As a college student getting ready to face the world, there are a lot of things I’ve had to start thinking about: jobs, bills, budgets, do I want to apply for another program or do I want to jump into the workforce, where do I want to live for the rest of my life? One of the things I never anticipated worrying about was housing. I always thought that I would live in a crappy little apartment for a couple of years before moving into a house of my own. But when I started looking for available housing options, I quickly discovered that it wasn’t going to be that easy.
There are a lot of different living options available today: single-family homes, shared living (or co-living), congregate housing, and cooperative housing are just a few examples. While shared living spaces are becoming more popular because of their affordability, the single-family home is still the most sought-after housing option. The single-family home provides its residents with their own space without having to worry about other occupants. However, this living style often unintentionally isolates its residents from others and is becoming increasingly hard to maintain, especially when family members have busy lives that make it hard to take care of daily domestic tasks and find time for their friends, family, or themselves.
In my search for an ideal living situation, I’ve discovered that many people are frustrated with the current options and their impacts on their daily lives, and have started to consider new ideas about what housing and community can look like. Curious, I began to dig deeper and found another living option called cohousing. In her book, Cohousing: a Contemporary Approach to Housing Ourselves, Kathryn McCamant argues that cohousing provides a serious template for living lighter on our planet and improving people’s quality of life in child- and senior-friendly neighborhoods (4). Cohousing produces a type of living environment that encourages its members to lean on each other for certain needs while still being able to retain a certain amount of autonomy. At first, I didn’t understand what the big deal was behind this housing movement. To me, cohousing seemed like any other suburban neighborhood. Before I dismissed the idea, I decided I had to know more, so I buried myself in research.
History of Cohousing
First, I wanted to look at the history behind the cohousing movement to get a grasp on its background, mainly how it developed and why it gained popularity. The idea of cohousing appeared only 50 years ago, and while it’s still fairly new, several groups have formed their own housing developments and redefined what community means to them. In more isolated living arrangements, community is often defined as “a group of people living in the same place or having a particular characteristic in common” (The Oxford Dictionary). When creating a new living option, potential members wanted a community that was different than simply living close to each other. They wanted to redefine community as “a feeling of fellowship with others, as a result of sharing common attitudes, interests, and goals” (The Oxford Dictionary). As more cohousing developments are being designed and built, they take inspiration from the first developments and work to build a similarly-connected community. Considering these two different definitions of community, it started becoming clear to me why cohousing would have developed.
Looking back on my own life, living in my childhood single-family home hadn’t been anything too exciting. I had a younger sister and a dog to play with, but there weren’t many other children around. As a child, I used to ask my mom if I could run over to one of my friend’s houses and see if they wanted to play, but she always told me no – it wasn’t that easy. To play with any of my friends, playdates had to be scheduled in advance, then either myself or my friends had to be driven a couple of neighborhoods over. Our neighborhood didn’t have a sense of closeness, and we weren’t allowed to go anywhere by ourselves until we were old enough to understand the dangers of the world and could recognize safe places like police stations. Now, I can understand why people would want to build their own neighborhoods and create a more connected community, now I just wanted to know how it all began.
The cohousing phenomenon started in two places. The first development was “built in 1972 outside Copenhagen, Denmark, by 27 families who wanted a greater sense of community than offered by suburban subdivisions or apartment complexes” (McCamant 5). Though they took a long time to get up and running, “the group that eventually developed Sunlight, in Oregon, began organizing in the 1970s along the lines of Danish cohousing but without any knowledge of others’ developing similar communities” (Fromm 93). These groups developed a community plan where each household has a private and self-sufficient residence with extensive shared common facilities within the neighborhood. The common facilities, especially the common dining hall where the community shares dinners, is the aspect of cohousing which makes it such a unique and favorable living environment for so many different groups of people. In her book, McCammant tells us that “by 2010, more than 70 of these communities have been built in Denmark, with many more planned” (5), and that “more than 120 cohousing communities have been built in North America, with another 50 plus in the planning phase or under construction” (4). These communities are not born out of isolated events, but are actively being sought out and built as a solution that feeds the housing needs of modern households. They continue to be sought out because of their innate ability to change and evolve as community needs change. These communities are built with the specific needs of their members in mind because they’re the ones who sit down and plan them.
