I started Fair Oaks EcoHousing because I want to live in a friendly community where neighbors know and care about each other. I think we need more neighborhoods like that!
1. It was Love at First Sight
In Fall 2003, I visited my friend Don’s home in downtown Sacramento. When I looked out his kitchen window, I saw a number of other homes facing each other, all with porches, and all facing a beautiful shared green. One of the homes was much larger. My mind was blown. I asked my friend to explain. He said he lived in cohousing. I said “Co-What?”
He said cohousing offers a balance of privacy and community, and it’s a wonderful way to live. He said the larger home was the Common House, where they have several shared meals every week and frequent parties. As someone who was used to the isolation of the suburbs, I immediately concluded this was a better way to live – safer, and much more fun. It was truly love at first sight for me, and I decided I wanted to live in cohousing too! I knew we needed more cohousing communities, and I vowed to start a new community as soon as I could.
2. What is Cohousing?
In February 2005, I started to investigate cohousing, and I bought every book I could find on the subject. I learned that cohousing offers a balance of privacy and community. You have privacy in your home and community at your doorstep. By combining private homes with a shared clubhouse, garden, and extensive common facilities, residents experience the feeling of a small village where neighbors know and care about each other. The clubhouse, or Common House, is a hub of social activity for the residents. All homes are owned by individual families, as with other market-rate condominiums.
Cohousing originated in Denmark in the 1960’s and was brought to the U.S. by architects Charles Durrett and Kathryn McCamant in the 1980’s. There are over 160 communities today, with many in Northern California. For more information, visit www.Cohousing.org .
My next step was to call Charles Durrett in Nevada City and meet with him to learn what it would take to start a cohousing community. He was very encouraging, and I was inspired to look for land in Fair Oaks, near my home.
3. The Search for Land
In spring 2005, we began the search for land. I wanted 3 to 5 acres of land so we could have 30 to 35 homes. I looked for land everywhere I went, and I developed a spreadsheet with over 100 pieces of property – some listed by realtors, but many I had found on my own. One of the most exciting pieces I found was at 4025 New York Avenue in Fair Oaks. I spotted the property, knocked on the door, and discovered the owner was open to selling. By August, we had an agreement. We were very sad when the deal fell apart because the owner wanted more money.
After that disappointment, we kept looking. We had public slide shows with lots of publicity. In 2006, an owner of property in Orangevale called us and said he would sell his 3.5 acres of land to us. By then we had four families on board. We all loved the land, so we started the design process with McCamant & Durrett Architects. Unfortunately, we were about to run into the twin obstacles of neighborhood opposition and a looming recession. This was a character-building time for us!
4. The Sea of Obstacles
In 2007 we tried valiantly to get our Orangevale project approved. At our first hearing, over 100 neighbors showed up in opposition. They objected to our requested rezone (from 4 homes per acre to 10 homes per acre). They said we were ruining their rural lifestyle. We didn’t think they were fair, because we were next to commercial property and one block away from a major boulevard. We learned that many neighbors thought that cohousing was a great idea, but we should build it somewhere else. We didn’t get support from elected officials because they didn’t want to antagonize their voters.
By Summer 2007, it was obvious that a recession was coming. We had no choice but to walk away from the Orangevale property. We lost our deposit and money we had spent on design fees. But we still wanted cohousing, so we kept looking for land that would work out better.
In Fall 2009, we partnered with a developer on land in Folsom – a beautiful 3.5-acre parcel only two blocks from the light rail station. This time it was a downzone, so we figured it would not be a problem. Wrong again. We still hit neighborhood opposition, and the elected officials did not want to support us against the opposition. And we were still in a recession.
Our group stayed together socially, but we were in a holding pattern, hoping for better days.
5. Help from the Angels
By Fall 2013, it was becoming obvious that the Folsom project was not going to go forward. In December 2013, I got a call from my friend Don in the Fair Oaks Chamber telling me that the property on New York Ave had a For Sale sign. He said the neighbors wanted us to buy it because they preferred our owner-occupied cohousing homes to apartments, which is what they thought any other developer would build. I felt like a big angel had just landed on my shoulder! In addition to being the size & the price we wanted, the property was already rezoned for 30 homes. After our two experiences of trying (and failing) to get land rezoned, we knew this was a huge blessing. I asked our consulting architects Charles Durrett and Kathryn McCamant to look at the property. They gave it a green light, and so our group of three households (Roz, Greg, and I) decided to move forward as quickly as possible. We called ourselves Fair Oaks EcoHousing.
