By Yoomie Ahn and Laura Fitch
Combining Military Training with Cohousing Principles to Produce Supportive Housing
As the Iraq and Afghanistan wars wind down and the federal budget deficit necessitates cuts in defense spending, thoughtful Americans (and board members of the National Cohousing Association) are thinking about ways to ease the transition from military service to civilian life for those who have served the country. A recent Army Times article reported that the Army has plans to cut 22,000 active‐duty soldiers by the end of 2013 and 27,000 in 2015 and 2016, http://www.armytimes.com/news/2011/05/armycuts‐to‐service‐size‐052811w/). In all likelihood, these soldiers may be let go at a time when the economy is still struggling and jobs remain scarce. Transition may be further complicated by posttraumatic stress and family members who are also struggling to readjust to their return.
One idea being discussed is supportive housing along the lines of the “cohousing model”. Cohousing with an emphasis on community principles and shared resources could be a holistic way to provide affordable housing and much‐needed support as veterans retrain for private sector jobs, obtain educational degrees and return to civilian and family life.
Originally imported from Denmark, cohousing is an innovative housing model that brings people together through active participation in the design and operation of their neighborhoods. There are now over 115 cohousing communities thriving in the US. Residents enjoy privacy within their individual homes with community on their doorsteps. Regular social contact comes from using extensive community facilities such as open space and gardens and a common house which usually includes a large multi‐purpose dining space, commercial kitchen, guest room(s), workshops, and exercise rooms. Cohousing residents typically share optional group meals, and meet on a regular basis to discuss the work of managing and maintaining the community themselves.
Veterans should quickly grasp the concept of cohousing which requires levels of commitment, collaboration, resource‐sharing, team‐building and small group organization that will be familiar to those with military training. Admittedly, a significant difference between military and cohousing group structures is that in cohousing decisions are not handed down by superior officers, but ideally arrived at through group discussion and consensus.
However, the everyday exercise of discussing ideas and building consensus could be the very mechanism needed to reintegrate veterans into a democratic society and workplaces that increasingly value and require those skills.
While cohousing comes in many successful forms (urban, rural, multi‐generational, senior‐only, new construction and renovation), veteran cohousing might be ideally situated near veteran health care facilities on donated or ground‐leased land from the Veterans Administration or local government entities. It might also be part of a neighborhood stabilization project – putting money into neighborhoods with high foreclosure rates.
The concept of veterans cohousing is one that strikes many cohousers as a “no‐brainer”. Following the annual national cohousing conference in DC this June, several leaders in the cohousing movement met with Congressional staff to advocate for cohousing as a way to meet the myriad of socio‐economic and environmental needs of their constituencies. These leaders noticed that the ears of meeting participants perked up when they discussed the relevance of cohousing to various demographic groups in need of support – specifically, returning veterans and their families. A recent survey of 81 cohousing communities showed a preponderance of social
support systems: men’s and women’s groups, informal and formalized child care swaps, lending and borrowing of everyday items, shared meals, etc. Combine this with specific veterans’ services and veterans cohousing makes a whole lot of sense. The next step, and the hope behind this article, is that veterans and their advocates will come to the same conclusion and seek to include the cohousing model in federal and state policies and programs, with the objective of obtaining funding for veteran cohousing communities across the country. After all, 2013 is only two years away.
Yoomie Ahn is a development advisor with the low income housing tax credit investor Virginia Community Development Corporation in Richmond, VA. Laura Fitch is a principal with the architectural firm Kraus‐Fitch Architects, Inc. in Amherst, MA. To learn more about cohousing, see the National Cohousing Association website at www.cohousing.org.