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Cohousing concept begins to catch on in the U.S.

July 25, 2005|by JAMES M. WOODARD / Copley News Service

Considering today's prices of single-family homes, it's no wonder the concept of "cohousing" is picking up steam. More of these projects are being planned at points throughout the country.

Cohousing is a collaborative housing concept - a mini-community in itself - where 20 to 35 families (typically) live in residential units along a pedestrian street or clustered around a courtyard. Residents of the community often have several optional group meals in a common building each week.

Initial residents of the cohousing project are usually involved in its planning. The idea for a new project is often sparked by a potential resident. In some cases it's initiated by a developer who solicits and organizes a group of future residents.

Cohousing is sometimes described as private residences designed to foster a community spirit of cooperation while preserving independence. Groups of residences are clustered near shared facilities, and resident families participate in the design and management of their community.

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This housing concept started in Denmark in the late 1960, then spread to North America in the late 1980s.

There are now about 80 cohousing communities built and fully occupied in this country, according to Joani Blank with the Cohousing Association. And there are about the same number of projects at various stages of development. They range in size from 11 to 50 homes (households) with most falling into the 25-35 range, she said.

"There are clusters of these projects (about 14) in Northern California. There are also clusters in the Seattle area, Denver area, in Massachusetts and the Washington. D.C., area. Others are scattered throughout the country," she noted.

"I would urge anyone interested in this concept to visit an existing community. They will be impressed by the strong sense of community that hangs in the air," she added.

An example of a budding new cohousing community is in Southern California. Donna Freiermuth is heading an effort to establish a project somewhere in the area between west San Fernando Valley (Los Angeles area) and north to Santa Paula in Ventura County.

"So far, I've had about two dozen people express active interest in participating in such a community," she said. "Taking the next step, I'm sending out questionnaires to interested persons this week, and will soon plan preliminary meetings. We'll soon be ready to look for land and consider building configurations. Hopefully, we'll firm up on a project by the end of the year."

The lesser cost of a cohousing residence, compared with the purchase of a single-family home, is motivating many people to express interest in this type of community, but perhaps a greater motivating factor is the type of lifestyle it offers, Freiermuth said.

"Increasingly, people want to return to a small-town type of environment where neighbors really know and care about one another. This is particularly important in Southern California where dangers of fires and floods periodically surface. When visiting established cohousing communities, I've been impressed with the degree of respect and kindness residents show for each other.

"I like the fact that cohousing balances the traditional advantages of home ownership with the benefits of shared common facilities and ongoing connections with neighbors. These communities are the most promising solutions to many of today's most challenging social and environmental concerns," she said.

For general information regarding the cohousing concept, visit the Cohousing Association of the United States Web site at www.cohousing.org. For information about Freiermuth's proposed new project, see her Web site at www.ventura-county-cohousing.com/.

Q: Do many single women buy homes these days?

A: Single women are becoming more dominant as home buyers. They now comprise about 21 percent of the national home buying market, according to a report from the National Association of Realtors. This makes them the second largest niche category behind married couples (59 percent), and double that of single men.

With the most active age group for first-time home buyers being 30 to 35 years, women's significant role in the real estate market can be attributed to a number of factors, including higher education, increased professional recognition and greater financial savvy, along with delayed plans for marriage. At least, that's the assessment of Don Norman, president of the American Society of Home Inspectors.

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