Frequently Asked Questions About Cohousing
The Canadian Cohousing Association has a fantastic full list of FAQ’s - here - but you can read through some of the more common questions below. Some are republished from the Cohousing Association of the U.S.
WHAT IS COHOUSING?
The term cohousing describes the process by which a group of people work together to create and maintain their own neighbourhood. By participating in the planning and design of their housing development, residents form the bonds which are the basis of ongoing community. Cohousing emphasizes a supportive, inter-generational community, common facilities and participation by all members using a consensus process to make decisions. Its setting can be urban, suburban or rural and can involve building houses or rehabilitating existing structures. The design can take a variety of forms, depending on the wishes of the group, however the homes are always self-contained, have access to shared facilities and the overall intention is to create opportunities for interaction among neighbours.
IF I LIVE IN COHOUSING, WILL I HAVE MY OWN KITCHEN?
Yes. You may well wonder why we have put this seemingly insignificant question so close to the top of our list. Frankly, because it is the single question most frequently asked of cohousing enthusiasts. Yes, every cohousing community does have a common kitchen, but community meals are usually prepared and served in the common house only two or three times each week. Can you imagine 25 or more households each trying to separately prepare 18 or 19 meals a week in one kitchen? That would be well nigh impossible. So yes, each residence has a fully equipped, private kitchen. Really.
WHAT IS A COMMON HOUSE?
Although the homes are always self contained and privately owned, the residents have access to shared facilities. The overall intention of the design is to create opportunities for interaction among neighbours. The shared facilities and physical design have proven to support and sustain community connection over time. The Common House supplements the individual dwellings and is the heart of the community. It typically includes a kitchen and dining room, lounge, guest room, child care space, workshop, shared office space, and laundry area. The members will decide what’s to be included.
WHAT IF I'M AN INTROVERT - WILL I HAVE PRIVATE TIME IN COHOUSING?
Very few of us feel like socializing all of the time. In cohousing, there’s no expectation to be social at any particular time. Cohousing offers the choice of enjoying the privacy of your own home (and in common areas that aren’t being used by others), or enjoying whatever happens to be going on in the neighborhood. How much you socialize is up to you. Many cohousers in other places create their own signs or symbols to let their neighbors know if they would prefer not to talk at the moment. Of course, those of us who choose to live here do so because in general, we enjoy getting to know one another. Cohousing is actually very popular with introverts, because there’s no “work” required to socialize; it’s “built in” and happens naturally.
YOU SAY RESIDENTS WILL MAINTAIN THE NEIGHBORHOOD. ARE THERE “CHORES"?
Different cohousing groups have figured out different ways to divide the work. Sometimes teams are created to either oversee particular areas of work (e.g., maintenance or landscaping), or to perform regular tasks (e.g., snow removal, dishwashing after shared meals, cleaning the common house, or organizing reservations for the guest rooms). Typically, cohousers spend about 4-8 hours per month doing work (remember, you already do a lot of work around your current home). For larger projects, occasional, longer weekend workdays have proven successful in other cohousing neighborhoods. Residents with fewer physical capabilities help with planning, purchasing supplies, watching kids, providing drink and food to those doing the heavy lifting, putting tools away afterward, etc.
HOW DO COMMON MEALS WORK IN COHOUSING?
Cohousing communities usually prepare between two and five meals per week in their common house. The meals are prepared by a team of 2-4 persons for however many eaters sign up for the meal in advance. Eating common meals is always voluntary. In a few communities cooking is also voluntary, but in most cases it is not. However, there is a good deal of variation in the way the cooking (and cleanup) responsibilities are structured. Typically, however each adult is involved in meal preparation and/or clean-up once every 4 or 5 weeks. There is also variation in how the common meals are paid for, but one only pays for the meals one eats. Common dinner prices typically range from $2.50 to $3.75.
Many of us feel that common meals (even if some people’s schedules permit them to attend only irregularly) are the glue that holds cohousing communities together. A common meal may be the only time in a busy week when we get to have a real conversation with our neighbours. And if we are lucky enough to have a little extra time for some after-dinner coffee or tea and conversation, while the kids romp around in the playroom or outside if the weather is fine, so much the better.
Many communities encourage their cooks to provide a vegetarian option at most meals, and special food requirements are respected, although not every one of them will necessarily be accommodated at every meal.
HOW WILL 20+ HOUSEHOLDS MAKE DECISIONS TOGETHER?
Most cohousing decisions are delegated to smaller teams, who then create proposals that the larger group either approves or sends back for modification. From animal policy to landscaping choices, consensus is the most common decision-making method. Consensus decision-making requires that all voices are heard, which often results in more information being considered. This often prevents the poor decisions for which conventional Homeowner Association Boards are notorious. It also creates more buy-in to the final decision. Consensus is not necessarily unanimity. A consensus decision is one that everyone can live with — it often includes modifications made by those who didn’t agree with the original proposal. These collaborative solutions can have an elegance and creativity that is only possible through collective wisdom. Consensus decision-making allows any member to block a proposal, but only when a member sincerely feels that a proposal violates the stated core values of the group, or won’t be good for the group in the long term.
ARE THERE ADVANTAGES TO JOINING RIGHT AWAY?
Yes there are! You will:
Become part of, and help shape, the culture of our community.
