A Cohousing Primer

Cohousing: Communities Where You Can't Not Know Your Neighbors

by Sharon Hamer

How would you like to have three to five meals a week ready for you when you get home from work? And a safe, enclosed green space for your kids to play in when they get home from school? And how about indoor playrooms, workshops, craft rooms, a library and music practice rooms available for free? My family has all of this and more at Cambridge Cohousing in Cambridge, Massachusetts, right in the middle of the big city. And other families enjoy these same amenities at Lake Clair Cohousing in Georgia, at Wasatch Commons in Utah, and in more than 150 other urban, suburban and rural cohousing communities all over the world.

I know the term cohousing might sound weird, as if it refers to a commune or a cult or something. I was very hesitant when I first began attending cohousing meetings and found myself surrounded by what looked like a lot of refugees from the 60s. But once I looked beyond appearances, I found a group of extremely good-hearted, socially and environmentally conscientious people who wanted to add positive influences to their lives and the lives of others. I wanted to be counted among them. So what is a cohousing community?

It is simply a group of homes developed and built by the residents. It is also a community in which the residents live their lives together. Cambridge Cohousing, for example, is a 41-unit condominium complex for about 65 adults and 30 children. My neighbors and I constantly share kitchen items, tools, household goods, appliances, babysitting and, most importantly, information. If my kids have a homework problem that my husband and I can't answer, we can usually find someone with expertise in geology, poetry, anatomy, sociology or just about anything else. We have all the privacy we want, and we're never obligated to participate in any of the offered activities. We attend monthly meetings to help run the community. We pitch in for common chores, such as lawn mowing and snow shoveling. And we provide support to neighbors in need, such as taking care of the two toddlers of a mother who is having a third child or, as happened recently, pitching in to help an older, single member who broke a hip. Even people who are single love to get to know the families and find a real sense of home here.

The Common Good

People who choose cohousing want to know their neighbors and have close, supportive relationships with them. Our yards, patios and decks are usually in the fronts of our homes. Fences are low or nonexistent. And mail pickup and parking are centralized. We have a large communal garden, a common house with recreational, craft, and exercise rooms, as well as a communal living room, kitchen and dining room where we meet, greet and socialize. Families might contribute toward a steam carpet cleaner, a treadmill or an ice-cream maker that everyone can use. And best of all, there are separate guest rooms where parents and friends can stay when they visit.

Then there are the meals. We have three meals a week in which about 30 to 40 people participate. If you eat, you cook (or clean or shop), but only three times in an eight-week period. This means that out of 24 meals, I only have to help cook three. The meals range from macaroni and cheese to grilled salmon or beef braised in beer. There is always peanut butter and jelly for the kids. And food allergies and dietary restrictions are taken into account. I work in a school, and it's so wonderful to come home at 3 p.m. knowing that I can spend time with my kids rather than run around trying to get dinner on the table.

Can you find all this in your neighborhood? Some of you probably can. But the mythological American neighborhood where everyone knows each other, where moms and dads watch out for all of the kids, and where people gather for community cookouts and pickup basketball games is fast disappearing. Cohousing developments try to preserve this sense of community, and so far, for my family, living in one has been a blast.

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