U.S. communes grow up into cohousing
Wednesday, September 05, 2001
By Diane Bartz, Reuters
WASHINGTON - Commuters drive to work in air-conditioned cars, television
dominates most families' evenings, and online dating is considered a social
life. Life in the United States has become distinctly solitary, and some
Americans want something better.
A group of people who might have joined a commune in the 1960s is turning
to cohousing a housing development managed by its residents, who make
decisions by consensus rather than by casting votes, and has activities
like weekly dinners to ensure that everybody knows everybody.
"I wanted to live in more of a community," said Alice Robrish, 62, an
artist who sold her home in tony Bethesda, Md., after her children moved
out and now lives in Takoma Village, Washington, D.C.'s first cohousing
Takoma Village opened this year in the far northeast corner of the nation's
capital. At least 44 other cohousing developments exist in 16 U.S. states,
while dozens of others are in various stages of development.
Debbi Winston, 39, a radio producer, is a founding member of the
development. She was drawn by the social aspects of cohousing she's
planning to get a group to brew beer in the common kitchen and the
diversity. "I love the fact that my next-door neighbor is 81 years old,"
Flanked on one side by single-family bungalows and on the other by a gritty
commercial stretch of bars, an electronics repair shop, and a liquor store,
Takoma Village is a teal-and-off-white, Arts-and-Crafts-style development
with 43 units arranged around a central pedestrian courtyard.
The development also owns the "common house" with a dining room, media
room, workshop, laundry, and music room, complete with piano.
One focus in Takoma Village is environmental; nearly half the garbage is
recycled, and winter heating costs are one-tenth that of comparably sized
Another is social: a recent dinner prepared by volunteers attracted 50
people at $4 a head. For those not heading home after dinner, there were
two choices: poker in the dining room or a lecture on Tibetan medicine.
Ann Zabaldo, 51, was at the first meeting to plan Takoma Village and is an
eloquent advocate of cohousing as a way to help elderly people live
independently longer, to keep an eye on children whose parents work, and
generally to mend social ills.
"We didn't say, ^A'We're going to tackle aging. We're going to tackle
latchkey kids,'" she said on a shady balcony outside her apartment on a
scorching hot day. "A lot of these social problems get handled as a
byproduct of us being an intimate community."
YEARS OF WORK PAY OFF
Inspired by Danish developments that date back to the 1960s, Takoma Village
began with advertisements in the local alternative City Paper in September
1998. Sixty-five people showed up for two orientation meetings.
Fifteen were interested enough to meet with developer Don Tucker of Eco
Housing Corporation. This core group went out and advertised, passed out
leaflets at a local farmers' market, and beat the bushes to pre-sell 75
percent of the units which was necessary to get financing for the unusual
Ground-breaking was Oct. 22, 1999, and the first residents began moving in
late last year, although the last unit wasn't completed until February
2001. Prices are modest by Washington standards, ranging from $90,000 for a
large one-bedroom apartment to $300,000 for a home with four bedrooms and
four bathrooms. Maintenance fees range from $115 to $260 monthly. All 43
units have been sold.
While the community is largely white, there are black and Hispanic
residents. On a recent evening, white, black, and Asian children tore up
and down the central walkway after dinner.
MEETINGS ARE A MUST
But one price of community is attending meetings to manage what is
essentially a small town. In addition to general meetings that everyone
attends, one group keeps the development's budget, another ensures that the
property's landscape and buildings are maintained, while a third group
resolves conflicts and builds the waiting list.
Some residents go to two or more meetings a week. And because decisions are
made on the basis of consensus, not a vote, meetings can last for two hours.
"That's probably the biggest frustration: the time, the meetings," said
Anna Amato, 41, who works at the World Bank. "I take sabbaticals where I
don't show up for meetings and then I fall back in."
The other balancing act is community versus privacy.
There have been people who inquired about joining the group who decided it
wasn't for them, said Zabaldo, who often describes the group to prospective
residents. "Sometimes they say, ^A'I'm looking for a little more privacy
than that,"' she said.
And there's the other expected problem: personality clashes. Even in
cohousing, not everybody likes everybody.
Amato stressed that while she respected everyone in the community, there
were a few that she discreetly avoided, much like one would in a small farm
town. "If they're on a certain committee or team, I leave the committee or
team. I wouldn't show them that I don't like them. You deal with them
minimally," she said.
But there is nothing new about these downsides or about cohousing, said a
contented Steve Pretl, 61, a retired computer analyst. "This reproduces the
neighborhood I grew up in where kids played all over," he said. "We've lost
that in modern society."
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