Cohousing booms as option in urban living

Evelyn Moore prepared a weekly community dinner at Jamaica Plain Cohousing March 12. Evelyn Moore prepared a weekly community dinner at Jamaica Plain Cohousing March 12. (Matthew J. Lee/Globe Staff)
By Joseph P. Kahn
Globe Staff / March 23, 2010

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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 $12.5 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.’’

Joseph P. Kahn can be reached at

Correction: Because of a reporting error, a previous version of this story misstated the cost of Stony Brook Cohousing’s redevelopment plans. It is $12.5 million.