Do you want to live more efficiently and reap the benefits of a closer community? Cooperative living is a great strategy for getting and staying out of debt while building community, resilience and security in a tenuous economy. But it requires a change in attitudes, and a return to more communal ways of living. You don’t necessarily need to relocate into a brand new cohousing situation; there are a range of options. While we live in a close-but-separate multi-family dwelling, by design and by chance, we’ve achieved some important cohousing benefits – shared space and sense of community. So here’s our cooperative living story, as told from the perspective of both top floor and bottom floor residents–I’m going to refer to the people who live with us as our nearest neighbors, as we don’t really think of them as tenants, but as friends. Living together with extended family is nothing new, but here in Anchorage, we are often far from family, and friends are the family we choose for ourselves (Edna Buchanan).
Cohousing options are as varied as one’s imagination. In Anchorage, several cohousing initiatives have begun to infill with planned communities. Cohousing (or pocket neighborhoods) is described as a type of cooperative living in which residents actively participate in the design and operation of their own neighborhoods. Cohousing residents are consciously committed to living as a community. The physical design encourages both social contact and individual space. Private homes contain all the features of conventional homes, but residents also have access to extensive common facilities such as open space, courtyards, a playground and a common house (www.cohousing.org). Other options include communes, intentional communities, and rental housing cooperatives.
While cohousing communities that are designed from the ground up optimize many benefits of cooperative living, a wide array of simpler approaches can also provide many benefits that don’t exist with isolated single family homes. One of the simplest and most common options is the sharing of a house by unrelated people, usually primarily for the purpose of reducing housing costs. This is particularly common among university students and young people first leaving home. This arrangement has the key cohousing characteristics of common facilities, resident management, and non-hierarchical structure and decision-making. A common but slightly more hierarchical variation of house sharing is when a homeowner rents out a bedroom in their house. With this approach, one gains the cost efficiency of shared living space plus regular community-building interactions with their house mates. In this common scenario, however, cooperative governance of the living situation is usually reduced, as the homeowner is likely to dominate in the decision-making process.
Close-but-separate living arrangements can generate benefits of cooperative living too. There is a growing interest in creating accessory dwelling units (ADUs) in single family homes. To the extent that ADUs exist in single family neighborhoods is largely unknown, as many are illegal suites, flying under the zoning radar, against zoning and/or code enforcement that limits the number of unrelated people living together. Vancouver’s experiences with zoning and illegal suites in an expensive rental market are especially interesting (in the Tyee).
As usual, my father, HT Odum was my model for how to live in descent in an ecological fashion, and he exposed me to the concept of cohousing as well. While he was focused on modeling and writing rather than home design, he did pay attention to practical matters where he felt that they really counted. HT purchased a house in Gainesville, Florida in 1968 that was close to campus. He was considering peak oil even then. He created an ADU for the random return of children and extended family, with the thought that perhaps caregivers could live in the unit, if need be, as he and his wife Betty aged. North central Florida gets cold fronts in the winter, so HT made sure that the living spaces had several different types of heating sources–gas, oil, and a fireplace as backup. In opposition to the trends, he planted trees all over the property, and let the front yard get overtaken by shade and forest floor. He favored his beloved wetland cypress trees, which he planted down by the sinkhole pond. He piled pine needles on the concrete driveway to allow nature to break it down and send the land back to its original state. Snags were allowed to stand, and deadwood was allowed to lie. Ducks frolicked in the pond, and my augmented feeding with commercial duck food provided a microcosm experiment for me of what happens when surplus energy is supplied to a system–as you can imagine, it’s not all good. HT and his brother Gene taught and role modeled age-old values of frugality, resilience, and ecological living that are finally re-emerging culturally from the jet backwash of fossil fuel living.
In Anchorage, we looked for permanent housing about five years ago with a bit of acreage to build a house where we could have a significant garden, and create resilience in a number of ways. We had been living in traditional suburban housing our entire lives, saving for the day that we could live our lives on our own terms. We found a 1 ¼ acre lot on the hillside where we could have a well and septic, and be within bikeable distance to jobs. Our builder insisted on no less than 2200 square feet, and we were constrained by many building codes, so we opted to design a home where we could live cooperatively. Our house is smaller than most newer houses in Anchorage, and it houses two households. Remodeling an existing home would have been greener, as the emergy basis of new housing is very high in Anchorage, but we couldn’t find any likely candidates at the time in a very expensive, tight Anchorage real estate market. Retrofitting the suburbs will be necessary as we go forward—David Holmgren has some ideas on how to do it in the linked PDF.
Perhaps the most helpful component of remodeling or building anew for cooperative living is the separate entrance that affords privacy and a sense of autonomy for occupants. We designed a home with a bedroom and bath on each floor, including the main floor of the house, an important element for consideration of aging. We finished the walkout basement rental unit ourselves, learning many skills in the process. The main floor bedroom is designed to be flexible, typically used as shared guest space that is accessible to both units. Or the extra bedroom can be closed off and integrated with either living space, depending on our needs. Floors are all tile in order to allow for wood boiler hydronic heat and to avoid carpets, as wall to wall carpeting and its maintenance is not sustainable. Most garages in Anchorage are attached, and benzene and other fumes are a health hazard, so we opted for a detached garage with shared storage space for bikes, skis and gear. Our garage doubles as wood-fired boiler shed, ski waxing bench and chicken coop, and it is really more of a bike barn than a garage. Later on it could be converted to a real barn if need be, as cars fall out of favor. The garage gets minimal heat in the winter from either a garage heater or more commonly from referred heat from the wood-fired boiler. The plumber who did our heating had to order a thermostat for the garage online, as there is no place in Anchorage that sells thermostats that go below 50 degrees!
