Cohousing arrived from Denmark 20 years ago. Like many Scandinavian exports, it seemed both old fashioned and progressive: Residents have their own living quarters, but they share common areas and eat communal meals prepared by residents at least part of the time–like a shtetl for the Ikea generation.
Cohousing was supposed to be the next big thing, but for whatever reason it never caught on. Maybe it smacked of communism, or maybe flashbacks of shared refrigerators in student housing put people off. In any case, cohousing was thrown on the scrap pile of living trends that never materialized. Now the mortgage crisis is reviving interesting in shared housing as Americans, particularly the elderly, contemplate more efficient and congenial ways of living. You might think of it as a coop with an Obama spin. There are now 226 cohousing communities in America in varying stages of development, according to the Cohousing Association of the United States with new facilities underway in Brooklyn and downtown Oakland.
The renewed interest in cohousing is a direct result of the housing woes, as Americans look for alternatives to the expense–and isolation–of suburban living. Food, repairs and other living expenses benefit from an economy of scale, and residents say they’re comforted by the sense that they’re facing financial hurdles together. “I had a pretty robust portfolio of investments that I was going to retire on,” one prospective resident told The New York Times during a tour of Bay Area cohousing facilities. “Now I’m feeling the financial pressure to live with people. I can’t continue to live in my big old house.”
In truth cohousing is not all that different from a coop or gated community, except that meals are prepared together and residents share maintenance costs and tend to help one another with babysitting, errands and other small-scale assistance. In a few cases cohousing has merged with the local food movement to produce communities like Tryon Farm in Michigan City, Indiana where residents farm their 170-acre grounds together and share chores the feeding of goats and chickens. Cohousing may hold particular appeal to baby boomers as a more dignified version of the conventional retirement home in which residents share health aides and look out for one another. The new wave of cohousing may not be all that different from how our great grandparents lived.
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