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What is Cohousing?

Cohousing is a kind of neighborhood development that first appeared in Denmark in the 1970s. It tries to balance community and privacy in a way that some people think is reminiscent of an old-fashioned neighborhood. There are now dozens of these communities across the United States.

In some respects, cohousing is similar to a condominium complex: each member owns their own fully-equipped unit, while some property is owned and managed in common. In fact, most cohousing communities are legally organized as condominiums.

Perhaps the most distinguishing feature of cohousing is that the commonly held property includes a community kitchen and dining area, where meals may be shared on a voluntary basis. The private units, however, do have their own kitchens.

The shared kitchen and dining area is found in the "common house". This is also where the community will hold its meetings and social gatherings. Often, the common house also includes a playroom for children, extra storage space, and sometimes a guestroom or two to accommodate visitors.

People are attracted to cohousing for different reasons. Some may want a social outlet outside of their busy work schedule. Some may want to raise their children in a supportive community. Others may simply enjoy the company of a diverse group of people. It's important to note that cohousing communities do not share any particular ideology or religious beliefs.


The Main Characteristics of Cohousing

As delivered by Kathryn McCamant and Charles Durrett at the 3rd North American Cohousing Conference in Seattle, September, 1997
1. Participatory Process.
Resident participate in the planning and design of the development of the community so that it directly responds to their needs. (Developer initiated/driven projects are in no way a threat to this. In most cases, developer initiation may actually make it easier for more people to participate in the process. On the other hand, a well-designed, pedestrian-oriented community with no resident involvement in the planning might be "cohousing inspired", but is not a cohousing community.)
2. Neighborhood Design.
The physical design encourages a sense of community as well as maintaining the option for privacy. (It is harder to define here exactly what constitutes "encouraging a sense of community,"but rather than saying it must be a pedestrian-oriented design with the cars at the periphery, it is more important that residents are involved in the decision making (see above) and the intent must be to create a "strong sense of community" with design as one of the facilitators. (Getting together to afford your private golf club does not do it.)
3. Private homes supplemented by common facilities.
Common facilities are designed for daily use; they are an integral part of the community and typically include a dining area, sitting area, children's play room, guest room, as well as garden and other amenities. Each household owns a private residence – complete with kitchen – but also shares extensive common facilities with the larger group. (Cohousing is not a shared house. A shared house could be included in a cohousing community but is a different community/housing type.)
4. Resident management.
After move-in.
5. Non-hierarchical structure and decision-making.
There are leadership roles, but not leaders. The community is not dependent on any one person, even though there is often a "burning soul" that gets the community off the ground, and another that pulls together the financing, and another that makes sure you, the group, has babysitters for meetings, and another...If your community has a leader that sets policy or establishes standards unilaterally, it is not cohousing.
6. The community is not a primary income source for residents.
There is no shared community economy (ala Twin Oaks): If the community provides residents with their primary income, this is a significant change to the dynamic between neighbors and defines another level of community beyond the scope of cohousing.