Other Living Options
While cohousing communities use single-family homes for their residents to live in, it’s clear that these two living options are different. Traditional single-family neighborhoods focus solely on the building in which residents live, while cohousing focuses on the community built around these homes. However, cohousing isn’t the only living option that differs from the single-family home lifestyle that seems to frustrate people. While the information I have gathered this far has been helpful, I still didn’t know much about the other living options or why cohousing seems to be the preferred option.
Living Learning Communities
To better understand the different types of living options, I wanted to start with something I was very familiar with. Students who lived on campus might be familiar with Living Learning Communities, or LLCs, within the dorms. Montana State University has several of these LLC’s, which “allow students from similar disciplines to live in close proximity to each other. Residents of an LLC will share many of the same classes, professors and assignments as the person right next door. This model allows students to make connections and network with others in their program early in their college careers” (MSU Reslife). When I was a freshman and sophomore, I lived in an engineering LLC on campus. The entire hall of my dorm was filled with female engineering students. Living in such close proximity to people who were pursuing the same career path and had similar experiences helped me jump-start my college career. We studied, attended club events, and networked as a group. These kinds of tasks can be daunting for freshman and sophomore students, but our LLC set up a community for us where we could support each other because we all had similar experiences.
A Living Learning Community is not a permanent living situation, but students looking for a permanent home after dorm life might look into living in a cohousing community because it shares some of the same characteristics of living in an LLC. They both create a sense of community where residents share the same values as their neighbors, and are given the choice of how much they want to participate in community activities.
Another living arrangement that is popular with college age adults is shared living, where “several people rent or buy a house together. Each person has a private room and shares the rest of the house” (Fromm 269). Residents set up a small community within one house and each resident can choose how much to rely on the others, but the space is not one’s own. This living option is also somewhat familiar to me, as my friends and I were looking into moving off-campus for our final year and wanted to try renting a house together. This housing style appealed to us because we could live more independently, setting up our own community rules rather than adhere to the rules set up on-campus in the dorms. It was also cheaper to split rent on a four-bed, two-bath house than to continue to live on campus. While this seemed like an ideal housing arrangement, it quickly became a problem when two of our friends started dating, changing the dynamic of the small community we were trying to build. Ultimately, we decided to stop pursuing this living arrangement.
Shared living successfully creates a tight-knit community, but it sacrifices personal or private space to do so. The only space you can retreat to is your own bedroom, having to share a living room and kitchen with the rest of your housemates. Cohousing manages to balance the two ideals, giving its residents the best of both worlds with a completely autonomous housing unit and shared common spaces to encourage community bonding.
In his book, Collaborative Communities: Cohousing, Central Living, and Other New Forms of Housing with Shared Facilities, Dorit Fromm describes congregate housing, explaining “support services such as cooking and cleaning are available from a staff to help residents… Living units are small; some have private baths or partial kitchens. Also in the same building are common spaces for group activities and meals” (269). Dorms on campus could be considered a type of congregate housing even though they aren’t permanent living situations. In the dorms, you have access to a communal kitchen and other common spaces, but the cooking is done for you in the dining halls, and most of the cleaning is completed by the custodial staff. In terms of a more permanent living situation, most people would easily recognize this style of living in senior homes or other assisted living communities.
While congregate housing and cohousing both have common facilities to promote a sense of community, the living units in congregate housing aren’t completely autonomous. Like shared-living options, congregate housing does a good job of creating a community for its residents, but still forgets to provide coveted personal space where you can perform domestic tasks yourself should you ever want to.
Cooperative housing is the closest living option to cohousing. It involves “private self-contained units with shared ownership of certain common elements… members do not own their units individually; instead, they have one membership in the cooperative” (Fromm 269). Cooperative housing gives people the same freedom as cohousing does by setting up each unit to be autonomous while also providing shared spaces for connected communities. The main difference between these two living options is that a resident owns their own space in a cohousing community, whereas in cooperative communities they pay for a membership that allows them to live there, much like a rental agreement.
