Dick Margulis grew up lonely in suburbia, like so many Americans. He knew something was missing, but he didn’t know what, exactly. In the seventies, he lived in various informal communal situations before settling into the same old nuclear family arrangement he’d hated as a kid. He didn’t know that what he really wanted was to join a cohousing community until the first time he learned about the model. Now he’s president of a local nonprofit developing the first cohousing community in Connecticut.
Community. What you have in common with others in a group. We all have multiple communities we belong to and participate in. Nowadays we belong to global communities of online “friends”—most of whom we’ve never met. We belong to professional communities, to clubs, to school communities. And more.
But what about the communities where we live? You can’t borrow a cup of sugar or get a ride to the doctor from a professional colleague who lives six time zones away, after all.
In many parts of the world, it’s common for an extended family to live in one place for many generations. The family is its own community. In other places, you might encounter a neighborhood of families that all attend one church or who all immigrated from the same country or even from the same village. Those are often tight-knit communities too.
But in the decades following the Second World War, American housing patterns, employment patterns, and economic relationships have led to an increasingly fragmented, individualized, alienating way of life. Name a social ill that we face, and you can see its roots in this alienation: our overconsumption of resources (vast swaths of farmland converted to suburban subdivisions so that every home is a walled castle), our consumerism (he who dies with the most toys wins), our rates of crime and mental illness and dysfunctional relationships, and on and on.
In the decades following the Second World War, American housing patterns, employment patterns, and economic relationships have led to an increasingly fragmented, individualized, alienating way of life.
One response to this alienation and the problems it has engendered is cohousing. (See “What is Cohousing” on the Cohousing Association of the United States website for a quick primer.)
Joining a cohousing community turns the usual American model of home buying on its head. The normal approach is to select a city based on getting a job there, flip through a free real estate guide that you pick up at a gas station, find a picture you like, and visit a real estate agent. You tell the agent your budget, how big a house you want, and that you want to be in a good school district (if you have kids) and near a supermarket. The agent shows you half a dozen houses, and in the end you pick the green one, because it has a new roof and new furnace and a stainless steel refrigerator and besides, you like green. You move in on a Monday, and at two o’clock Sunday morning you can’t sleep because the band has just started its third set at your next door neighbor’s weekly dance party.
Raise your hand if you have never been inside your neighbor’s house. If you don’t know what your neighbor does for a living. If you wave to your neighbor when you’re both shoveling snow after a blizzard but have never had more than a thirty-second conversation otherwise.
What’s wrong with that picture?
Cohousing takes the other approach. You join a group of likeminded people with the intention of becoming a community of people who at some level care about one another. A core principle of cohousing is that members sign on to a statement of shared values. In other words, you find out if you like the people before you decide to live next door to them. And if you join the group early enough, you even get to contribute to the planning and design of the homes.
Cohousing joins a group of likeminded people with the intention of becoming a community of people who at some level care about one another. A core principle of cohousing is that members sign on to a statement of shared values.
You can still have all the privacy you want. But you also know that if you want some human contact, you need only sign up for one of the common meals or just trot over to the common house to see who’s hanging out.
Cohousing began in Denmark in the 1960s. A couple of American architects, Charles Durrett and Kathryn McCamant who studied it there brought it to the United States in the 1980s. They’re still active in the cohousing movement, but they’re directly responsible for only a fraction of the more than 120 cohousing communities that are up and running in this country. Grassroots groups all over the country—more than 200 in all—have formed over the intervening years to design and build the communities they wanted to live in.
Here in Connecticut, at least a couple of groups tried to get cohousing communities organized as early as the 1980s. Like 70 percent of the groups that set out to build a cohousing community, they ultimately were not able to get to the point of buying land and building homes. While there are a dozen built cohousing communities just across the border in Massachusetts (and three more in development), Connecticut has been slow to adopt the model.
Now, though, one group is on the cusp of starting construction. The Green Haven group formed in New Haven in 2006 to develop a cohousing community in the New Haven area. They have overcome a number of obstacles along the way, and now they are preparing to build the Rocky Corner cohousing community in Bethany (named for the farm that stood there for generations, which was in turn named for the rock outcropping at the corner).
Different groups have different purposes, leading to wide variability in the way cohousing communities look. Many communities are urban, recycling old buildings on an acre or less of land. Rocky Corner will be rural. Members have strong interest in growing a substantial amount of their food, so they selected an abandoned 33-acre dairy farm on which to build. Most of the land will be restored to organic agriculture and wildlife habitat, with the 30 homes clustered tightly in the middle.
Different groups have different purposes, leading to wide variability in the way cohousing communities look.
Because the group’s values support income diversity, 13 of the 30 homes will be income-qualified affordable housing.
Now that the group has shown the way and has helped to educate housing advocates, Connecticut Department of Housing officials, lenders, and others about what cohousing is and how to get it done, other groups around the state are beginning to form to plan their own cohousing communities. Rocky Corner will be the first in the state, but it won’t be the only one.
Maybe you’ve seen groundbreaking photos in a newspaper. A bunch of people in suits stand in a line, smiling for the photographer. One of them has a shovel that has been spray-painted gold. It’s a ho-hum photo, not worth a second glance. The Rocky Corner groundbreaking will probably look pretty much the same. But for the intrepid members who have been working on the project for the last eight years, photos like that take on a special meaning. In this case, the meaning isn’t shopping center or office building; it’s community.
Cohousing in the Press:
Co-Housing Group Plans for Shared Future (via New York Times)
Modern Families, Old-Style Living (via Hartford Courant)
The Cohousing Association of the United States website
A cohousing glossary from the Cohousing Assocation
A directory of cohousing communities around the U.S. (Rocky Corner is the first in Connecticut)
Governance & Culture
Dynamic Governance (aka sociocracy)
More about Rocky Corner:
A radio interview; WPKN’s Home Page Radio Show