Small but passionate, the cohousing movement in the United States is growing.
With 163 communities located around the country and many others in development, the Danish import that arrived here a quarter century ago is gaining ground. The concept is a powerful tool for community building: residents have private homes but share common spaces where they can socialize and eat together, and they manage the complex jointly, often making decisions by consensus. It provides a clear framework for bridging different viewpoints and lifestyles, and the proximity of homes and cozy vibe encourage people to lean on one another.
That structure would seem to make cohousing an ideal vehicle for bringing together diverse groups of people—something that’s sorely needed in today’s extremely polarized environment. After all, what better way for people to get truly comfortable with one another than by living in very close proximity?
Except it hasn’t worked out that way. Despite its potential, the cohousing movement is overwhelmingly un-diverse: 95 percent of cohousers are white, 82 percent identify as Democrats, and 66 percent hold a graduate degree, according to a 2011 study conducted by Angela Sanguinetti, a researcher at the University of California, Davis.
“The joke around cohousing is, ‘[Yeah,] we have diversity in our neighborhood—we have Subarus that are three different colors,’” says Alan O’Hashi, a Boulder, Colorado, cohousing resident who leads cultural competency workshops.
A big reason for the homogeneity is, unsurprisingly, money. Most cohousing groups start from scratch, first finding other like-minded individuals and then locating land, designing the community, and identifying a builder—and putting up funds all along the way. That can make it a surprisingly expensive endeavor, with end products that can cost $500,000 per unit. “You really have to have a lot of money to develop anything,” says Alice Alexander, who recently stepped down as executive director of the Cohousing Association.
Part of the answer, then, to the quandary of how to make cohousing more diverse is to find a way to make it cheaper.
Architect Charles Durrett, the father of the American cohousing movement—he and his wife Kathryn McCamant brought the concept here after discovering it in Denmark—says cohousing doesn’t have to be expensive; he describes developments in the Bay Area and Napa Valley that were inexpensive to build. “We design from the back end, depending what you can afford,” says Durrett. “When there’s not a lot of resources, we have to be super creative.”
But he and his wife are extremely experienced in finding ways to save money. Architects and developers who are less familiar with the cohousing model instead frequently align with public or private institutions to reduce prices.
The organization Partnerships for Affordable Cohousing is focused on facilitating those alliances, and a handful of groups have had some success. Petaluma Avenue Homes in Sebastapol, California, was an early pioneer, using low income housing tax credits and city and county funding to create 45 affordable rental units based on a cohousing model. Sawyer Hill Ecovillage took advantage of a Massachusetts law that lets developers override zoning laws in areas with less than 10 percent affordable housing; the increased density allowed them to save money and subsequently price a quarter of their units at reduced levels. And Prairie Hill, a cohousing development under construction in Iowa City, has cobbled together tax credit funding, a grant from a nonprofit organization, and a private gift to provide 15 small units for under $200,000 and offer down payment assistance for a few buyers.
Those are all good ways to lower the cost, says David Berto, a housing consultant in Enfield, Connecticut. But because housing officials are still largely unaware of cohousing, talking to them directly could also bear fruit for cohousing communities. “I can tell you that towns like the concept of cohousing once they understand it,” says Berto. “My experience is that when they understand it, they really are in a position to help figure it out.”
It turns out, though, that reducing the price of cohousing is only part of the battle to diversify it. That’s what the folks behind Rocky Corner in Bethany, Connecticut, found. Determined to make their soon-to-be constructed community accessible to a wide range of people, the group was able to designate a third of its units affordable, with prices as low as $170,000 for a three-bedroom house, thanks to increased density and a grant from the state Department of Housing.
But that hasn’t been enough to attract a genuinely mixed crowd, says Dick Margulis, a Rocky Corner member. “We’ve done lots of outreach in all kinds of venues. But the people who end up saying, ‘Yeah, I want to buy a house,’ tend to be less diverse than any of us would like.” Margulis suspects that some non-white, lower-income people might already have a strong sense of community in their lives from extended family or religious institutions and therefore don’t need to create it.
In fact, Robert Boyer, a professor at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, has done research (not yet published) showing that cohousing appeals to a wide range of demographic groups. But actually bringing them in is another issue. That might be due in part to the level of risk around investing in a cohousing community, a process that typically takes years without a guaranteed payoff. Or it might be about individuals’ ability to focus on buying a home, rather than finding a job or helping relatives.
And there may be a question of familiarity. Crystal Farmer, an organizer of the Charlotte Cohousing Community, says that when her group brainstormed about priorities, they listed safety, good schools, and proximity to stores, which in Charlotte generally means majority-white areas. “Maybe not everyone’s comfortable in white neighborhoods,” says Farmer, who is black.
It’s also possible that while cohousing groups think they’re open and welcoming, the message they convey in person and on their website says something different. “People want diversity, but they want Obama as their neighbor: they want diversity that’s more like them,” says O’Hashi, the cultural competency trainer in Boulder. That is, the residents of cohousing communities may not be prepared for the very real cultural differences that can lie between people of different income levels or ethnicities.
In response, O’Hashi—who is Japanese-American and says he’s the only non-white person in his cohousing community—recommends that cohousers examine their preconceptions and reactions toward otherness. Maybe a cohousing group won’t succeed in bringing in a wider range of people immediately, but it’s a starting point.
The United States has deeper social divides than Denmark that must be taken into account if cohousing is to appeal to a broad swath of the population. The potential to powerfully bring people together is still there.