Chapter Four: Visiting Five Cohousing Communities

Here in Colorado, many a devoted hiker has climbed all fifty-three peaks that are higher than 14,000 feet. It would might be an even greater challenge to visit all the cohousing communities in North America, especially since—unlike Colorado’s Fourteeners—a new one seems to appear every month. Raines Cohen, a resident of Berkeley Cohousing, observes that cohousing communities (and their guest rooms) are now within a day’s drive of each other all the way across America. “Boston, Ithaca, Ann Arbor, St. Louis, Lawrence, Denver, Salt Lake, San Francisco Bay area,” he says, offering one possible itinerary as evidence. “You could also tour cohousing on the East and West Coasts that way,” he adds. The nice thing about such a tour is that guest rooms tend to be pretty reasonably priced, from “Suggested donation” and “Please wash and dry the sheets” to $35 or so. And chances are decent there will be a common meal the night you’re there.

There are always opportunities to rent a cohousing home if a person wants to try out living in cohousing before buying. And cohousing residents often trade homes with each other (one household wants to be in Colorado, another wants a vacation in Washington), or rent a home while a cohousing resident goes on a sabbatical or into the Peace Corps. Recently, there’s been a lot of talk about the collective members of cohousing cooperatively buying a vacation home in Mexico, Costa Rica, or some other warm, de-compressinglush location. NOTE: The current site of choice is Baja, which isnot “lush.” The concept is great, and if that idea gains momentum, it would be a great opportunity to practice my Spanish …

Whenever I visit another cohousing community, I see familiar patterns in both behavior and architecture. And I always come away with design ideas for possible use in my community—for example, I love the Sonora Cohousing fence that’s constructed out of welded rebar, and the tiles in the River Rock common house that celebrate the passions and personalities of each resident.

Newcomers to cohousing:, go out and see what do-it-ourselves neighborhoods are like; most have scheduled tour days, or at least tour contacts listed at www.cohousing.org. Or if visiting cohousing communities in person is a logistical challenge, there’s a perpetual flow of cohousing chatter on the Listserv, Cohousing-L [at] cohousing [dot] org, a great tool for getting to know specific communities. Usually there are pictures and community histories and sometimes also virtual tours. (By clicking to the left or right of a picture, you can walk through a neighborhood and see its features.) A lot of “lessons learned” are shared among communities on the Listserv.

For example, as I work on this chapter, I notice that a survey of the pet policies throughout the cohousing world was recently completed. Fifty-seven communities responded to Sonora Cohousing’s survey, reporting issues such as off-leash dogs attacking leashed dogs; pet excrement in common areas and private yards; cats killing wildlife; barking dogs and meowing cats; and other pet-related dilemmas. Of course, we tend to think our pet is angelic, while neighbor pets are silly-looking or foul-smelling. So the pet issue has never been a particularly easy one to resolve. In the survey, five communities responded that they allow no dogs, and two have no cats. Thirty-five communities require a leash, fence, or documented voice control for dogs, and thirty-one require bells and owner assurances that cats won’t endanger wildlife.

My “pet peeve” (literally) is that hundreds of billions of dollars have been spent for human wastewater treatment and zero for pet poop treatment. And whose poop is that, anyway? As one of my neighbors suggested, “We already have designer poop scoopers—why can’t someone invent a laser poop scanner to identify, with DNA data, which overlooked pile is associated with which pet?”

Sometimes, unfortunately, pet issues cross the line from nuisance to trauma. A recent incident in our neighborhood was reminiscent of a fictitious story Garrison Keillor might tell on “Prairie Home Companion,” yet it actually happened. Two pre-schoolers were walking a neighborhood cat, Thunder, on a leash. They didn’t see the harm of letting go of the leash, and, poignantly, they watched Thunder dart up a tree after a bird and hang himself.

In other news from Lake Woebegone, community policies to mitigate personality conflicts continue to evolve. Fortunately, no serious injuries or homicides have been reported in the first decade and a half of cohousing in America, including the five communities profiled in this chapter. The neighborhoods described below offer a good cross-section of urban and suburban cohousing, communities-from-scratch, and communities carved out of existing neighborhoods—what has come to be known as “retrofit” cohousing. Enjoy the tour!
—D. L. W.

Related pages:
Living in Cohousing