From: Diana Leafe Christian (
Date: Mon, 27 Jul 2009 05:56:58 -0700 (PDT)
Alex asks if anyone has had experience with what he called mini- cohousing. Yes, hundreds, if not thousands have lived in co-owned or co-rented urban or suburban shared group households, including, at one time, myself.

Shared ownership of a house, in which several unrelated families or households live together, is quite common as one kind of intentional community. If you're not familiar with this term (or are thinking "commune"), an "intentional community" is where a group of people live nearby, adjacent, or in the same house with one another to carry out a shared purpose together. This usually involves some degree of shared resources and cooperative decision-making.

There are quite a few different kinds of intentional communities, each with a different common purpose. These include cohousing neighborhoods (the fastest-growing kind of intentional community in North America), ecovillages, housing co-ops (such as senior housing co- ops, student housing co-ops, affordable housing co-ops), rural homesteading communities, rural retreat and conference centers, and rural or urban income-sharing communities (which are literally "communes"), as well as urban shared group households.

The common purpose of a community can range from creating a great small, self-managed neighborhood (cohousing), to creating a demonstration model of ecologically sustainable living (ecovillages), to creating a warm and welcoming home with some degree of shared resources in order to save money -- urban shared group households.

In my work as a consultant to forming and existing communities, I've met many folks who live in these. Examples include Magic in Palo Alto, California ( ); Du-Ma in Eugene, Oregon ( ); Walnut Street Co-op in Eugene ( ); and Hearthaven in Kansas City, Missouri ( ). And Mariposa Grove community in Oakland, now called "Mariposa Grove Cohousing," is six apartment units and a common space in three small houses on two adjacent lots. ( ) (Rachael, you could go visit Mariposa Grove; it's just a quick BART ride away.) While these communities are probably quite different from what I imagine Alex and Rachael each have in mind. I cite them in order to show that shared house ownership to create a small community can be done!

However, I'd like to recommend _not_ using either Tenants in Common or Joint Tenancy as the legal entity with which to own a shared house. These real estate-based legal entities for co-owning property each have big disadvantages, including, as mentioned, that a disgruntled departing household can force the sale of the property to get their money out.

Much better, in my experience, is to own the house as a homeowners association (if a homeowners association is offered in your state). A homeowners association offers excellent tax advantages, in that funds collected for or spent on the purchase, remodeling, maintenance, repair, and management of a co-owned property are not taxable. And yes, a group can co-own a whole house as a homeowners association: it doesn't have to be used only for owning the shared property around individually owned houses or housing units, as it often done in cohousing or mainstream subdivisions. (A homeowners association can even be used for co-owning a much larger property, like my community does in North Carolina.) In some states a condominium association can be used for the same purpose. At Mariposa Grove in Oakland, the shared space and individual units are owned as a condominium association (and the land is owned by the Northern California Land Trust.)

If a homeowners association or condominium association are not available in your state, or not desirable for some reason, I suggest using a housing co-op, and housing co-ops are available in all states. This means the people buying in buy shares in the co-op. The differing households share the common space and lease their individual space from the co-op.

While I have recommended LLCs in the past, I've recently discovered they have big tax disadvantages when people buy in, so I no longer recommend them.

How people communicate clearly, openly, and kindly; share space fairly; and resolve misunderstandings amicably is much more in important in shared house ownership than the legal entity, however. Alex is absolutely correct when he wrote, " But if everyone lives under the same roof, bonds have to be tighter and the willingness to balance individual imperatives against the needs of the group has to be more highly developed. People would really have to like each other."

Living in a shared group household can be warm and friendly, neutral and OK, or, excuse me for being so blunt, a living hell, depending on the relationships between the people and their maturity level ("grown ups" like Alex's friend says), and their communication skill.

This has _everything_ to do with how people are chosen, and, I sincerely hope, screened ahead of time. I strongly recommend asking for and calling references. And having a comprehensive orientation for new members. It has everything to do with each family's parenting style too, and the behavior of their children, which could be delightful or could be experienced as a problem, depending on the expectations or requirements of the other households. And then there's the behavior of pets! Lots to think about and create agreements for ahead of time, and develop good mutual understanding and communication skills.

Several long-time community-experienced consultants help groups with these and other communication issues, as well as with teaching consensus and facilitation -- including cohousers Eris Weaver in the Bay Area and Annie Russell in Boulder, and longtime communitarians Tree Bressen on the West Coast, Betty Didcoct in Colorado, Paul DeLapa and Adam Wolpert in the Bay Area, and Laird Schaub and Ma'ikwe Ludwig, who travel everywhere. (And myself in the Eastern states.)

If you'll forgive me for recommending my own book, I suggest _Creating a Life Together_. It was written specifically to help people who want to start a new community, including of course, the close shared living situation of an urban group household, with chapters on choosing members, communication and process, decision-making, and of course legal entities too.

I hope this information helps, Alex and Rachael. All good wishes on creating your "mini-cohousing" shared group households!


Diana Leafe Christian
diana [at]
On Jul 25, 2009, at 7:22 AM, Alex Kent wrote:

Does anyone have experience with mini-cohousing?

The idea here is to put together a group of, say, 3 families (with or
without children), purchase either a larger house and subdivide it
into individual units and common areas (e.g., kitchen, living room,
workshop, etc.), OR buy a small multifamily house and create common spaces within it while preserving the discrete nature of the original individual

The goals of this arrangement would be to create a small community or
extended family and to reduce the often crushing economic burden
associated with home ownership.

Obviously, the most challenging aspect of this scheme would to put
together the right mix of people, what my friend Lou calls "grown- ups." In a larger cohousing community, not everyone has to be friends with everyone else as long as people can remain civil to one another. But if everyone lives under the same roof, bonds have to be tighter and the willingness to balance
individual imperatives against the needs of the group has to be more
highly developed.  People would really have to like each other.

Then there are the financial and contractual aspects of co-ownership
of a single piece of real estate.  How would a lender look at group
ownership of real estate?

From what I can tell, the problem with what has rapidly become the
norm for cohousing in the US is that it is a movement for the upper middle
class. Cohousing is not cheap. It may be a more attractive and "sustainable"
approach to development and housing, but it still takes a lot of
money, especially for people like me. I am certainly not poor, but neither
am I wealthy enough to be able to afford a house in many of the
established or forming cohousing communities with much ease. And I am simply weary
of being a slave to a mortgage and other dwelling-related expenses.

Moreover, I like living where I live now, a college town in Western
Massachusetts, a place rich in cultural, educational, and natural
resources. I would be loathe to leave this area, but once again, these things do not come cheaply. Co-ownership seems like a good way to defray the costs.

Thoughts?  Anyone interested in continuing the conversation off-line?

Alex Kent
83 North Prospect Street
Amherst, MA 01002  USA

  1. Re: Mini-cohousing (Rachel)

we're thinking of doing something similar with our house here in San
Francisco.  In terms of the group ownership, we've owned a 2 unit
house for many years as tenants in common and there are many slightly
larger (3 -6 unit) houses in our neighborhood that are also TICs.  We
haven't had any problems getting financing as a TIC group and you
would have a contract that defines your various rights and
obligations. The problem is what happens when someone wants to sell
their share.  the entire group is probably forced to refinance in
order for the new buyers to obtain financing.  this is one reason most
cohousing developments are condos.  different municipalities have
different restrictions on condo conversion of existing housing though.

Results generated by Tiger Technologies Web hosting using MHonArc.