Home & Garden Columns

About the House: Is Cooperative Housing for You?

By Matt Cantor
Thursday July 31, 2008 - 10:24:00 AM

Years ago, when my girls were little, I began to realize that the world, my world really, was partitioned up into two distinct groups. People that had kids and those who didn’t. Now that I had found myself in the former group I slowly started to see some underlying differences between people in the two groups. These are, of course, generalities and there are lots of exceptions but it is clear that those who carry the unflagging responsibility for other people are altered by the process and forced, as I certainly was, to grow up. This is, naturally a very broad statement and I think can only be seen in relative terms.  

I am absolutely more grown up, more mature, today for having been dropped into parenting with none of the innate skills or essential predilections required. An ice cube in a hot cup of tea, I was psychically cracked and melted and I’m a different person for it. I think I’m a better person but there are days when this is not at all clear. Oh well, that’s how life works.  

Some people just naturally think of others before themselves, children or no children. Neuroscience will doubtless give us some more specifics about this aspect of human mentality in the near future but for now, we rely upon folk knowledge, psychology and sociology. 

Our differences as givers, takers and sharers inform our choices about living arrangements. Anyone who has every lived in a group house, knows this firsthand. Some are well suited to group living because they can manage to balance their own needs with those of others. Too much one way or another and it can be a trial living with others, whether they are partners, lovers, children or simply roommates. Those with a facility for this juggling act learn the benefits of cooperative living early on and tend to seek it out as their lives progress. 

The term intentional community goes back at least as far as the 1940s when the Fellowship for Intentional Community (FIC) formed in 1948. I heard this term first while studying architecture here at Berkeley in the 1970’s and coincidentally living in a group household. My friend David Dobkin, a specialist in socially responsible investing and a financial planner here in Berkeley likes to refer to the this kind of community as having “obligations with perks” (and says they tend to run about equal in his experience). David is one of the founding members of Berkeley Cohousing, a movement and a form of home-ownership that began to take hold in America after Berkeley architects Katie McCamant and Chuck Durrett spent a year in Denmark where cohousing was active in the 1980’s and returned to write: Cohousing: A Contemporary Approach to Housing Ourselves first published by Habitat press in 1988 and now available through Ten Speed press. 

David and a group of cohorts who had recently attended a conference on anti-war tax resistance called “Lives of Resistance, Communities of Support” decided to test their conviction by forging a group that would explore intentional community as a way of living out their political beliefs. They spent an entire year just meeting and talking about how they could do this. Most members read Cohousing and many long meetings bound a coalition that began to search for a site.  

From 1991 when they had attended the conference to 1994, they met and ultimately searched for a place to create Berkeley Cohousing. As many as 40 people moved through the original group that ultimately became the original 10 unit inhabitants but by the time they had bought their Sacramento Street property the group was tempered into something that would last. There are 14 units now and unlike many early groups (Berkeley was one of the first ten in the nation), their group had shown little attrition.  

Cohousing, it turns out, isn’t for everyone. My friend (and Facebook buddy) Julia McCray-Goldsmith says, “If you think marriage is hard, try cohousing.” Julia, Ministry Development Officer for the Episcopal Diocese of California, and her husband John, a public finance banking expert for Lehman Bros. live in Emeryville’s Doyle St. Cohousing. The authors of cohousing, Katie and Chuck had been her neighbors and she told me that Chuck once said that, in cohousing, the biggest problem wasn’t that your neighbor could be a jerk (Chuck apparently used a naughtier word). It was realizing that you were the jerk that was the hard part. 

Cohousing is about cooperation and participation, not just group home ownership. Most cohousing sites have a group kitchen in which meals are shared several times a week and several committees that take care of the business of day to day living, such as hiring the painter, doing the household accounting, cutting the grass, etc. Both Berkeley and Doyle have several “standing” committees. Berkeley’s includes finance, maintenance, landscaping and “people” (a committee designed to facilitate better communication when things get sticky).  

Although a political bent was part of the original concept, David admits that there is little of that in the daily workings of Berkeley Cohousing today. I would disagree. There is something absolutely subversive and potentially earthshaking about the day to day investment in this housing form. Clearly, it is inherently ecological in the lack of 14 yards, 14 lawnmowers not having been built and bought and so forth. A detailed study of the ecology of this way of living would surely show a greatly reduced carbon footprint as is clearly the case whenever people live in close proximity sharing services, tools and essential activities. 

Cohousing is also a challenge to our isolation and neediness. It’s a challenge to sharing and it doesn’t always work out. Cohousing membership isn’t always stable, although Berkeley Cohousing has broken the odds over their 14 year history. This may be due to their having spent a great deal of time developing a set of practices and working out how differences will be managed. Other groups formed more quickly and with fewer meetings do not seem to have done as well.  

Cohousing is not for the lazy. Everyone has a job to do but the benefits are clearly substantial. At both Berkeley and Doyle, dinners get made by each member roughly once a month with another member doing assistance or clean-up. (Cook four times a quarter and clean six times a quarter at Berkeley). There are other chores and they are sorted by preference (or tolerance) and then there are the committee and general meetings which take place monthly, more or less. 

One thing I was stunned to learn was that nobody gets kicked out for failure to participate. You can’t be forced to sell or move but somehow, the culture keeps things in line. 

Julia made the point that success in this manner of living is not a matter of extroversion vs. introversion. Both seem to do well, but isolating behavior would not seem to work well in cohousing. Thinking of others in all our daily affairs was a sentiment that both David and Julia echoed again and again. Amusingly, David would use the language of sociology or politics (A very polite radical, that David) while Julia used the language of spirituality. Julia referred to this lifestyle as “an ongoing practice of repentance and reconciliation”. 

Buying into cohousing is not unlike buying a condo on your own, in terms of cost, and the units, at least locally, are often modern and appointed much like a provide condo. Despite sharing a commons with a kitchen, cohousing units generally have all their own facilities. Many communities are owned as condominiums although some are co-ops and a few are individually owned homes with the commons and ground owned by a home owners association. 

Berkeley Cohousing currently has 20 adults and eight kids. Children are a big part of everyone’s lives in most cohousings. Julia said that raising her children in cohousing has made all the difference. Julia mentioned one child she knew quite well that had originally been diagnosed as having a form of high-function autism similar to Asperger’s. Today, she says, this young man would probably fail to be diagnosed at all, as a simple function of the social learning environment that this housing form fostered. Perhaps the Mayo clinic needs to take a look at cohousing too. 

I should revise one figure here and that is that Berkeley Cohousing has increased by one adult member as David prepares to wed his new love, Dr. Judy Gumbo Albert, a retired fund-raiser. We wish them incalculably long lives of marital bliss and perhaps just the occasional night off from doing the dishes.