The second angel came in the form of publicity. My friend Elise was a writer for the American River Messenger. In February 2014, she taught us how to craft our story so that it would get attention. We were rewarded with front page spreads in the local paper. That helped us attract future residents.
The third angel came from a neighbor of our property. In March 2014, she called me and told me she had just “liberated her IRA” and was about to invest in EcoHouse Brazil. Having found out about Fair Oaks EcoHousing, she asked if she could invest in our project. We were shocked and thrilled. We said yes, of course, and prepared the necessary paperwork.
There was a lot of work ahead for us, but we were extremely grateful for help from the angels!
6. Why EcoHousing?
EcoHousing allows community members to “tread lightly” on the earth by combining Smart Growth, Green Design, & Quality of Life:
Smart Growth: Infill development reduces suburban sprawl. Walkable neighborhood and on-site activities lower the need for driving.
Green Design includes energy-efficient buildings, environmentally-friendly building materials, a small footprint, fruit trees, organic gardens, and rain gardens (on-site water retention).
Quality of Life: Sense of Community in a Safe and Nurturing Environment, with a 3800 s.f. shared Common House and a salt-water swimming pool. Community is the secret ingredient of sustainability because people help each other learn to be good stewards of the land. On-site activities enable residents to socialize close to home and reduce their need to drive as much for day-to-day activities.
In 2016, the Environmental Council of Sacramento (ECOS) endorsed Fair Oaks EcoHousing, and I was proud to be named Environmentalist of the Year by ECOS.
7. What are the Benefits of Cohousing?
Cohousing offers privacy in your home and community at your doorstep. For introverts, that makes it really easy to connect with social activities. For me, there are three major benefits:
Connection – Human beings are social animals. Social isolation is as dangerous to your health as smoking. Or, alternatively, socializing is as good for your health as regular exercise. I’ve heard that being socially connected extends your life by an average of seven years.
Convenience – In cohousing, social activities are frequent and easy to arrange. Common meals are an affordable offering for your family, or an easy social night for yourself. And for those on a tight time budget, eating common dinners can cut down on preparing for nightly, single-family meals. Many communities purchase in bulk, so it's not unreasonable to have a filling dinner for $4-5 in the clubhouse. Guests can reserve rooms in the Common House, so you don't have to find them a hotel nearby or rush to clear out your spare bedroom.
Safety – In cohousing, it’s easy to get help from a neighbor if you need it. In the suburbs, where I live, it’s a different story. A year ago, my 90-year-old neighbor Rose fell in her garage. She couldn’t get up and she couldn’t call for help because she wasn’t wearing her panic button. She was forced to lie on the cold garage floor all night. Early the next morning, I delivered her paper to her. She heard me and yelled for help. I called 911 and saved her life. That sad story reminded me of the benefits of being in community, because we look after each other much more than in traditional suburban neighborhoods.
There are many other benefits – see the article about Why People are Choosing Cohousing
8. When will Fair Oaks EcoHousing be completed?
Future residents of Fair Oaks EcoHousing have been eagerly watching the progress of construction, which started in December 2017. After several rainy months of installing the infrastructure, the buildings have started to emerge. As I write this, in January 2019, our future homes have been under construction for 11 months. All homes now have two stories, in various stages of completion. Half of the homes have leak-proof roof coverings so that interior work can proceed even when it is raining.
We anticipate our homes being ready for move-in by June 2019, 18 months after the start of construction. Future residents are allowed on the property once a month to see the progress.
It’s an exciting time for all of us! Of the 30 homes, all but two have been spoken for.
More info at www.FairOaksEcoHousing.org
Marty Maskall is a retired web designer, author, and publisher. She has published two books of inspiring quotations: The Attitude Treasury: 101 Inspiring Quotations, and The Athena Treasury: 101 Inspiring Quotations by Women. Her other interests include Toastmasters, traveling, hiking, swimming, and bird-watching. She have lived in Fair Oaks, CA, since 1981, and she enjoys attending the festivals, park concerts, and plays in the Amphitheater in Fair Oaks Village.