Kojo and Tom Sherwood chat with D.C. Council Member Elissa Silverman (I-At Large)
Cohousing is often misunderstood– 1960s-era communes come to mind for many. In fact, advocates of cohousing see their communities as condo or homeowner associations with a mission statement. Residents live in private homes, but share considerable common space, responsibility for maintenance and meals. We’ll explore cohousing in the D.C. area and consider the growing popularity of the movement three decades after it was first introduced in the U.S.
- Jack Wilbern principal partner; architectural firm, Butz-Wilbern, Ltd and architect, planner and a founding resident; Blueberry Hill cohousing community in Vienna, VA
- Ann Zabaldo Principal partner; Cohousing Collaborative, LLC and founding resident member of Takoma Village Cohousing in Washington, D.C.
- Kathryn 'Katie' McCamant architect; co-author of "Creating Cohousing: Building Sustainable Communities" (New Society Publishers)
MR. KOJO NNAMDIFrom WAMU 88.5, at American University in Washington, welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting your neighborhood with the world. It may seem like a radical idea, but proponents of cohousing say it hearkens back to an old-fashioned notion. No, not a commune, but having a meaningful connection with the people next door.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIWhile a big house and even bigger yard and a two-car garage symbolize the American dream for some, people embracing the concept of cohousing have a different version of the vision. In a cohousing community, everyone has their own private home. But residents gather for meals, celebrations and chores -- well, yes, chores. It can't all be fun -- in a spacious common house full of amenities, and cars stay on the periphery.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIJoining us in studio to have this conversation on cohousing is Ann Zabaldo. Ann Zabaldo is the principal partner in the Cohousing Collaborative and a founding resident of Takoma Village Cohousing in Washington, D.C., where yours truly has spent a little bit of time. Ann Zabaldo, thank you so much for joining us.
MS. ANN ZABALDOGreat to be here. Thank you.
NNAMDIAlso with us in studio is Jack Wilbern. He is a partner in the architectural firm Butz-Wilbern. Jack is an architect, planner and a founding resident of the Blueberry Hill cohousing community in Vienna, Va. Jack Wilbern, good to see you. Thank you for joining us.
MR. JACK WILBERNGood to see you, too. Thank you.
NNAMDIJoining us from the studios of KVMR in Nevada City, Calif., is Katie McCamant. Katie McCamant is an architect and co-founder of "Creating Cohousing: Building Sustainable Communities," that's now in its third edition. Katie McCamant, thank you for joining us.
MS. KATHRYN 'KATIE' MCCAMANTThank you. Pleasure to be here.
NNAMDIAnd, Katie, I'll start with you. When you tell people you live in a cohousing community, I'll bet you were asked all kinds of questions. Let's start with the most obvious. What is cohousing?
MCCAMANTYes. That's -- keeps people questioning what it is. We -- a cohousing community is -- what I think of it is a really old-fashioned neighborhood reconfigured in a way that meets the realities of today. So we just have to be more deliberate about creating neighborhoods where you really know your neighbors and work together.
NNAMDIAnd what's the difference, therefore, between a condo association and cohousing?
MCCAMANTWell, I think it's the deliberateness that we -- in cohousing communities, the residents get together in the planning stages. In fact, most cohousing communities in the United States are actually started by people who want to live there. And so it's really a custom neighborhood, instead of custom house, and that people are deliberately creating a neighborhood with the collaborative vision about the things we can -- how we can make our life better by working together.
NNAMDILet's see what our listeners would like to know or already think about this. Do you know or have you ever lived in a cohousing community? Tell us about the experience at 800-433-8850. You can go to our website, kojoshow.org. If you live in a place with a homeowners association, do you think it helps build a sense of community? You can also send us a tweet, @kojoshow, or email to email@example.com.
NNAMDIJack, a lot of people hear cohousing and think commune, which conjures up images of free love, peace medallions and shared incomes. How far off are they?
WILBERNWell, that would be an interesting expression, but it's not the reality.
NNAMDIAbout 40 years off, huh?
WILBERNYeah, a little 40 years off. You know, it's -- the perennial issue, people recognize cohousing when they visit it, when they live it, and they know people in it because it's just like where they used to live in Brooklyn or their small town. Or they lived overseas, or they lived in a Navy base. Or they did something. The term gets in the way of the real understanding. The way we're living in cohousing is the way people have lived for thousands of years.
WILBERNIt's a small group of people who know and trust each other. Pretty much, that's it. And so all the other peripheral things that go along with the term and the word cohousing, instead of commune, is always an interesting explanation. I usually have these conversations with a wine glass on my front porch, you know, for long hours as people come over and say, oh, this is just like when I lived in, fill in the blank.
NNAMDIBecause it's basically a homeownership model, is it not?
WILBERNCorrect. Although there are a number of communities that are -- we have people renting in our community. There are -- in fact, I know Katie has one community that she's working with that is primarily rental.
NNAMDIAnn, many D.C. residents are familiar with the idea of living in a group house, and it's my understanding that, for you, cohousing was a natural extension of that idea. How so?
