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Several years ago, Steve Pretl of Potomac, Md., saw that his next-door neighbor was outside, so he walked over to say hi. They chatted for a few minutes before the neighbor stopped Pretl and said, “You know I moved out three months ago, right?” He had only stopped by pay a visit. Pretl had had no idea. He took it as a wake-up call. Perhaps it was time to get to know his neighbors.
Today, Pretl is in his 12th year of living in a type of tight-knit residential development known as cohousing, and it’s a good bet that his neighbors won’t move -- or experience some other life-altering events -- without his knowing about it. “It’s a blend of community and privacy,” says Pretl, 73. “You can have all the privacy you want. But if you do it too long, people will ask, ‘Why don’t we see you around?’”
Pretl and the other 80 or so residents of Takoma Village Cohousing in Washington, D.C., treat one another like extended relatives. They range in age from 12 months to 85 years. Every week they cook and eat dinner together. Communal facilities -- living spaces, a children’s play area, a tool workshop -- encourage interactivity. There’s no professional management company in charge: The residents themselves handle basic repairs, cleaning and landscaping. When somebody’s ill, there’s an understanding that the neighbors will help out.
Once a relative novelty, cohousing developments continue to increase in popularity -- and they could become a key part of the way developers and cities accommodate an aging population. Unlike their parents’ or their grandparents’ generation, baby boomers say they don’t want to decamp to Florida or Arizona upon retirement. They want to stay in the communities where they’ve spent their adult lives. For many experts on housing and senior issues, cohousing looks like an increasingly attractive solution.
The idea of cohousing originated in Denmark in the 1970s; American developers imported the model in the early 1990s. Today, there are about 110 cohousing developments throughout the country, says Joani Blank, a former board member of the Cohousing Association of the United States, which acts as a clearinghouse of information about the developments.
Blank first moved into a cohousing residence in 1992, and she has the enthusiasm of an early adopter. The idea behind cohousing, she says, is very simple. It’s about creating “intentional neighborhoods” in which residents interact with their neighbors, as an alternative to the relative anonymity of high-rise apartment complexes or sprawling exurban McMansions. “Our intention is to be close to our neighbors, and be known by our neighbors, and know them,” Blank says. “And that’s it.”
The cohousing development where Blank lives, in Oakland, Calif., has wide sidewalks to encourage residents to stop and congregate. Cars don’t park in between homes, because doing so would create a barrier. A staple of cohousing is lots of meetings and lots of committees, since residents play such an active role in decisions large and small. In Blank’s community, residents have windows over the kitchen sink, and most tend to keep the curtains open. “In cohousing,” she says, “we want to maximize the openness.”
Inevitably, Blank says, people learning about cohousing for the first time are tempted to view it as co-op-meets-commune, a dream of hippie counterculture. (The fact that many cohousing residents are baby boomers who came of age in the 1960s only fuels those parallels.) But Blank says that’s just a caricature. “We all have completely functional, self-contained units. I could be in any condo in the country.”
Historically, cohousing developments have included residents of all ages, but now there’s a growing interest in developments exclusively for aging residents, says Kathryn McCamant, president of the developer CoHousing Partners and one of the earliest pioneers of the cohousing movement in the U.S. “Boomers are looking for an alternative that hasn’t been there before,” McCamant says. “They don’t want to live in communities of thousands of old people. They want to stay in charge.”
Those leading the shift will likely be seniors who’ve already lived in multigenerational cohousing developments, which tend to focus on families, and who may be searching for something else. “It’s not that the kids are annoying. Everybody loves them,” says Jim Leach, CoHousing Partners’ chairman and a resident of Silver Sage Village, a senior cohousing development in Boulder, Colo. “But when you have an intergenerational community with a lot of young families, the kids come first. Dinners are like going to McDonald’s Playland. Ours are like going to a nice restaurant.”
Advocates of senior cohousing say it’s an attractive option for many reasons. Developments in urban areas would allow aging people to be less reliant on cars. The units are much easier to maintain than large single-family homes. And cohousing allows them to remain socially active and engaged with the community. Meanwhile, there’s the very practical benefit of knowing that there are people close by in case of a medical emergency. While cohousing isn’t a solution for those suffering from serious medical conditions, it can be a useful solution for people who merely need the occasional helping hand.
“When people are connected, they start to work as an extended family,” Leach says. “They tend to take care of each other, even though there’s no obligation.”
When a resident of Blank’s development in Oakland was diagnosed with cancer, neighbors provided round-the-clock help so that her husband could continue going to work. Advocates say that with a minimal amount of care -- in some cases, just the care that’s provided by thoughtful neighbors -- seniors can remain at home and relatively independent much later in life than they may otherwise have been able to. “[Seniors] want to feel like they control their own destiny,” Leach says. “A high percentage of them don’t want to be stuck somewhere where people are taking care of them, and they don’t have much of a relationship with them.”
Groups like AARP and the American Planning Association have paid close attention to cohousing, since both styles -- seniors-only and multigenerational -- may be an attractive option to aging baby boomers. The model will no doubt remain a niche option. But the boomer demographic is so large that it’s worth paying attention to, says Rodney Harrell, senior strategic policy adviser with AARP’s Public Policy Institute. “You’ve got enough numbers that there are still people out there to fill every niche and category,” he says.
Cohousing isn’t for everybody. Some critics say more work must be done to encourage affordable housing units within the developments. Otherwise, they say, cohousing will remain a boutique option for the already well-to-do. As one resident of Takoma Village Cohousing notes, while her neighbors often tout the racial and religious diversity within their community, the economic makeup of the development is homogeneous: solidly and entirely middle class. “We don’t just want condos for rich people,” Harrell says. “We want affordable units mixed in. But it’s a challenge, especially [because] when it’s such a niche option, prices tend to go up.”
Advocates have also called on city governments to help encourage cohousing by creating zoning policies that foster the type of dense development that includes cohousing. “It’s a matter of recognizing the new constituency and the new population and tailoring government programs to meet those unique needs,” says former U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development Secretary Henry Cisneros, who has written about housing options for aging Americans.
In some places, local officials have worked to help support cohousing developments. Dene Peterson, one of the founders of ElderSpirit Community at Trailview, located in southwest Virginia, says the development leveraged government money in order to secure private loans before opening in 2006. The development became a reality thanks largely to a combination of loans from the Virginia Housing Development Authority and a grant distributed by the Virginia Department of Housing and Community Development. Of the senior development’s 29 units, 16 are designated as low-income rentals. In fact, ElderSpirit calls itself “the first mixed-income, mixed-ownership elder cohousing community in the United States.”
Peterson, who says she wasn’t interested in a nursing home, couldn’t imagine spending her final years anywhere else. “I expect to die at home,” she says. “And one reason I built this was for a good death for myself.”