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Natural Awakenings Greater Boston - Rhode Island

Co-housing: An Old-Fashioned Approach to Modern Living

Jun 30, 2011 07:37AM ● By Kim Childs

Co-housing puts a modern spin on old-fashioned village life by deliberately fostering community and green living through the sharing of space and resources among homeowners. Cambridge, Acton and Jamaica Plain feature four co-housing communities, with others on Cape Cod and in central and western Massachusetts. Diane Simpson, the founder of Jamaica Plain Cohousing, labored for well over a decade to see her dream become a reality at 65 Cornwall Street, where 30 homes have been occupied since 2005. Natural Awakenings wanted to know more about the benefits and challenges of living in co-housing.
NA: What drew you to co-housing?
My husband, Dave [Nathan[, and I lived in an ordinary neighborhood a few blocks away and we didn’t know any of our neighbors. There had been several break-ins, due largely to the fact that nobody knew who belonged in the neighborhood and who didn’t. Eventually, one of our neighbors formed a crime watch, and many households participated. After that, life on the street improved considerably. So we made the leap in thinking that if knowing your neighbors a little bit is good, then knowing your neighbors well and interacting with them on a daily basis is probably better.
NA: Why does it appeal to you?
One thing that’s satisfying is that you’re living in a much smaller ecological footprint. You don’t have to go out and buy your own juicer or copy of The New York Times or your own cooking tools. You can usually borrow something from someone else, and many residents will borrow someone’s car when they need it for an occasional trip, instead of having to buy their own car. It’s also very good if you want frequent social interaction without constantly having to set up dates with friends. My husband and I like to go out for breakfast on Sunday mornings, for example, and there’s always somebody available to join us. Kids may benefit the most, because we have this fabulous green space in the middle of the community where they can play baseball or run around on the grass. Their playmates are right there, and adults are around to help keep them safe.
NA: What else is shared?
We share meals about once a week and we have group yoga and Zumba classes. We have shared community garden space, a shared T-pass and shared libraries. Bicycles are passed down from one child to another and adults have a bike-sharing program. We have a shared woodworking and tool shop and crafts studio. Four times a year, we have a swap in which people bring all their unwanted stuff to the common house, and I’ve gotten some really amazing items there. We also have a “skill share” bulletin board, where you can post a skill you want to share and ask for something you’d like others to share with you. We also put the mailroom in a central place so that when people go to get their mail they’ll hopefully see their neighbors.
NA: How do housing costs compare to other homes in your area?
It’s hard to compare our home costs to non-co-housing home costs, because your “home” includes the common areas. We have a huge bike storage area, an enormous community dining room and living room, a children’s play room, a commercial-size kitchen, a rumpus room, a laundry room, a gorgeous patio and waterfall, an extensive outdoor arcade area and two guest rooms. You’d have to look at the prices of homes in some of the assisted-living communities to get an idea of the cost of a place with similar amenities.
NA: Who may not be suited for co-housing?
If you need a professionally managed building that’s really on top of the rules 100 percent of the time, you would not do well in co-housing, because it’s managed by the residents. There’s nobody in a management office that you can complain to if you’re upset about something another resident is doing. When our residents are having problems with each other, they have to agree to discuss the problem. If they’re too riled up to do that on their own, a member of our mediation team will sit down with both parties and attempt to resolve the situation using the Nonviolent Communication system developed by Marshall Rosenberg. Instead of tossing accusations back and forth, the mediator helps to untangle the problem, giving both parties an opportunity to listen to each other in a safe environment and learn things they didn’t know before. I’ve been through this process three times and it’s remarkable; the outcome has been win-win for both parties each time.
For more information and to request a tour, visit To learn more about co-housing, visit