Believing that no barriers are needed between good neighbors, in 1986, a pair of homeowners on N Street in Davis, Calif., tore down the fence separating their tract homes to create a common backyard.
Within two years, the shared yard encompassed four properties and Kevin Wolf and his neighbors "were doing potlucks together."
Although Wolf, a spokesman for N Street Cohousing Community, and his neighbors didn't realize it at the time, their shared-property approach has deep roots.
According to cohousing expert Arthur Okner, who maintains the Cohousing Answer Man Web site, N Street's shared backyards are a modern version of the small-town model preferred by early European settlers. Boston Commons, the large public park in the heart of New England's largest city, is a relic of the days when early residents built their homes around a common grazing ground. Pioneers settling the American West relied on this approach for survival.
N Street residents also saw themselves in the book "Cohousing," by Kathyrn McCamant and Charles Durrett, a look at the practice in Denmark. Published in 1988, it is generally recognized as the impetus for the U.S. cohousing movement, says John Parsons, a principal of the Cohousing Association of the United States.
Parsons lists six defining characteristics of a cohousing community:
1. Future residents plan and help design the physical layout of the community.
2. The guiding principle of that site design is the intention to create a strong sense of community.
3. Residences, which are privately owned, are amply supplemented by common facilities, such as dining areas, play areas, laundry rooms, gyms and libraries that encourage interaction among residents.
4. The community is jointly managed by residents, who develop community policies and also carry out maintenance chores that are ideally consistent with their skills or interests.
5. Decisions are reached by consensus, with no hierarchy in place.
6. There is no shared community economy, and residents are typically not paid for community maintenance work.
"When we read the book, we recognized ourselves in it," says Wolf. "We learned a great deal about what worked in Europe that we could emulate."
Private Vs. Community Property
Although McCamant and Durrett's volume is now almost 20 years old, the cohousing concept still is not widely established.
There are now about 100 cohousing communities in the United States, Parsons says, each with its own character. Perhaps another 100 are in different stages of preparation, from groups of interested people getting together for discussions in somebody's living room to those who have bought land or are well into the development phase.
Cohousing communities sometimes face resistance from locals who fear it means either a 1960s-style commune or an elitist enclave shutting out all but the wealthy.
Manzanita Village, a cohousing community in Prescott, Ariz., is "elder-rich," says Okner, who recently relocated there. To some extent that reflects the demographics of Prescott, which has a large retiree population.
"There are several elder cohousing communities in the U.S., but no one else like us," Okner says. "Without turning anyone away, we gently try to maintain a certain percentage of families with children. We've built a huge play structure to encourage young families. We need children. The separation of generations in this country is horrible."
A total of 36 homes will eventually be built on the 12-acre site. Okner says 34 of the lots have been sold, and the homes are being built at intervals as future residents sell their existing homes or reach retirement.
Original lot owners pay a one-time membership fee of $1,000 per household and chip in to finance the Common House, a central feature of cohousing communities where residents gather for shared meals, group activities and community meetings. Homeowner association dues are $140 per month.
It's the high cost of procuring land and custom-building a community that raises the specter of elitism, a charge cohousing advocates are anxious to dispel.
Some owners at Manzanitas Village provide homes or apartments for rent. Okner says his home, which is still under construction, will include a 1,200-square-foot ground-floor apartment he intends to rent to a single mother at moderate cost.
Community Environmentalism, Activism
Parsons and his family recently moved into Bartimaeus Cohousing Community in Bremerton, Wash., a 25-unit community consisting of one single-family home and four condominium buildings on seven acres.
Although the group used a Realtor to assist with the land purchase, he says, Bartimaeus, like Manzanitas Village, was self-developed.
"Physical designs that facilitate interaction are foreign to most developers," he says. "We didn't want our buildings built in parallel lines, but at angles with big porches facing each other and mini social areas."
The site also contains wetlands and protected environmental areas, Parsons says, including a salmon stream, and the county would only allow development at one end. That was fine with the residents, who are removing non-native plants in an effort to restore the wetlands.
Bartimaeus homeowners purchase units outright. Association dues are $135 to $231 a month. Common amenities include gardens, playing fields, a play area, walking trails, a workshop and a 2,600-square-foot Common House. Rentals are available.
"We decided from the beginning that those who could afford an extra unit would provide rental options," Parsons says. "One unit is owned by a nonprofit and set aside for a family in transition. They can live there for six to 12 months at a reduced rent. People in the community can help with finding jobs and getting them back on their feet."