Types of cooperative housing

Last night at a party I was talking to one friend about the cohousing development she just moved into, and to another friend about a new housing co-op in town. So I’ve had intentional communities on the brain. (To find communities near you, try www.ic.org.)

A writeup of some different kinds:

Shared apartment
People, probably not related to each other, rent bedrooms in an apartment. Lots of students do this. They may or may not share meals and coordinate chores.

Pro: easiest to set up, pretty flexible. If you divide up tasks, you can save time on things like grocery shopping and cooking. Cheap.

Con: Because someone else owns the property, you can’t really modify it and you’re at the whim of your landlord. Jeff and I enjoyed living in a shared apartment with another couple, but we left as soon as the lease was over due to an untenable landlord situation.

Apartments in the same building
I have friends who rented out all three of the apartments in a small apartment building. Each couple/group has their own small household, but they share some belongings (no need for three vacuum cleaners), visit back and forth for dinners, and host parties together.

Pro: You choose your neighbors. In the house I’m thinking of, everyone is interested in folk music and no one will complain about you practicing the accordion. Each household has privacy when they want it.

Con: There’s no large common space. Can’t really modify the space. May be hard to find apartments in the same building available when you want them.

More structured than a shared apartment. Residents usually share at least some The space may be rented (like Millstone Co-op) or owned by one person (like Arlington Friends House). Food and chores are almost always shared.

Pro: Cheap. The co-op usually has a life beyond any one renter, so people may be able to come and go without being on the same schedule as the lease. If you have a resident-owner, you may have flexibility to modify the space.

Con: Not much privacy. At least in Boston, there’s a big undersupply. Last time we looked at a co-op, they had gotten something like 60 applicants for a single opening. Endless house meetings.

People own their own houses or condos, which are part of a development with common areas (yards, playgrounds, meeting spaces, industrial kitchen). One of the earlier examples was N Street in Davis, CA where a bunch of houses knocked down the fences between them and started building stuff like hot tubs in the middle.

Pro: You have your own space while also having access to common spaces when you want them. By all accounts, great places to raise kids. Nice spaces for hosting large events. More like a very tight-knit neighborhood. In newer developments, people can customize their own homes.

Con: The most expensive, because you’re paying for your own full living space plus subscribing to the common spaces as well. Long decision-making processes. I’ll just quote from a community document: “We use a modified consensus where a 75% super majority can vote if consensus cannot be reached after six meetings and three months of effort have passed.” (They do note that they’ve never had to go through all that, but the very idea makes my head hurt.)

Extended family home
We currently live in such a house (Jeff’s parents; Jeff’s two sisters; Jeff, me, and our daughter; at times other cousins, friends, and significant others.)

Pro: Family get to see each other a lot. The mortgage may already be paid off.

Con: not available to most people due to family dynamics/location/house too small. Probably the least privacy of any model. Especially weird when you’re dating.


Some thoughts on founding these spaces:

  • A shared apartment is the easiest to organize, though it’s still difficult (hard to line up the right number of people who can agree on a space to rent).
  • Cohousing takes years to found, as you’ve got to find and develop the right space. Most of these seem to be quite expensive and in the suburbs because they’re built from scratch. I’d love to see someone gut an old building and turn it into cohousing rather than ordinary condos (which happens all the time in Boston).
  • Jeff and I are pretty happy with our current housing situation, but eventually it would be nice to buy a house and turn it into some kind of cooperative space. One option would be buying a multi-family building, living in one apartment, and renting the other apartments out to friends. Or modifying it to be semi-shared (your living room becomes the music room, ours becomes the library, etc.) Or buying a large single-family and sharing. All of these are quite expensive up front, though probably not in the long run.


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