, everyone relies on each other and determines the fate of the
This is life in more than 100 cohousing communities from Massachusetts to Washington state, places to
live where neighborliness and environmental sustainability trump isolationism and consumption.
With smaller homes, shared yards and dining areas, community gardens, designated walking areas and other
amenities, cohousing is a niche option for baby boomers and seniors who are looking for a
community-based form of housing. Born in Denmark, the concept has attracted architects and homebuilders.
"You are absolutely not just getting a place to live," said Elinor Ginzler, senior vice
president for livable communities at AARP. "It really is joining a way of life. There are usually
expectations for community activity."
Cohousing is a type of intentional community, where like-minded residents get together years in advance
to plan, design and build homes in a neighborhood where they will eventually live together. What makes
it "cohousing" is the focus on mutual support and a sense of communal living that stresses the
sharing of resources to have less of an environmental impact. It’s different from a homeowner’s
association mainly because there’s no decision-making hierarchy or board – all important moves are made
Older folks interested in this concept can approach it two ways. Most of the nation’s cohousing
communities are multigenerational, allowing seniors to be surrounded by a vibrant, energetic atmosphere
that can include families with children.
There also are three cohousing communities, located in Virginia, Colorado and California, that are geared
toward the over-50 crowd and are usually referred to as elder cohousing or senior cohousing. More senior
communities are in the planning stages, says Charles Durrett, a designer of cohousing communities and
author of "Senior Cohousing: A Community Approach to Independent Living."
Still, some residents of these communities stress that cohousing is not for everyone, and the goal is to
get away from large subdivisions and reliance on cars.
People seeking to start cohousing communities can find others with similar interests in their daily
lives, or they can access Web sites that unite people interested in cohousing.
From there, the group begins to meet and establishes the general design of the community, what types of
shared amenities they want, and what rules or guidelines they want to put in place.
Cohousing startups must secure a location, then team up with architects to design the homes and
developers to build them. Municipalities must sign off on zoning and other issues. In cohousing
communities, residents usually own their homes.
Some cohousing groups can attend workshops with instruction on how to start a community. Consultants can
be hired to help find residents, architects and developers. Once the homes are built, residents move
into what consultant Ben Brown calls "instant neighborhoods."
The planning and building process takes a couple of years at least, experts say.
For C.J. Russo and his cohousing group in Olympia, Wash., the process started in September 2004 for a
19-unit multigenerational community with a vegetable garden and homes built with nontoxic materials.
They’ve broken ground and hope to move in late this year – despite a difficult economy.
Russo says the homes average in price from price range from $270,000 to $420,000. They’re still looking
for people, and already have a few members in their 60s.
Financial investment starts early in the process, with future homeowners paying up to 5 percent of the
costs up front to help with planning costs, Durrett says.
Amenities vary, but the common house is universal and important in bringing the community together, says
There, shared meals are prepared and eaten. Common houses can also have guest rooms, kids playrooms,
laundry rooms, workrooms and meeting areas.
By using shared resources, smaller homes can be built, reducing their environmental footprint.
Proponents tout the quality of life, especially neighborly cooperation. If a resident is sick, someone
might go get him medicine or a hot meal. Rides to school and ball games are shared, and neighbors often
baby-sit for each other. Residents agree to share the work, such as cleaning the common house and
Due to mobility and health concerns, seniors sometimes require a more help, so cohousing is a way to
assemble an instant support system. While there are just three existing senior cohousing communities,
several more are in the planning stages, including one in Grass Valley, Calif. that will have onsite
care facilities, Durrett says. Sliver Sage in Boulder, Colo. already has such facilities.
Zev Paiss, a cohousing consultant in Boulder, notes that the economic environment has slowed down all
homebuilding, but if conditions improve, we could see 20 or more elder cohousing communities in the next
Retirees and seniors who may not want to deal with children or prefer to be with people their same age,
for example, may benefit more from elder cohousing than from multigenerational communities.
Those who are sticklers for privacy, or can’t afford it, may not be interested at all.
Joani Blank, 71, says she’s visited dozens of cohousing communities in the United States and notes that
they can benefit seniors who want a strong sense of community.
But she and others say the planning process is quite long, privacy is much less of a priority, and it
takes patience to resolve issues that spring up between neighbors.
"People know you are going to have rough spots, and they know because they have had rough spots all
their lives," Blank says.