ZABALDOOh, sure. I had been living in a group house -- that's not a halfway house -- a group house for about 15 years. And I began thinking, you know, well, like, what's the next thing? Once I have a bedroom and a bath of my own and I'm living with this really great group of people, but where do we take this next? And somebody -- a couple of people just coincidentally said, well, there's this thing from someplace in Scandinavia. But I don't know which country.
ZABALDOAnd there's a book, but I don't know who wrote it. And I don't -- but there's something going on in community. And so I went to Borders bookstore in Rockville, which is no longer there. And I went up to the front desk, and I said I'm looking for a book. I don't know who wrote it. It's some fun place. It has something to do with community and someplace in Scandinavia. And it's supposed to be a book, and she said, I have the book.
ZABALDOAnd she went over the shelf and picked it off, and there it was, "Cohousing: A Contemporary Approach to Housing Ourselves," the very first book by Katie McCamant and Chuck Durrett. And now, there's a third edition of it. And if you really want to get inspired about cohousing, get the book.
NNAMDIAnd, as you mentioned, we have one of the authors of the book on the broadcast with us. Indeed, Katie McCamant, what was it that made cohousing attractive to you?
MCCAMANTWell, we were young architecture students studying in Denmark when we first came across this concept, and what we saw in it was two different things. I mean, one was, professionally, we're really fascinated by the idea of housing in neighborhoods, but also in a very personal level as we looked ahead in our lives and how we were going to combine two professional careers and a family. It was very attractive.
MCCAMANTAnd I think the other thing we really saw in the Danish model was a model that did not depend on government policy. This was people getting together and creating their own neighborhoods in a privately financed, privately built model. And that's something that felt very adaptable to the American public. And so we found that model. We -- and our first book came out in 1988. There are now 120 cohousing communities across the country.
MCCAMANTSome are very rural. Some are very urban, like the one that Ann lives in. A lot of them are suburban. So you have a whole range of different contexts in which these communities have been built now. And that's the exciting thing with our new book, is it documents, you know, real American communities that are up and working and really are wonderful places to live.
NNAMDIJack, what is it that you found appealing about cohousing?
WILBERNWell, it was an unexpected benefit. I actually got involved in cohousing because when my business partner and I were sitting down trying to follow our bliss, we said what kind of things do we like to design? What do we want to be involved with? We had done a lot of small infill resort communities, and we started doing all this research. And I also found that there was this book out that was describing a lot of people getting together to do things like right in neighborhoods where we could envision it.
WILBERNWe could picture it being around the corner, or us being involved with it. What was really a scary small world is that I actually went to university with Chuck, Katie's husband. Needless to say, Chuck and I are very different people, but we arrived at the same place. And when I started going to all the Sunday meetings with this group that was formed to do a cohousing community, my wife said, who are these people, and what are you doing every Sunday?
WILBERNAnd I said, well, you know, I'm designing this project, but I think we would like to get involved. It was the idea that you could know everybody's name, just as simple as that. You would actually know and know the kids, and you would know some of the neighbors. And if you came home, there'd be somebody there to talk to about something that wasn't kids, work or politics, especially politics right now.
NNAMDIAnn, I can tell you before I actually went to functions in Takoma Village, I would be in the neighborhood walking around, stepping off the Metro at Takoma Park or just being in the neighborhood. And there was something that looked kind of different about this community. If somebody happens to be just walking around there, what is it that that person sees or experiences that might be a tip off that there's something different about it?
ZABALDOWell, the very first thing is you don't see any cars.
NNAMDIThat's the first thing. Yeah, you're right.
ZABALDOThat's the very first thing. So the car is, as I always say, is not a member of the family. It does not have its own private bedroom. It is relegated to the periphery of the community, and people walk from the parking lot through the community. So what you're going to see at Takoma Village, because it's a very urban, tight -- it's a densely developed tight-knit neighborhood. You're going to see the interior is going to be completely pedestrian-friendly.
ZABALDOYou're going to see kids out. You're going to see adults out. You're going to see people in the community, the life that's happening in the community. You're not having to dance with the cars in any way. So that, I think, is the very first thing. And then you'll see some architectural things that helps support a sense of community, and that is that our doors actually face onto each other, instead of away from each other.
ZABALDOWe have the active parts of the house -- like, the kitchen and the living room are on the front of the house instead at the rear of the house. So we can see what's going on at all times, who's coming, who's going. So there's a lot of -- there's just a lot of activity. If you go into a, I think, a standard development anywhere, you kind of wonder, well, where are the people? Their beautiful front -- you know, the fronts of the homes are beautiful, and they're beautifully landscaped. But where are the people? Well, in cohousing, they're right there.
NNAMDIAnd she did mention a few of the architectural characteristics. Katie, can you talk about some more? What are the architectural characteristics or some of them that make these communities unique?
