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CoHousing — An Alternative Way to Live

by Vince Bushell

The following is a summary of a presentation given in Madison at the Friends Meeting House by Nick Meima on May 16. Meima lives in a Cohousing community in Ann Arbor, Michigan, and he also designs and helps develop new Cohousing communities. Madison has at least one Cohousing community with about 18 units in operation, and four of those units use Community Development Block Grant Funds to assist families with lower incomes to purchase their homes. According to Meima, Cohousing means: 1. Strong resident involvement; 2. Emphasis on design, both housing and adjacent land; 3. Dedicated large community building with kitchen, dining area (Heart of the community); 4. Resident managed. Cohousing implies a mixture of and a choice between privacy and community. Members buy into the concept of living in a close-knit community. Your home is private and your back yard is yours. The front yard is public, and front doors face each other. Optional group meals, a cooperative effort, take place in the common hall. Each home also has a kitchen. General maintenance (snow shoveling, grass cutting, cleaning, etc.) is usually done by residents. Community decisions are made by consensus (meetings can be long). Age diversity is a hallmark of most Cohousing communities. Based on a model developed in Denmark that spread throughout Europe, Cohousing communities are designed communities. That is, the homes that make up the complex, the open space around them, the parking area, adjacent trees, or pond area are all part of the proposal. Usually the units are new construction, which allows future residents to play a role in the design process and in the selection of the land to be developed. The development could be in the city or countryside, and some communities use pre-existing buildings in urban areas. How do you start one? Meima stated that most Cohousing initiatives fail. In fact there was talk of starting at least one in Riverwest several years back that never got off the ground. Reasons for failure include lack of money, time, and information. Here is the recipe for success from one who started one and happily lives in it now: You need a group (seven or eight households) to buy into the idea. Several of these original members must be passionate about the idea. The group, as Meima said, must “play well together.” There will be a lot of meetings and planning needed to make it happen. Early on the group needs to identify the land that will be purchased to form the community. Without the property the group will fall into endless and pointless discussion about a living space that does not exist. In order to facilitate the process and separate the serious from the dreamers, it is suggested that prospective members pay dues at each meeting. This money will go into the account used to pay development fees when needed. It is not unusual to have upfront costs be around $6000 per household. Not having a significant bank roll at the beginning of development can result in disaster. Cost overruns can kill a project if there is no money available to continue the construction. Hiring a developer upfront adds to the initial cost of the project but will probably save the members much time, money and grief in the long run. A developer can also make it much easier to get funding from the banks to do the project. The developer’s track record in doing this type of housing development is vital in loan procurement. This housing model is not necessarily less expensive than standard homes available on the market today, but community living is worth the expense to prospective Cohousing members. In areas where cohousing is a choice, demand for units far exceeds supply. For more information, call Vince Bushell at 263-1380. You can find out more about Cohousing at www.cohousing.org. Riverwest Currents – Volume 1 – Issue 5 – June 2002