Cohousing developments continue rise in popularity

by Kelly McCabe

Imagine a world in which your next-door neighbor not only is your best friend but your de facto babysitter, your source for sugar when you realize mid-baking session that you’re out, and your dinner companion when you’re home alone.

Seems like a fantasy land, right? Or, at the very least, an idyllic depiction of life found only on TV. But a recent increase in popularity of co-housing around the country suggests many crave a closeness and sense of community with their neighbors. 

In a co-housing community, residents own their own homes — either attached or single-family — which have traditional amenities. The thing that sets these communities apart from traditional housing is the typical common house, where residents often gather for dinner, do laundry or hold recreational events. There is often an abundance of shared parking, walkways, open space and gardens. And when it comes to maintenance of both private and communal spaces, residents share tools and resources such as lawnmowers.

According to the Cohousing Association of the United States — a national non-profit raising awareness of the benefits of cohousing and supporting the development of cohousing communities — there are 148 completed cohousing communities around the country, with 17 more being built and 140 in the early stages of planning.

The reason for the increased interest in co-housing is quite simple: the rise of smartphones and apps may be making life easier, but also more solitary. The Cohousing Association of the United States cited reports that show people are happier, healthier and live longer with daily social interactions and connections.

Moreover, loneliness is considered a health hazard that has reached epidemic levels, with the number of Americans who say they’re lonely doubling to 40 percent since the 1980s, Dr. Dhruv Khullar, a resident physician at Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School, wrote in the New York Times in 2016. Loneliness commonly leads to mood disorders, disrupted sleep patterns, increased stress and altered immune systems.

Community with a balance

While the term “cohousing” for some may bring to mind thoughts of hippie communes where shoes are scarce and love is free, today’s communities have evolved. People who opt for cohousing may be environmentally conscious individuals interested in lowering their carbon footprints via shared gardens or sustainable structures; young families drawn by support from neighbors in terms of child care and shared meals; or elderly residents who want to age in place and be surrounded by friends or loved ones.

“Cohousing as a model has been highly successful in terms of member happiness and life satisfaction, and reduced energy use and resource conservation,” said the Cohousing Association of the United States. “This success has given rise to some interesting spinoffs in affordable and supportive housing projects for veterans, special need groups and others, that physically look and act like cohousing — evidence that others have learned and benefited from the pioneering work of cohousing.”

The trend has yet to take hold in Illinois, but there are several active cohousing communities in neighboring states, including Village Cohousing Community (Madison) and Arboretum Cohousing (Madison) in Wisconsin, and Monterey Cohousing (St. Louis Park) and Zephyr Valley Community (Rushford) Co-op in Minnesota. There are communities from coast to coast, especially in rural or smaller metro areas, with a large presence along the West Coast.