Common Ground : ‘Cohousing’ residents give up a little privacy when they share chores. But they get more time with their families.
With two careers, two kids and a four-bedroom, two-bath house, Daniel and Catherine Mountjoy were living the American dream.
They just didn’t have time to enjoy it.
So last fall, they chucked their suburban spread and moved to Muir Commons, the first “cohousing” community in the United States.
Daniel, a doctoral candidate at UC Davis, and Catherine, a community health educator, live with their two children in one of 26 small townhouses in a fenced enclave in this college town 12 miles west of Sacramento.
The Mountjoys have less private space. But they own 1/26th of a large community kitchen and dining hall, a sitting room with fireplace, a laundry room, a children’s playroom, an elaborate wooden play structure, a teen room, a crafts room, an aerobic dance room, a furnished guest room, an orchard, a community garden and, in lieu of a garage and driveway, a parking lot on the site’s periphery.
“This is housing that works so much better for the way people live,” says Catherine, 33.
The Mountjoys have just come home from a leisurely meal of black-bean tostadas in the dining hall, one they didn’t have to plan, shop for or cook. Each Muir Commons household is responsible for just one communal dinner a month. So while neighbors chopped 28 onions, sliced two dozen red and yellow peppers and simmered vats of beans and brown rice in the village kitchen, Catherine played a memory card game with her son, Gabriel, 2, in the family’s living room. Daniel joined another resident in a carpentry project outside. Their 5-year-old daughter, Ashlin, and several neighbor girls pedaled trikes around the traffic-free three-acre site.
Now, while other neighbors do their twice-a-month dishwashing duties, the Mountjoys are back at home, gathered around the kitchen table to play a board game before the kids go to bed.
Pioneered in Denmark, cohousing is an attempt to combine the benefits of private housing with the advantages of communal living. Each owner has a small home with a yard and shares extensive common facilities with fellow residents.
A second U.S. cohousing community, in Emeryville, near Oakland, opened its doors in February. And construction is to begin later this year on projects in Sacramento and Benicia, northeast of Berkeley.
More than 90 cohousing planning groups--including several in Southern California--are meeting in 31 states, according to the CoHousing Co., a Berkeley-based consulting firm that promotes the concept through a newsletter, lectures and a book, “CoHousing, A Contemporary Approach to Housing Ourselves.”
One such lecture, three years ago in Davis, drew Paul Seif, the 37-year-old owner of a direct-mail advertising company. He had concluded that traditional single-family housing was all wrong for him.
“I was driving down my empty street, past blocks of empty homes, to my empty house,” he recalls. “Suddenly the isolation of typical suburban life just hit me.”
From that 1989 lecture--by CoHousing Co. founders Kathryn McCamant and Charles Durrett, a husband-wife architect team who studied the concept in Scandinavia in the mid-1980s--came a Muir Commons planning group that included Seif.
Nowadays, his home life is very different. At 6 p.m., the Muir Commons dinner bell rings. Seif, the only single man in the community, moves a discarded trike, an abandoned toy fire engine and an overturned child’s bike off the footpath on his way into the dining room. Inside, amid a clattering of stoneware and stainless steel, he joins a table with half a dozen friends.
“Sitting alone in your own house watching ‘Miami Vice’ shrinks your humanity,” says Seif, whose most regular dinner companion used to be his cat. “Cohousing expands it.”
Cathy and Pierre du Vair might have been able to scrape together enough money to buy a small house in Davis. But they wouldn’t have had anything left to make it wheelchair-accessible for son Christian, 7, who has a rare, debilitating muscle disease.
Cohousing, which is designed by the people who will live in it, offered a potential solution: The planning process would permit the Du Vairs to fight for flush entries, smooth footpaths and other wheelchair-friendly features that involve little or no added expense if they’re part of an original design.
No fight was necessary. Pierre, 32, a doctoral candidate in environmental policy at UC Davis, says his future neighbors gladly agreed to incorporate such features as wheelchair turnarounds on dead-end paths, which have given Christian a new life.
Muir Commons was conceived as an affordable housing project, another draw for the Du Vairs, who have another son, 5-year-old Pierre. Cathy, 30, teaches high school geometry.
Davis developer Virginia Thigpen had proposed the cohousing project as a creative, cost-effective way for developers of a new 110-acre subdivision in Davis to meet city requirements to make 25% of the new houses “affordable.” She organized the 1989 lecture to drum up interest.
Sixteen of the 26 households drawn to the planning group, including the Du Vairs, qualified for the city’s affordable housing program. Prices ranged from $96,000 for two-bedroom, one-bath units to $150,000 for three-bedroom, two-bath models.
Higher-income families paid the same prices, however. Thigpen says the developer decided that charging neighbors in identical homes different prices might cause resentment. Market value was perhaps 50% above asking prices, Thigpen says--still a bargain in Davis, where the average house price is $245,000.
If cohousing solves some problems, it creates others.
David Maciolek and his wife, recent graduates of Humboldt State College, moved to Muir Commons hoping to recapture the camaraderie of college life. They have. But Maciolek, a civil and environmental engineer, hadn’t bargained on the price in privacy being so high.
“It’s pretty tough at times,” he says. “If you come home from work after a hard day and you just want to slink home and flop down on your bed, you can run into anywhere from five to 10 people on your way in the door.”
Yet craving privacy can feel politically incorrect. “I think we’re still sort of in this honeymoon period, where we don’t want to admit that we want to get away from each other,” Maciolek says. “There’s this feeling you have to walk around with a smile on your face, like, ‘Isn’t this great?’
“Hey--sometimes it isn’t so great.”
Maciolek and his wife cope by eating only one or two meals a week in the dining hall. They also try to get away most weekends.
Endless meetings get on other residents’ nerves. During the three-year planning process, the suburban pioneers met as often as twice a week to reach agreement on everything from floor plans to floor coverings.
They’re still meeting.
They have the money to replace the ugly garage-sale couches in the communal sitting room, for example, but residents must agree on a new furniture style. Six months of formal discussions have failed to produce consensus. Ditto for new dining room tables and chairs.
Then there’s the Great Fence Debate. One camp holds that private back yards are essential in this fishbowl community. The other argues that fences would carve the site into postage-stamp lots, destroying the illusion of open space.
And there are the laundry soap questions: Should the community buy detergent in bulk and share it? If so, what brand? And how would the cost be shared?
About half a dozen children attend the Waldorf School in Davis, which strongly discourages playing with toy weapons, even at home. This prompted protracted debate about which communal toys should be purchased for the children’s playroom.
Is a squirt gun a weapon? Even if it’s shaped like a whale? Is a stick a weapon?
New conflicts can be expected in the future, along with more meetings to hammer them out. Home resales might foment problems. Under the community’s codes, covenants, restrictions and bylaws, residents may sell to whomever they choose. Sellers will be encouraged, but not required, to give preference to existing residents. If no resident is interested, sellers will be urged to first approach buyers who have been placed on a waiting list.
And the community’s as-yet-unneeded power to impose fines on members who fail to meet minimum cooking, dishwashing, maintenance, cleaning, security and committee participation requirements also may incite arguments.
But no one at Muir Commons has put up a for-sale sign.
“The human potential of the situation is what’s really keeping us here,” says Maciolek, echoing sentiments expressed by many of his neighbors.
“You learn to be less judgmental, more tolerant, more appreciative of differences. You give up some things. But so far, what we’ve gained has compensated.”