Establish your seniority for home and site selection. The date of membership determines the order of unit selection, so earlier members have the most choices.
Have a voice in deciding how we will live as neighbors (pet policy, common amenities chosen, landscape design, etc.)
Early equity investment earns discounts off the price of your home. These discounts get smaller and smaller as the project progresses, until there are no discounts on the price of your home.
WOULD I HAVE PRIVACY?
Yes! Members value privacy as well as social contact, and it is important to members to have their own homes and private space. There is a common belief that the cohousing arrangement allows for less privacy than traditional development, however this does not in fact prove to be the case. A unique aspect of cohousing is that the future residents participate in a conscious process of creating a community which will reflect their values. Privacy is valued by most people in our culture, so the design always reflects the desire to provide a balance of privacy and community. The following statement was taken from a CMHC study in 1997 called, “Planning Cohousing”, which addressed this particular concern: “While the shared amenities are integral to cohousing, some believe privacy is more respected in cohousing communities than elsewhere. The idea of a shared kitchen and dining facilities does not stem from a notion that meals should be communal, but a recognition that sometimes communal meals are desirable and benefit everyone.” There can actually be more privacy in cohousing because the amenity areas provide meeting places, play areas, party room, guest space, etc. while the individual dwelling is a place of privacy and retreat.
HOW LARGE ARE THESE COMMUNITIES AND WHAT KINDS OF HOUSEHOLDS LIVE THERE?
Cohousing communities in North America range in size from 9 to 44 households. 25 to 35 units best balances development economies and social dynamics. Communities of this size are small enough so that you know all your neighbors by wave, but large enough to accommodate a diversity of people.
Cohousing attracts a wide range of household types: single people of all ages, couples and single parents of infants, toddlers and school-aged children, couples whose children are grown, young couples without children.
WHAT ABOUT SAFETY & SECURITY?
Because we’ll know all our neighbors, we’ll have an excellent neighborhood watch system built into our community, as someone who does not belong there is very easily recognized. If your child falls off a swing when he is out of your sight line, another adult will surely pick him up. Then there’s more than one person to watch out for the property of an absent resident. “All eyes on the common areas” means that even in an urban area, many cohousers will feel comfortable leaving their front doors unlocked when they go to the common house to pick up laundry, and won’t require that their community be accessible only through a locked gate.
HOW DOES COHOUSING DIFFER FROM OTHER KINDS OF SHARED LIVING OR FROM OTHER “INTENTIONAL COMMUNITIES?’”
Some people involved with cohousing like to describe their communities as “intentional neighborhoods” rather than “intentional communities.” This is probably because the term “intentional community” frequently connotes a shared religious, political or social ideology rather than simply the desire to have much more of a sense of community with their neighbors, some of whom might be quite different from themselves. There are places where groups of families jointly own land on which several have them have built homes, but usually there are no common facilities. In many other shared living situations, individuals don’t have a lot of privacy or space where they can do whatever they want because the kitchen, living-dining, and perhaps bathroom(s) are shared. So in those situations, residents probably cannot paint walls their favorite colors, play their favorite music loud in the living room, or have a late night party without imposing on others who share their space. WHAT ABOUT SAFETY AND SECURITY?
HOW DID COHOUSING GET ITS NAME?
Kathryn McCamant (Mosaic Village’s development consultant!) & Charles Durrett met at the University of Copenhagen in Denmark. While studying there, they discovered bofællesskaber (cohousing). In Denmark they decided to call these communities ‘cohousing’ instead of this lovely but oh-so-long Danish word. The phrase is now listed in the Oxford English dictionary.
HOW IS HOME OWNERSHIP LEGALLY STRUCTURED IN COHOUSING COMMUNITIES?
Although one or two cohousing communities in the U.S. and Canada are organized as limited equity cooperatives, most are structured as condominiums or planned unit developments. Mosaic Village plans to be a condominium corporation.
WHAT IF I WANT TO OR HAVE TO MOVE OUT OF THE COMMUNITY AND SELL MY UNIT?
In a condominium any household leaving the community can legally sell their property to anyone they choose, but some communities maintain a “right of first refusal” which means that the seller must offer his or her unit for purchase by the community or to an individual or individuals within the community before putting it on the open market. In other communities, residents sign a voluntary agreement that they will not lease or sell their unit to a person or persons who do not wish to participate fully in the community. Some communities maintain a waiting list of persons interested in being informed if a unit becomes available and it is to the benefit of the seller and to the rest of the community if everyone lends a hand in finding new owners. When it comes to resales, experience has shown that homes in cohousing have held their value or have appreciated faster than the market as a whole.
WHAT IS IT GOING TO COST?
To date cohousing is rarely subsidized. Participants are generally those who can afford to buy their own home and the cost is approximately market rate. Cohousing homes typically cost slightly more than other new condos or townhomes, for several reasons:
Cohousing neighborhoods offer generous common facilities that are unheard of in traditional attached housing developments.
Cohousing projects typically incorporate environmentally sustainable features that cost more in the short run, although they often pay off over time.
Cohousing neighborhoods are built on a smaller, more intimate scale than most new neighborhoods today.
In addition to energy savings that cohousers experience after moving in, cohousers often find that common meals and other shared costs help reduce their daily living expenses.
Market Values in CoHousing by Jim Leach, Wonderland Hill Development Company Founder/President