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Borrowing a cup of sugar from the folks next door ain’t the turn-on it used to be. In an age when neighborly communication means banging on the wall with a boot, most city dwellers don’t want to share even a front stoop with their fellow citizenslet alone a “lifestyle.” But future inhabitants of a planned Takoma, D.C., complex say that proper vetting and a Grape-Nuts bowl’s worth of good intentions can mean the answer to the grumbling city of the ’90s is…even more togetherness.
Togetherness, of course, is a rare selling point for contemporary urban housing. In the Seinfeld version of the world, urban life connotes isolated independence, equal parts opportunity and loneliness. Conventional wisdom holds that if you have kids and want your piece of communal piewith its afternoons of block parties and lemonade shared with the neighborsyou have to move out to Bumfuck, Va., and pay the opportunity cost of trying to fight your way back into town every day just to work.
Proponents of co-housing, though, think they’ve figured out how to bring the village to the city. Their answer to unthinkable commutes, skyrocketing housing prices, and metropolitan alienation lies in squishy notions like shared work space, communal dining, and cooperative child care. Too drunk to mow the lawn today? No worries, the neighbors are on it. Need to dash out and take care of some personal business, but can’t take the kids with? Bob, your co-housemate, is on the case.
In June, the Takoma Village co-housing project will break ground on a 1.43-acre lot just a few blocks inside the D.C. line. The project is designed to form a stable, supportive, and sharing community (almost like a commune, but, well…better, and with less pot). And, according to the most blue-sky projections, the co-housing project can also serve as a motor to drive people back into the city in search of the cuddliest neighborhood in the world.
Co-housing is sort of like a condominium, hold the alienation. The projects are better-looking than most condominiums, but different from communes because nobody shares your ATM card. The neighborhoods are built with a set of relatively standard design principles in mind: Parking is set up around the outside of the houses, and there’s green space in the middle for the kiddies to play. Residents still own their own houseswith kitchen and allbut dues go toward shared needs like child care, a gym, or a tool shop that everybody shares.
The concept came to the U.S. from Denmark in the late ’80s. The first American co-housing community was founded in Davis, Calif., in 1991. Inside the development, everything is decided through consensusjust like in social-democratic Scandinavia. The communal ambience, meanwhile, is meant to build friendships and free residents from the loneliness of modern lifeunlike, they hope, in suicide-plagued Scandinavia.
Co-housing isn’t new to D.C.’s sprawling metropolitan area. Co-housing communities have already been built in Fairfax and Frederick, and a new development is currently being squeezed in between the cow pastures in Loudoun County. But the 43 units at Takoma Village will constitute only the second urban co-housing community on the East Coast, after an existing community in Cambridge, Mass.
Don Tucker, the developer of the Takoma Village project, notes that most co-housing developments so far have sprouted up in rural areas for the same reason the suburbs continue to expand: It’s easy to get large sections of land. Still, Zev Paiss, executive director of the Cohousing Network, says dreams of bucolic communal splendor can also take off in citiesalthough his digs at the Nomad co-housing establishment are situated in mountainous splendor near Boulder, Colo. Urban communities like Takoma Village can be particularly attractive for suburbanites tired of commuting hours just to get a bagel. “We need an alternative to faceless suburbs,” Paiss says.
Anne Zabaldo, regional coordinator for the Cohousing Network and a future resident of Takoma Village, says communities like it can become prototypes for urban revitalization. “We are attracting people back into the city,” she says. Zabaldo says the projects will “transform urban neighborhoods” into places where we can all just get along. Another future resident, Sandra Leibowitz, grew up in New York City and says the combination of urban life and a supporting community is pretty attractive. “Once you get it, you get it,” Leibowitz says.
The community dynamic that inhabits co-housing extends to the planet as a whole, with a big emphasis on environmentally responsible development. Takoma Village, for example, is considering the use of solar power and the installation of parking surfaces that minimize water runoff and pollution. But the sharing ethos also meets the most politically neutral of all criteria: the bottom line. You need only one lawnmower and one workshop with power tools.
And you need a lot fewer of those money-grubbing teenage babysitters. Buildings and grounds are cleverly designed to keep kids within “screaming distance” but outside “yelling distance.” It’s a version of Hillary Clinton’s village, where raising the next generation becomes a shared responsibility.
The common house is the heart of the co-housing construct. Community dues go toward the construction and operation of a shared building where the neighbors exercise in the workout room, read in the library, watch a movie in the “entertainment center,” or cook together. Co-housing communities tend to share meals at the common house, although how often varies from community to community; some break bread just once a month, while others gather every day. Under current plans, the common house at Takoma Village will also include a fitness room, children’s room, hot tub, music room, laundry, and workshop.
If co-housing’s amenities sound more like Connecticut Avenue than the Catskills, so does its price tag. By contemporary housing standards, a co-house’s cost runs fair to middling. But by the ascetic standards of old-time communes, it’s highway robbery. Residents at Takoma Village will pay between $82,000 and $250,000 for their units, depending on size, ranging from smaller apartments to full-size three-bedroom homes.
Co-housers are a mixed bag demographically. The folks willing to shell out this kind of dough to have their neighbors know their habits include about one-third families with children, one-third young singles, and one-third elderly “empty nesters.” But future members of Takoma Village33 of the 43 units are already spoken formostly include young, white singles, a handful of African-Americans, and a few families.
It’s not just end-stage hippies who are seeking solace in numbers. At one of the weekly organizational meetings for Takoma Village, members included one 79-year-old man who had joined because things were a little slow at the old folks home where he lives now. Another woman said simply, “Having the interaction of the neighbors is really important to me.” Yet another woman, Grace, said that although she likes her current neighborhood a lot, she feels isolated in her apartment building. “I miss community,” she said.
Of course, dreams of shared warm fuzzies have a way of souring, but the folks in Takoma aren’t worried about their little shared piece of the rock turning into Waco on the Red Line. “Most people seem like they want something else in their life….It is not just the granola people from the ’60s,” says Zabaldo.
The prospect of co-housers by the dozen setting up shopand dropping dollarshas some local governments all but offering to light the residents’ incense. In Boulder, the city gave the Nomad community $75,000 to designate three of its units for lower-income people. The project is designed to encourage people from different income levels to live together, Paiss says.
District officials say they aren’t quite ready to share the love yetbut they say they will keep an eye on the project to see if they can help with similar efforts in the future. “On the surface, it sounds exciting,” says D.C. Department of Housing and Community Development Director Richard Monteilh. “In an urban environment where you need mutual support, it certainly would warrant our looking into it for ways to support urban housing other than the ways we are doing it now.”
And the Takoma Village complex is unlikely to be the last project of the sort in the District, Tucker says. “We are really looking at this as a new direction. This is going to become more mainstream….I’m sure this isn’t going to be the last co-housing project in the city.”
If co-housing is successful here, the city should get ready for a very involved group of citizens. Three out of 17 residents at the Emeryville, Calif., co-housing community also sit on the city council. The trend is likely to continue, supporters of the movement say, because the residents learn to forge a consensus on a variety of issues. If you can get your neighbors to agree on pretty much anything, you might just be able to build an urban Shangri-La.
“The paradigm of how to make decisions is shifting in this country,” Zabaldo says. “Not everybody has to agree. You just have to ‘align.’” CP