article in Boston Globe
From: Joanie Connors (jvcphdgmail.com)
Date: Tue, 23 Mar 2010 12:53:11 -0700 (PDT)
Intentional Communities as Resource-Sharers: Cohousing Booms as Option
in Urban Living
Tuesday, March 23, 2010 - The Boston Globe
by Joseph P. Kahn

Jenise Aminoff didn’t own a car when she and her husband moved into
Cambridge Cohousing, a 41-unit urban housing development near Porter
Square, in 1999. One major attraction for the couple was its
commitment to “green’’ construction and eco-friendly living, most of
its residents opting to get around the city by bicycle and public
transportation.

Eventually the Aminoffs had children and purchased a car out of
necessity. But the principles that originally appealed to them seem
more important than ever, especially considering what’s happening in ?
and to ? the world these days.

“Whether you think of it as green living or just plain practical,
resource sharing makes a lot of sense,’’ said Aminoff, 40. That means
sharing everything from outgrown children’s clothing to a single
lawnmower passed around among residents. By “living lightly,’’
according to Cambridge Cohousing’s website, its households use an
average of 25 to 35 percent less energy.

Cohousing, a movement that started in Denmark in the 1980s, has been
steadily spreading from Western Massachusetts into urban areas, and
catching on with a new generation of frugal, environmentally conscious
folks.

Carbon footprints and tight household budgets weigh on a lot of city
dwellers’ minds, its champions point out. Security, safety, and
building a sense of community do, too. Cohousing addresses all of
these concerns, they maintain. For young adults and parents of growing
families, it means a more neighborly way of living than an apartment
complex normally offers. For seniors, it often allows “aging in
place’’ with members of multiple generations.

Cheaper. Cleaner. More democratic. More congenial. More stimulating.
What’s not to like?

“Massachusetts has become one of the hotbeds of cohousing,’’ said
Craig Ragland, executive director of the Cohousing Association of the
United States. By Ragland’s count, there are 120 established cohousing
communities across the country, including preexisting neighborhood
complexes retrofitted to the cohousing model. Massachusetts ranks
fourth on the list with 11 developments, including two conjoined
complexes that opened in Berlin during the past year. A twelfth, Stony
Brook Cohousing in Jamaica Plain, hopes to break ground in December on
a $2.5 million redevelopment of the former Blessed Sacrament Church
property. Members have invested $3,750 each as down payments on their
units.

Why Massachusetts? Ragland points to the state’s highly educated,
progressive-minded populace and to having architects and developers
around who are familiar with the cohousing model, which often takes
years to market, finance, and build from scratch.

“With this economy, many people are aware of the importance of
sustainability,’’ he said, adding that because they routinely pool
resources, cohousers are often better able to weather financial storms
than other homeowners.

Cohousing developments (often referred to as “intentional
communities’’) open their doors to a wide demographic range of
residents. Families, couples, and single people coexist in communities
made up of 30 to 40 households apiece, on average. Living
independently, residents share common spaces, meet regularly for
operational and social purposes, and make decisions by group consensus
on issues large and small, from roof repairs to all-vegan communal
dinners.

Think condominium associations, but with a more overt focus on
community-building. Neighbors by choice, not random selection.

Involved neighbors, too. At Mosaic Commons Cohousing in Berlin, one
resident broke her ankle not long ago. Neighbors quickly organized a
dog-walking rotation and transportation pool to ferry her to the
doctor. At Jamaica Plain Cohousing, an exhausted mother recently
handed her colicky baby to a sympathetic neighbor and grabbed herself
a nap. Cambridge Cohousing devised a system whereby if a child turns
up on someone’s doorstep, a parent is automatically notified, not to
come retrieve the child, but simply to verify his or her whereabouts.
Cohousers boast of saving on baby-sitting costs, grocery bills (bulk
buying, community gardening), even the need for having one’s own
television set and cable subscription when they can enjoy someone
else’s.

“For me, the biggest draw is what I call social sustainability,’’ said
Joani Blank, 72, who grew up in Belmont and lives in a cohousing
development in Oakland, Calif. “You know your neighbors really well.
If someone’s mother is ill, you know it. If someone is pregnant, or
has a child with a drug problem, you know that, too.’’

Socialist utopia? Not even close. Living expenses have been higher
than she first thought, says Jeanne Goodman, 46, who gave up a second
family car and bought a half-interest in another vehicle with one of
her neighbors. On the other hand, she spends less than other urbanites
might on luxuries like dining out and moviegoing, with inexpensive
meals and entertainment offered to residents on-site.

Kristen Simmons, an architect involved in the Stony Brook project,
says the stereotype of starry-eyed commune members is way off base.

“We have our ideals, but we’re still practical people,’’ she said. “We
need to get mortgages and be able to sell units.’’ When decisions get
made by majority rule, she adds, “somebody always loses. But at least
when you make them by consensus, there’s dialogue going on.’’

In some instances, green living clashes with financial reality. JP
Cohousing initially planned to install solar panels, then decided not
to when estimates came in prohibitively high. Mosaic Commons resident
Elizabeth Magill says a collapsing housing market had her rethinking
her decision; set when the housing market was riding high, her buy-in
costs were hard to swallow after the bubble burst.

“I had to ask myself, ‘How important was this other stuff, really?’ ’’
Magill, 49, recalled. But what she calls “an unstable world’’
reinforced the notion that living in a no-fear zone was well worth the
price.

Today’s economic slump may make cohousing seem eminently sensible, yet
it has its downside, too. “People are having a hard time getting bank
loans; otherwise we’d be expanding even faster,’’ Ragland admitted.
“We need to educate the financial world about cohousing better than we
have. But we’re pretty smart.’’
© Copyright 2010 Globe Newspaper Company

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