Cohousing: What is it? Can it be built here?

Athens chiropractor Randy Dishaw, his partner Jackie Williamson, and two other families want to grow old together.

“We already spend a lot of time with each other and we all want to downsize,” Dishaw explains. All five people are in their late 50s or early 60s; none are retired yet but their children have left the nest or soon will.

“I see a lot of elderly patients who are on their own,” Dishaw explains. “They live in big houses but spend a lot of time alone in either their kitchen, bedroom, or TV chair.” He and his friends don’t want to do that. So, while they are still young and energetic enough they are exploring a different way to live as they age.

“We’re in the imagining phase,” he says, “and there’s a lot of homework to do.” That involves looking for land they all like, research on zoning in Winterville and Athens-Clarke County, and exploring financial options and legal structures.

The desire of some aging baby boomers for a sense of community and support over time, and affordable, environmentally sustainable housing has given rise to various experimental models for retirement living, everything from sharing a big house, a la Golden Girls, to pocket neighborhoods where people make a concerted and structured effort to help each other. And there’s another trend that’s starting to pick up steam.

Intentional communities

Resident-created retirement solutions can take different forms but one that’s gaining interest is cohousing. The concept originated in Denmark but was brought to the U.S., California specifically, in the 1980s.

Today, according to the Cohousing Association of the U.S., there are over 100 such communities, some multi-generational and others age-restricted to 50 plus. The association describes cohousing as “an intentional community of private homes clustered around shared space. Each attached or single-family home has traditional amenities, including a private kitchen; the ideal size is 20-40 homes. Shared spaces typically feature a common house, which may include a large kitchen and dining area. Shared outdoor space includes parking, walkways, open space and gardens”

“Households have independent incomes and private lives, but neighbors collaboratively plan and manage community activities and shared spaces. The legal structure is typically a homeowners or condo association, or housing cooperative.”

SAGE Cohousing International lists six defining characteristics, including:

– Design by future residents so it meets their needs; a developer-driven process doesn’t qualify as true cohousing
– Neighborhood design so physical layout encourages a sense of community
– Common facilities are integral but always supplemental.
– Residents manage their own communities and perform much of the work required to maintain. They meet regularly for problem solving and policy development.
– Nonhierarchical structure and decisionmaking. No one person or group has authority over others. Most cohousing groups seek training on how to practice consensus-based decisions.
– No shared community economy. The community is not a source of income for its members.

Can it work locally?

While cohousing is a relatively new concept, its basic design is not so unusual that local zoning laws couldn’t accommodate its development, says Bruce Lonnee, a senior planner with Athens-Clarke County government. “It depends on some specifics to know what zoning category to slot it in.”

For instance, newly platted subdivisions almost always have what’s called an “amenity lot,” where a clubhouse, pool or tennis courts are typically sited. A cohousing common house and area would be “totally allowed,” he says. And there are no parking requirements for this area because it’s for the nearby residents.

Land zoned for individually owned condominiums on one parent parcel is another zoning option. And Lonnee points out the current model for student housing, with multiple bedrooms and a common kitchen/dining area, could also serve as senior cohousing. Many European models in urban areas are multi-family and resemble multi-level apartment complexes.

Since a stated value of most cohousing advocates is to create a light environmental footprint, the reuse of old apartment complexes or even vacant or underused commercial strip centers could be considered. Commercial property can have second floor residential by right as long as the first floor is reserved for commercial. However, a special use permit could even eliminate the commercial requirement.

Lonnee notes that a number of older apartment complexes that have lost their currency as student housing could also be renovated. “Structurally, they have good bones and would just need a modest retrofit.” They’re also well situated for shopping and services, and they are on the busline.

“It’s the challenge of expectations,” he says. “Decide on your must-haves, then shop.”Boom Athens Logo - Favicon (Recolor) - 75px

Resources:
The Cohousing Association of the United States; www.cohousing.org (a nonprofit assisting new and existing communities; includes a robust network of resources and technical assistance; sponsoring a  National Cohousing Conference May 19 – 21 in Nashville, Tenn.)
www.raleigh-cohousing.com (This is a group of North Carolina residents who are in the beginning stages of forming a community; they share information and a way to connect with them)
Betsy Bean
Betsy Bean
Betsy Bean completed graduate school at UGA in 1972. She was a school librarian for a year and then became a rock and roll DJ for the next 10. Subsequently, she worked as a reporter for the Atlanta Journal/Constitution, followed by public relations and marketing and newsletter publishing and was, more recently, the downtown development director for the City of Anniston, Ala.

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