To own your own home is the North American dream.  But all too often it comes with a price: isolation. Ask the average suburban homeowner about the folks next door, and frequently they won’t even know their neighbours’ first names.
Now imagine a community where everyone knows not just the people next door, but everyone in their townhouse complex. Where families socialize over twice-weekly community dinners, kids and pets roam under the watchful eye of dozens of adults, people pull weeds together in a communal vegetable garden or gather in the evenings to listen to musicians that live in their community. Where decisions are made by consensus, and people don’t just own their own homes-they create their own village.

It’s called co-housing.

Sound too good to be true? That’s what Miriam Evers thought 10 years ago when the man she was dating-now her partner, Howard Staples-first outlined his dream of building a community. Evers was happy where she was: in a two-bedroom West End apartment that she had all to herself. She thought living in a community and having privacy were mutually exclusive. Then she read the book Cohousing: A Contemporary Approach to Housing Ourselves, by Kathryn McCamant and Charles Durrett. “It showed how people could come together and have this kind of community-and privacy, too,” said Evers.

Today she gushes about living in WindSong, a 34-unit co-housing community in Langley. “Sharing meals and not having to cook every night is one of my favourite things [about co-housing]. It’s a richer lifestyle. There’s always someone to take a walk with or go to a movie with. People here share canoes and cars and cabins-they even take vacations together. Some people bought a van together and carpool to work, and others carpool their kids to school.”

Co-housing is a little like a housing co-operative, a little like a strata condominium complex. Like a housing co-op, it demands commitment to participation: those living in co-housing all participate in decision-making and are expected to volunteer their time and labour. They plan their community from the ground up: choosing the land, designing the buildings and overseeing construction. As in a strata unit, co-housing members hold their own mortgages, earn equity on their units, and can sell them at any time.

The down side to co-housing is that it’s typically more expensive than market housing. And it requires a tremendous time commitment. It’s also difficult to find a reasonably priced property to build on-especially in the pricey Vancouver real estate market.

Co-housing was conceived in Denmark in the late 1960s by a group of families dissatisfied with available housing options. Today, 10 per cent of all new housing construction in Denmark is co-housing. The concept was imported to North America in 1988 by two architects who coined the name “co-housing.” To date, 50 to 60 co-housing communities have been created in North America-six of them in Canada. More than 130 others are in development.

B.C. is home to five co-housing projects, including three in the Lower Mainland: 34-unit WindSong in Langley (completed in 1996); 19-unit Quayside Village in North Vancouver (completed in 1998); and the brand-new 22-unit Cranberry Commons in North Burnaby. And there are more on the horizon. Co-housing groups on the Sunshine Coast, in Abbotsford, Vancouver and Nanaimo are in the planning stages. Some hope to erect new buildings, others to renovate existing buildings.

If co-housing is such a great concept, why have so few communities been built? According to Ronaye Matthew, a consultant who works with co-housing groups under the business name Community Dream Creators, the reasons are twofold: time and money.

“People get involved because they want to create more leisure time in their lives but they have to spend a lot of time to get to that place,” said Matthew. “And people hope to save money but it doesn’t end up working out that way. The temptation to choose quality is just so great when you’re your own developer.”

Matthew estimated the cost of co-housing at 10 to 30 per cent more than typical market costs. At WindSong in Langley, a 1,500-square-foot townhouse costs about $265,000; a 1,300-square-foot three-bedroom townhouse about $225,000; and a 700-square-foot one-bedroom-plus-den apartment about $150,000. Once the common amenity space is factored into the square footage, however, the gap narrows. Even so, co-housing is not social housing.

“It’s a struggle to make [co-housing] more than just a middle-class housing phenomenon,” said Matthew. “Right now, that’s really what it is.”

At Cranberry Commons in North Burnaby, residents of the brand-new co-housing project’s 10 townhouses and 12 apartments are still unpacking boxes after moving in. Sean Pander, who moved from a rental home near Commercial Drive, is one of many who embraced the co-housing concept.

Proudly showing off his new home, he points out the large central courtyard between the buildings that will be a children’s play area and garden, and the project’s many common areas. These include a library, woodworking and pottery workshop, children’s play room, guest suite for visiting relatives and friends, office equipped with fax, photocopier and computer, a kitchen/dining room where weekly communal meals will be cooked and served-even a rooftop terrace that will one day have a hot tub.

“The idea is to get people interacting,” said Pander. “Within any community, there are people you’re close friends with and people you’re just acquaintances with. This gets you interacting with more than just the people you’d ordinarily invite over for dinner.”

The Cranberry Commons group was formed when two co-housing groups-one in Vancouver and one in New Westminster-merged about seven years ago. They settled on a property midway between the two cities, in North Burnaby, and began the process of planning what their new homes would look like.

A standard feature of co-housing is that decision-making is done by consensus; majority votes are taken only in circumstances where a decision must be reached by a certain date. So far, consensus has worked for all the decisions at Cranberry Commons but one-what colour to paint the exterior of the buildings. Some wanted apple-green and cornflower blue; others taupe and cranberry, which ultimately prevailed.

“You would think that [with the consensus model], one squeaky wheel could stop the whole train, but that isn’t what happens,” said Pander. The group uses a decision-making method suggested by the Canadian Co-Housing Network: a series of green, yellow and red cards that participants hold up during a meeting. A green card indicates agreement, a yellow card that a member can answer a question or has something to add. A red card indicates disagreement with the matter under discussion-but there’s a catch. Those preventing consensus by holding up a red card must propose an alternative course of action and agree to work on the committee that sees it through.

