Cohousing: A New Way Of Living

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It was the winter of 1964 when Danish architect Jan Gudmand-Hoyer and a group of his friends had a talk about their housing situation.

They decided that they wanted a more supportive living environment, where residents actively participate in the design and operation of their own neighborhoods. And they wanted to be together.

By the end of the year, the group had purchased a parcel of land on the outskirts of Copenhagen, Denmark, and drew up plans for 12 terraced houses set around a common house and a swimming pool. City officials gave them the go-ahead. The neighbors did not.

As quickly as the idea was born, it had died. And the group sold the parcel without building a thing.

Four years later an article by Mr. Gudmand-Hoyer, “The Missing Link between Utopia and the Dated One-Family House,” in which he described his group’s ideas and their project, appeared in a national newspaper. Not long after, more than 100 families reached out to him, interested in living in a similar way.

That was the beginning. Today, there are now hundreds of cohousing communities worldwide, expanding from Denmark into Sweden, Australia, New Zealand, the Netherlands, Germany, Austria, France, Belgium, Canada and the United States.

But there are none on Long Island, according to Dorothy Reilly, who will present “Co-Housing and Co-Working: New Models for Living” on Thursday, February 27, at the Rogers Memorial Library in Southampton. It is something she would like to see changed.

“The idea of living in a space that is in proximity to a village with like-minded people who are sharing tasks, I just love that idea,” she said last week during a telephone interview. “And that’s something that I would like to seek out for my future. To create something like this, you would have to look into building and zoning. Our zoning in our township here is not particularly conducive to cohousing. It could be luxury housing, although probably small, but it’s also a great concept for affordable housing, which we desperately need.”

Cohousing communities are usually designed as attached or single-family homes along pedestrian streets or clustered around a courtyard, and the residents are consciously committed to living as a community. They typically range in size from seven to 67 homes—the majority housing 20 to 40 households—with a common house, which is the social center of the community. It outfits a large dining room—where optional group meals are served at least twice weekly—a kitchen, lounge, recreational facilities, children’s spaces and, frequently, a guest room, workshop and laundry room.

They are also known as “intentional neighborhoods.” By contrast, “intentional communities” frequently connotes a shared religious, political, environmental or social ideology, rather than a strong sense of community. Cohousing residents privately own their homes, do not pool their incomes and exercise voting rights for every decision made, explained Ms. Reilly, who visited two Massachusetts-based communities—one urban, one rural—last fall.

“You know who lives six houses down because you eat common meals with them, decide how to allocate homeowners dues and gratefully accept a ride from them when you car’s in the shop,” according to The Cohousing Association of the United States’ website. “You begin to trust them enough to leave your 4-year-old with them. You listen to what they have to say, even if you don’t agree with them at first, and you sense that you, too, are being heard.”

Of New York’s eight cohousing communities, five are located in Ithaca—and all are upstate. In this country, by far, cohousing is most popular in California. The state has massed 40 different communities—29 completed or in the process of being retrofitted, while the others are in their planning stages. Vermont’s Cobb Hill community, which was completed in 2002, sports the largest expanse—260 acres—while East Lake Commons CoHousing’s 67 homes in Georgia, built in 1999, represent the most individual units among the completed communities.

Regardless of state or size, most cohousing residents aspire to “improve the world, one neighborhood at a time,” The Cohousing Association of the United States site reports.

“This is a new idea and it’s being embraced in a way that brings people together,” Ms. Reilly said. “And, out of it, exponentially more is created.”

Dorothy Reilly will discuss “Co-Housing and Co-Working: New Models for Living” on Thursday, February 27, at 5:30 p.m. at the Rogers Memorial Library in Southampton. For more information, on the free talk, call 283-0774 or visit myrml.org.

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