For Shelly Parks, shared apartments and their emphasis on close ties to the community appealed to both professional and personal reasons. Parks, a former marketing pro for large senior communities, felt something was missing. “We crave connection, but our culture doesn’t allow for that very well,” she says. “Cohousing gave me the answer I was looking for.”
Often confused with other types of housing such as shared apartments or even shared apartments, cohousing combines private homes with shared, shared spaces, often in a village setting. Cohousing can be intergenerational or exclusively for retirees, but unlike other communities, facilitating social interaction is a big part of the cohousing model. Residents are usually expected to participate in the common needs of the community—for example, on so-called “working days” to beautify gardens or serve on a committee—with decisions made as a group, by consensus, or assent. Five years ago, Parks left her job at the company and started a cohousing consultancy. Now she and her husband are moving into Skagit Commons, a residential community in Anacortes, Washington.
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Many people have made a similar choice and embraced the cohousing lifestyle. There are 172 established communities in the United States today, according to the latest available figures from the Cohousing Association of the United States. Another 105 communities are emerging and 20 are under construction. Trish Becker-Hafnor, executive director, adds that the actual numbers may be larger as the data is still being analyzed to chart the growth.
The housing concept has also experienced some growing pains as well as occasional financial failures. Rocky Corner, a 33-acre, 30-unit residential community in Bethany, Connecticut, is one example. Rocky Corner, the state’s first cohousing experiment, collapsed into foreclosure earlier this year after a decade of planning, leaving some high-level investors with lost money and no homes. The problems were largely attributed to unforeseen costs and bureaucratic delays that piled up debt and lengthened the project’s schedule. With infrastructure complete and 22 homes built, the community hopes development will eventually resume.
Still, investing in a new cohousing project inherently carries a higher and different risk than buying a new home from a contractor or condominium developer, as buyers must invest more money upfront to help develop these communities . These risks are especially important now because of the impact that high inflation has on all housing developments and building costs.
Although it is an unusual case because the failure occurred so close to completion, Rocky Corner highlights the greatest risks facing all residential communities, which can be described as the four M’s: market conditions, members, money and management. “Most cohousing projects that lose money and time fail early in the feasibility phase, largely because people have unrealistic expectations,” says Jim Leach, a cohousing pioneer and founder of residential and multipurpose development firm Wonderland Hill Development Co. in Boulder, Colo. Leach helped establish the country’s first cohousing community and many others throughout his five-decade career.
For example, once a project creates a final construction budget based on completed plans and specifications, and all planning approvals are in place, it generally needs to have buyers for 70% to 90% of the homes to secure construction financing, Leach notes. “In today’s world of financial underwriting,” he says, “committed buyers probably need to have 20% or more of the price of their homes invested in the project before the final home loan is approved.”
People drawn to cohousing often want to be a part of “creating the dream, so to speak,” says Leach, who lives at Silver Sage Village Senior Cohousing in Boulder, Colo., a residential community he and his company designed and planned developed from 2003 to 2007. “But if you really want to reduce financial risk, your best bet is to buy into a community that’s already in place or nearing completion.”
Community engagement is a key element of any cohousing endeavor, and it’s more than just the number of qualified member buyers, says Leach. Cohousing development requires strong community decision-making, team building, and social connections from the start.
In fact, successful co-housing communities typically started with a few, so-called “burning souls,” proponents say. Jim Mendell is one of them. For 27 years, he and his family lived in a Vermont home that had many outdoor amenities but had little contact with neighbors. “When we became empty nesters,” he says, “we wanted to have that sense of community, where we know our neighbors can be a part of our daily lives.” He and his wife, Meg Kamens, started exploring cohousing and embraced it attended some national conferences to learn more about it.
A visit to nearby Bristol, Vt., where a large historic property near downtown was for sale, became the starting point for a cohousing vision. Other buildings on adjacent lots were also for sale. “We found partners and were able to mortgage the land,” says Mendell. “Then we spread the word locally and met in Bristol and the surrounding towns.” Other families followed suit and the result was a plan for a 14-unit community and the historic community house. With the construction financing of a local bank “it started”, he says. “Within a year we had sold all the units and were able to pay off the loan.” Bristol Village Cohousing was founded in 2017 and five years later has 31 residents aged between 11 and 80+.
The community is committed to sustainability, so there are gardens and orchards and 100% solar power. Shared equipment includes an electric lawn mower and snow blower, and residents have monthly community meals, chore days, and social events.
Mendell enjoys Bristol Village’s built-in network of support and camaraderie. “We have a great group of families who enjoy working and playing together,” he says. “I like living in shared flats. It’s really a throwback to the days when children could feel free to play outside, knock on anyone’s door and expect to be welcome.” K. Susan J. Wells
The cohousing way of life has its benefits and tradeoffs, but retirees interested in these communities should take the time to understand them and review them in the following ways.
Know what cohousing is. “Cohousing tends to evoke a love/hate reaction when people first hear about it,” says Cohousing consultant Shelly Parks. “You either like it or you don’t.” The Cohousing Association of the United States can give you a good introduction to how cohousing works on their website (cohousing.org).
Be fully informed before you act. Shared apartments vary greatly in size, location, type of property, number of homeowners, costs, and expected shared engagement. So go beyond site visits to familiarize yourself with everything. At Skagit Commons in Anacortes, Wash., for example, new prospective members who are interested are invited to be “discoverers,” which lets them immerse themselves in the community for 30 to 90 days for a fee of $100, Parks says. “In that time frame, you get all questions answered by being an observer everywhere – from getting to know the residents to attending business meetings.”
Question the financial and legal structure. Examine documents and bylaws when you can and ask questions. Does the income cover the expenses? Are there sufficient capital reserves? Who are the financial partners of the municipality? What surprises surfaced and how did the community deal with them? Do they function as a homeowners association, and if so, how are HOA fees divided?
Evaluate the project designers, architectural professionals and construction team involved. It’s critical to have an accurate picture of the knowledge, experience and financial capability of developers and builders, says cohousing pioneer Jim Leach. It’s also helpful to understand the different skill sets of founders and residents.
Evaluate membership acquisition and sales dynamics early on. Pre-sale levels and sustained interest even as properties change hands are the indispensable commitments that drive success.
Understand how the community is managed. Jim Mendell, a Vermont shared apartment resident, finds the self-governing style of sociocracy of this type of community effective. “In this decentralized system, I can trust others to make decisions that work for me,” he says, “and I don’t have to get involved in every detail.”