We used permaculture principles wherever we could, within the restrictions of zoning policies. We let Nature do the work on the property through self-organization. Building from scratch allowed us to leave the trees around the house—we hand cleared the lot and used the wood for our wood-fired boiler during the first years of its operation. Most of the property was left for nature to manage. We repopulated the part of the yard that had been cleared with a compost/soil mix, threw wildflower mixes on it, and then shepherded what came up, guiding the succession by weeding invasives by hand. And we thinned a friend’s spruce forest to replant trees on bare spots. We opted for a permeable gravel driveway, inspired by Eugene Odum’s long gravel driveway. Now, when the tires of our car or bikes leave the pavement to turn onto our gravel drive surrounded by the trees, my blood pressure drops and my heart opens. The sound and the feel of the gravel announce to my body the arrival home to a different way of living, separate in values and form from the empire at large.
Economic pressures in the future will necessitate more extended family living, smaller housing footprints in square footage per person, and less single-family housing. For young adults who have school debt to overcome, or who are saving for a home, various forms of extended family living are a logical solution. Cooperative living allows for symbiosis, synergy of efforts and diversity of thought. Our neighbors have been multicultural, providing lessons on diverse culture through extended French and German families, languages, and ways of living and being.
Some of the many benefits include:
Rules are one issue in any communal living setting, developing from a natural need for control and resulting in some loss of autonomy for members. Larger or commercial cohousing ventures may have less cohesive community and may need to fall back on legal contracts or formal mediation. These arrangements marry new social arrangements with traditional legal and financial contracts better suited to a growth economy and single family housing. We need to rethink our legal framework for housing.
From an economic perspective, debt-based arrangements work best in situations where there is more growth and more money in the future to pay off the mortgage, since debt requires interest, which requires growth of the economic system and the money system over the long term. Expectations of growth allow us to assume debt casually with the expectation that it will be easy to pay off in the future. Legal contracts that mortgage a large chunk of property over the long term among a group of people during tenuous times may create stress for those holding the contracts. Staying out of debt and living below our means provides a buffer of savings for resilience in a chaotic economy.
Code issues may be difficult to overcome in order to develop a creative sustainable cohousing situation. Current zoning favors monoculture housing of single family dwellings in un-walkable communities with strict separation of commercial and residential zones, so creating ADUs or cohousing may result in battles with your municipality and your neighbors to try to get them to think differently. We have one neighbor who is not fond of either our chickens or our cohousing, perhaps because they represent a diminished status for the neighborhood in her view. Our suite is now a legally permitted ADU, ahem. While the McMansion as a status symbol may be fading, most Americans still ascribe much of their wealth and status to their homes.
We’ve been quite delighted with our neighbors, who have become friends as well. Synergies abound. For example, on several workaday mornings, my husband has gone out to the garage at 5:30 in the morning to get on his bike to go to work, only to find that the smoothie sprite has deposited a fresh smoothie in a mason jar tucked in his helmet, with a whimsical poem attached. Or we come home to find a dessert elf has deposited cookies on our counter. What’s not to love about this arrangement? And on the days that we begin to feel old, our nearest neighbors’ youth and energy is contagious. For instance, our smoothie sprite was up at 5 am this morning, before work, in typical all-out summer-in-Alaska fashion, sledding on Flattop Mountain. Life is short, play hard! And our neighbors get to play hard because when they come home, the driveway is plowed and housing chores are taken care of already.
Cohousing for my husband Toby and me has created a perfect world. When we were first searching for living space and saw the email and photos of the Logan’s unit, we were skeptical due to the distance across town from our jobs. (I wasn’t sure how far I could bike happily and consistently). It was late November and we tramped up to their bright birch-encircled home with our Sorels. I don’t think we could have anticipated the offer that was about to be posed: a tidy, thoughtfully-designed compact space, a parking spot in a garage, a hot tub ten steps away in one direction and a forested back yard fire pit twenty steps in the other, wireless internet, laundry upstairs, an attached guest room . . . and two strangers who immediately offered to open their home to us — sharing all these things like family. I particularly remember that five minutes into our introduction, one of them said “you’re welcome to use the rest of the house when we’re gone . . . it’s a great space – you can throw parties.” (The other quickly following up with “as long as they’re not too wild!”) Welcome to the best cohousing experience ever.
Back in the car leaving their driveway, it was a non-decision. The benefits were clear. Neither of us were new to co-housing (I’d shared a drafty new England dwelling with six other ladies in grad school) but this was a new level. The structural set up had been so well thought out the outset, and offered with such warm hands, that we couldn’t pass it up.
Looking back, however, the best aspects weren’t advertised in that first meeting. It’s the fact we now have mentors upstairs that have ruminated on so many important aspects of life and are willing to share their wisdom. Toby and I are in our 30s with a lot ahead of us to learn, and seeing their lifestyle — from concrete things like devising an innovative heating system and greenhouse, to broader things like their commitment to sustainability, relationships, and community — has been extremely inspiring. Additionally, we have people a few vertical feet away who care. They know when we’re home alone and might appreciate a dinner invite, when we’re late from an outdoor trip, or when something comes up we might be interested in learning about. I think my mother sleeps better at night because of this. I know we do.
I will conclude by saying the bike (or drive) across town couldn’t be more worth it. We feel the benefits of co-housing each day, and are also able to save money to eventually build our own home. With the experience we’ve had with the Logans, I think we’ll work towards replicating the model when the time comes.