Co-Housing Entices Families and Seniors

Claire Miller playing the harp in her Wolf Creek Lodge cohousing home.
Claire Miller playing the harp in her Wolf Creek Lodge cohousing home.

Greg Kelly was looking for an alternative to the isolation that can come with suburban living. He hated how in many suburban neighborhoods, people barely interact with their neighbors, spend most of their time in cars and struggle to keep their families going all on their own.

When the now 41-year-old married father of a 10-year-old girl heard about plans for Fair Oaks EcoHousing near Sacramento, he and his family quickly signed on board. The development, which is scheduled to open in summer 2016, is an environment-friendly cohousing project which combines energy-efficient private residences with shared facilities like a common house and a garden. Residents will eat meals together several times a week in the common house. The goal is to create the feel of a “small village where neighbors know and care about each other.”

As a licensed marriage and family therapist, Kelly recognizes the value of community. “When we don’t have healthy relationships and interactions with other human beings, we become more disconnected from each other, more isolated and that isolation can significantly contribute to mental health issues,” he said.

He and his wife were also attracted to the Fair Oaks because of the nearby friends it would give his daughter. “I drive her from play date to play date sometimes. That takes energy and gasoline. You don’t need to do that as much in a cohousing community because there are other kids to hang out with.”

The Fair Oaks project will join some 40 cohousing developments in California, most of them in the northern part of the state. Cohousing started in Denmark in 1972 by a group of families who wanted communal living while still retaining their private residences. The concept made its way to the United States 20 years later after husband-and-wife architects Kathryn McCamant and Charles Durrett published the book “Cohousing: A Contemporary Approach to Housing Ourselves” following a Denmark tour and started developing and designing projects. The couple is working on the Fair Oaks project as well as several other projects around the country.

Cohousing is a growing trend with new developments popping up all the time despite drawbacks of monthly dues, required chores and the challenging process of coming to a group consensus. Cohousing differs from traditional condominiums because residents help design the development and manage it.

McCamant and Durrett live in Nevada City Cohousing, a 34-home development they designed in the wooded hills of California’s gold country, and raised their now grown daughter there. Homes are spaced close to each other and face a long pathway used by walkers and kids riding scooters and bicycles.  The common house includes a music room, children’s play room, teen lounge, kitchen, dining and sitting areas. On one recent day, the common house hosted a group lesson for young Suzuki violin students.

Completed in 2006, the homes range from about $255,000 to $425,000 and range in size from 860- to 1,683-square feet with two to four bedrooms. Home owners pay monthly dues of $200-$500, which includes heat, hot water, high-speed Internet, building insurance, trash pick-up and sewer.

The community has about 90 residents, including about 35 kids. “They’re constantly building forts or making up games or playing baseball,” said McCamant. “They’re not watching TV, they do not use electronics.”

A few miles away in Grass Valley, McCamant and her husband recently completed Wolf Creek Lodge, a cohousing community designed for active seniors. The development opened in 2012 with 30 homes, all but three of which have sold. Costs run from $280,000- $495,000 for units that are 640-square-feet to 1,150-square feet. Monthly dues are $300-$400.

Magdalene Jaceckel, 91, who has lived in the development for over a year, said she benefitted from the community sensibility in cohousing when she recently had a heart attack. Her neighbors rallied around her with one going to the hospital with her and another calling her daughter. “What would I do if I lived by myself?” she said.

Claire Miller, a 67-year-old Wolf Creek resident, said living there forces her to be more social than she would be otherwise. She enjoys gardening with and cooking for the other residents. “Left to myself, I wouldn’t talk to anybody for days on end,” she said.

The biggest drawback to living in cohousing is giving up control on some decisions and putting in the time to do landscaping, cooking and attend meetings, said Bob Branstrom, a 63-year-old resident. “You’re committing to a community and that means work,” he said.

Don Knutson, who has lived in Southside Park Cohousing in Sacramento for 14 years, said he loves cohousing’s emphasis on egalitarianism and cooperative action for mutual benefit.

Actually putting together a cohousing community from scratch is extremely difficult. Marty Maskall, a leader behind Fair Oaks EcoHousing has been working on getting it going since 2005. The project had trouble getting land. One deal fell apart and investors lost a lot of money. Some original participants left. Maskall, 69, was thrilled when the project’s current 3.5-acre site came up for sale. It was land the group had tried to buy once before in 2005.  “The universe handed it to me and said ‘do you want this?’ Maskall said.

She was motivated to keep pressing on because she believes cohousing is a healthy way to live. To her, the main benefits of cohousing are the convenience of a social life on site, the connection of having deep relationships with neighbors and the safety that comes with neighbors watching out for one another.

Roslyn Eliaser, another leader of Fair Oaks EcoHousing, said she was attracted to cohousing because it reminds her of the neighborhoods of her childhood when she was growing up in Sacramento.  “We were in and out of everybody’s backyards all the time,” said the 61-year-old. “Everybody shared things and borrowed things and had keys to everyone’s houses.”

She said it’s nice to know that option is still available. “The co-housing thing is saying these are the people who want to live like this,” she said.

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