“It works really well,” said Pander. “We’ve seen very few red cards. If someone red-cards to stop a decision, it’s their responsibility to find an answer that satisfies people. So you can’t just veto everything and just sit back and watch the community fall apart.”

The group struggled with questions of how to keep costs down while maintaining quality. They opted for in-floor radiant heating fueled by a high-efficiency boiler, instead of electric baseboards-a more expensive option up front, but a cost-saving one in the long term. Many of the materials that went into Cranberry Commons were chosen for environmental reasons: paint that was low in volatile organic compounds, which release gases as the paint dries; siding made from recycled wood products; solar panels that will provide half the buildings’ hot-water heating; eco-smart concrete that incorporates waste fly ash from coal plants; and landscaping with indigenous plants.

Prospective members were found by word of mouth, and through flyers sent out through Small Potatoes Urban Delivery, an organic-grocery delivery service. To join Cranberry Commons, purchasers had to ante up $10,000-structured as a shareholder’s loan to the development company that the members set up.

Some members previously lived in rental housing; others already owned property but sold it in order to move to Cranberry Commons. “You wonder why someone who could afford a single-family house would move here,” Pander said. “[But] lots of them are downsizing. There are older people who don’t want to grow old alone. There are people with kids who believe it takes a village to raise a child.

“It’s safe here,” he added. “If you’re downstairs doing the dishes, you don’t have to be out supervising your kid. There’s 10 to 15 other kids out there at any given time and who knows how many parents keeping an eye on them. The idea is to create a small neighbourhood without being isolated or adopting a fortress mentality.”

One of the biggest difficulties co-housing groups have in the Lower Mainland is finding a site, since they must compete with traditional developers, who buy up land in areas with development potential.

Mary Carlisle, who first became interested in co-housing about a year ago, realized vacant land was at a premium in the city and began looking for apartment buildings that could be retrofitted. She looked at about a dozen medium-sized apartment blocks listed for sale, some in the West End, others on the East Side.

Most, however, contained only bachelor suites and one-bedrooms. Carlisle also learned that the City of Vancouver has strict guidelines for residential buildings with six or more units being converted to strata-title or co-operatives: two-thirds of the tenants must give written consent, and the building’s fire, plumbing and electrical systems have to be up to code.

Carlisle realized converting an apartment to co-housing could mean expensive upgrades for the 30- to 40-year-old buildings, and wound up abandoning the idea of retrofitting an existing apartment building, joining another co-housing group instead.

“They’re doing it the right way, by building the group first,” said Carlisle. “They started with a group of friends who had known each other a long time.”

The group is now looking for a property in Vancouver, ideally in Kitsilano, said member Petra Hartt. It’s met four times, and will finalize a vision before recruiting new members. “We don’t know where we’re going yet, but we really like the process,” said Hartt.

Mary Bentley was another Vancouverite who was forced to modify her original co-housing dream. Two years ago, Bentley found herself living on her own for the first time in years and decided she needed a “tribe” around her again. She founded a co-housing group and began searching for a suitable property, but was unable to find reasonably priced land on the West Side, and ended up joining Cranberry Commons. While Burnaby offered a better selection of properties on which to build, the end result wasn’t cheap. A 600-square-foot one-bedroom apartment at Cranberry Commons costs approximately $140,000; a 900-square-foot two-bedroom apartment $200,000; and a 900-square-foot three-bedroom townhouse $250,000.

Despite the extra cost, Bentley said there are advantages to being your own contractor-you don’t have to worry about purchasing a leaky condo. “I know what went into my building. If there is a mistake, it was our mistake.”

The concept has been slow to catch on, however. Alan Carpenter, who set up Village Homes Development Corporation to help co-housing groups get off the ground, said in part that’s because people are used to living in disconnection. “Traditional developments tell people how to live their lives by creating lot lines,” said Carpenter, who developed traditional single-family homes for nearly 30 years. “Usually when we talk to a neighbour, it’s because we have problems with them.”

As well, the Lower Mainland’s expensive housing market means people are loath to invest in a project that involves townhouses-which can be tough to re-sell-that are priced over market.

Langley’s WindSong co-housing project, located on six acres of land, was originally conceived as a series of single-family houses with a communal house in the middle. But because a creek runs through the property, there were restrictions on where buildings could be erected. “The houses kept getting closer and closer together,” said resident Valerie McIntyre. “We said we might as well do a townhouse structure.”

The end result-which cost $6 million and took five years to build-has won awards for its design. A 5,000-square-foot common building includes a kitchen and 65-seat dining room with its own mini-stage and quiet area around a cozy fireplace, an adjoining children’s playroom, a guest suite, fitness room, an office and boardroom, and an arts and crafts room.

“When there’s a communal meal, the kitchen is really a fun place to be,” said McIntyre. “There’s music, and wine-it’s a very sociable evening. And [the adjoining children’s play room] makes it easy for adults to have a social life, especially as single parents.”

Branching off from the common building are two “atrium streets”-wide hallways with glass roofs that run between the project’s rows of townhouses and apartments. The streets include alcoves where neighbours gather to chat. As she walks past the alcoves, which she likens to a market or village square, McIntyre waves and greets everyone by name.

Since the project was completed five years ago, six units have changed hands. McIntyre attributes the low turnover to the fact that people think deeply before coming into a co-housing community. “It’s not just a house; it’s a commitment to people.”

Like Pander, McIntyre swears by consensus decision making. “Consensus is fabulous. It’s the underlying key to this whole way of living. If we’re ever going to solve the world’s problems we’ve got to learn how to get along, ourselves, as a community.

“The joke about co-housing is that it’s the longest running, most expensive personal-growth workshop you will ever sign up for-but you get a house thrown in.”

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