An interesting example of this type of living is called “The Vertical Street.” This community resides completely within an old apartment building which has been “renovated into collaborative housing… The stairway is the link between apartments and the common spaces, similar to a pedestrian street along a cluster of houses… the corridors, passageways, and landings, are now jointly furnished and used in common” (Fromm 139-140).
This is a great option for people who are looking to leave a standard living situation in favor of a community that has a greater support network, but residents still don’t own their own space. In cohousing communities, residents own their completely self-sufficient home in a community that is set up to support its members.
Now that I have explored the different options available, it’s becoming easier to understand what makes cohousing unique. Cohousing balances the desire to have personal and private space with the human need to connect to others and be involved in a supportive community. Each cohousing community is a little different depending on what members want to get out of this living style, as potential residents can be very active in the planning of their new community.
As a student of Montana State University, I wanted to check out the cohousing option in the city I have grown to love. Bozeman Cohousing is a living community that promotes a culture of sharing and interaction between its residents. Houses will be built in clusters that share common spaces outside. Its neighborhood is designed specifically to create a supportive, respectful, and friendly community with an emphasis on sustainability. A lot of Bozeman Cohousing community members also favor the idea of an urban agricultural environment, so the community has plans for a shared garden and goats… yes, goats!
They also plan on sharing guest houses, so when residents want people to stay with them for any length of time, guests have their own space to relax in without feeling like they’re intruding on the host’s space. This feature can help take a lot of pressure off of both the residents and their guests that can sometimes accompany travel. Site plans have been submitted to the city, and this is a huge step in building the ideal community space for its future residents. But it takes more than just constructing the actual building to create a connected and friendly community.
Members of the community are asked to contribute and engage in a couple of different ways. Each adult will cook once a month for the rest of the community, providing residents with dinners they don’t have to worry about five times a week. This takes a lot of pressure off family members who are just coming home from their busy lives and encourages members to be a part of the community. Cohousing members are also asked to participate in governing their community. Decisions about how the community will work are voted on by each household and are only implemented if they have reached a consensus. While this strategy isn’t the easiest choice when it comes to governing a group, it works to ensure that everyone feels like they have a voice, and generates a strong feeling of satisfaction when decisions are reached.
In my quest for housing, I found myself lost and confused by all the options I previously hadn’t known about. I dug into the topic until I felt I had a good understanding about the different types of living options available, and when I came across a new housing option called cohousing, I just had to know more.
The concept of cohousing has fascinated me since I started learning about it. At first, I didn’t really understand what the big deal was. Cohousing just seemed like a fancy term for “gated community.” As I continued investigating, I learned that cohousing was not at all what I expected. It can offer its members a solid support system within their own community and opportunities to connect with their neighbors on a deeper level than in standard neighborhoods. Residents have found a way to balance a sense of privacy and a sense of community in a way that works for them.
For anyone who wants to try living a more connected and lighter life, cohousing is an appealing solution. While cohousing is just one of many living options available today, its growing popularity over the years indicates that this living arrangement is more than a fad – it’s a housing option that many are looking for.
Coming straight out of college, I know cohousing isn’t the best option for me. I know that I need to find a cheap apartment that I can rent out until I can stand on my own two feet. But my long-term plan has changed. Before I started getting into this, I wanted to find a single-family home, and now it’s my second-choice option. When it’s time for me to find my own space, I’ll be looking for cohousing.
Bozeman Cohousing, bozemancohousing.com/.
Fromm, Dorit. Collaborative Communities: Cohousing, Central Living, and Other New Forms of Housing with Shared Facilities. Van Nostrand Reinhold, 1991.
McCamant, Kathryn, and Charles Durrett. Cohousing: a Contemporary Approach to Housing Ourselves. New Society Publishers, 2011.
Montana State University Residence Life. LLC: LIVING LEARNING COMMUNITIES, Montana State University, 2017.