MCCAMANTWell, I think the underlying thing is we're looking to balance privacy and community, so that you have a choice. In America, housing, we've sort of gone to the extreme with privacy, and so one of the keys to making that balance is that it's easier to run into your neighbors. It's not about scheduled meetings or scheduled events, but a good-sized front porch that is actually a place people sit outside.
MCCAMANTThe walkways through the community, that you run into people, safe places for kids to play, so that kids really have the freedom that many of us remember when we grew up. And now, it's very difficult to find. So those sort of things that make it easy without scheduling things, and at the same time having a private side of the house. In most cases, you also have a private backyard so that you're not giving up your privacy, but you're gaining a choice of community when you feel like it.
NNAMDIIndeed, privacy is something that most of us hold dear and some might wonder if cohousing means giving that up. To that end, Jack, you're a big advocate for the power of the front porch to bring people together. And, as Katie just mentioned, you note that it's important to have a back porch, too.
WILBERNOh, yeah. It's, you know, D.C. is one of those areas. When I moved here from sunny California, the ephemeral moments when you can be outside in D.C. are really important. You know, spring and fall, you want to be out 24 hours, but you're not always in the mood to have casual conversations. You just want to sit out and read a book. Or you're having a group of friends over and you're having a private dinner.
WILBERNThat balance that Katie was talking about is really important. It's sort of like having people and friends when you want. And when you need to be the curmudgeon and you need to sort of have your private time, that's a good thing. The interesting thing to note is that there's actually been a few surveys done. The majority of people who live in cohousing are introverts.
WILBERNIntroverts are not...
NNAMDIOne would tend to assume the opposite.
WILBERNAnd the misnomer there is that most people think of introverts as not very social creatures. Well, we're all social animals. Just that most introverts are much more comfortable with a group of people they actually know. Once they know the people, they come out of their shell. So this is a tremendous environment, actually, for introverts.
NNAMDINot interested in necessarily hanging out all the time with perfect strangers. You hang out with people you already know. 800-433-8850. Based on what you're hearing, would you be interested in living in cohousing? Call us to tell us why or why not. 800-433-8850. Send us a tweet, @kojoshow, or email to firstname.lastname@example.org. Here is Anne in Brookeville, Md. Anne, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
ANNEI was born and raised till I was 10 in Denver, Colo., in a cohousing community. We had 26 houses in a circle and a park in the middle, an amphitheater, playground, tennis courts. And it was really nice. It felt really comfortable. I felt comfortable in everybody's houses and everybody's yards. And the kids all played together. And, you know, there was always somebody out there to play with. It felt very, very relaxed. And we had all kinds of events all the time, you know, like things and square dances and parades.
ANNEAnd we had a band. And it was really nice. And then later on, I lived in, like, a commune out in West Virginia, in the country, in a real rural location. And now, I would like to rent part of my house and have a little, like, just a two-person cohousing situation. And I was wondering how I could find somebody to do that with.
NNAMDIInteresting question. Do you know anything about that at all, Jack Wilbern?
WILBERNWell, I think Ann, as her -- with her hat as the Mid-Atlantic Cohousing rep, has those interests.
ZABALDOWell, let's see. If you're looking for a housemate, I mean, I think that's a little -- I mean, you can advertise for a housemate who -- interested in more than just a room. I mean, I lived in a group house for 15 years. And so we made very clear that we're a group house. We're not just a place to hang your hat. And we just advertised for people. And we were pretty successful with that. I don't know how you make a cohousing community out of two people. Usually, you have to have a little bit more, a few more people to kind of make that work.
NNAMDIWell, you can always go to Craigslist and see what you can find there, Anne.
ZABALDOWell, that's true.
WILBERNIt might also be a good idea to find like-minded people who are interested in cohousing by going on to the cohousing.org website to come to cohousing -- our cohousing blog site, so that you find immediately people who want to live and get the benefits of living with people that they can trust.
NNAMDIAnd good luck to you, Anne. We've got to take a short break. When we come back, we'll continue this conversation on cohousing. But you can keep the calls coming because we will get to your calls. Do you think your block, where you live, embodies the same ideals that cohousing encourages? Tell us how that works and how it's working out for you. And if not, what do you think you might be missing? 800-433-8850. You can also go to our website, kojoshow.org, and join the conversation there. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back to our conversation about cohousing. We're talking with Ann Zabaldo, the principal partner in Cohousing Collaborative and the founding resident of Takoma Village Cohousing in Washington, D.C. Jack Wilbern is a partner in the architectural firm Butz-Wilbern. He's an architect, planner and a founding resident of the Blueberry Hill cohousing community in Vienna, Va. And Katie McCamant joins us from studios of KVMR in Nevada City, Calif.
NNAMDIShe is an architect and co-author of "Creating Cohousing: Building Sustainable Communities." Katie, the makeup of the American family has changed in the last few decades. But our housing stock has largely remained the same with over two-thirds of American housing made up of single-family detached homes. Why do you think that is?
MCCAMANTWell, housing is a fairly conservative realm. And people -- you know, for most families, buying a house is your most substantial financial investment. And so we tend to be quite conservative about how we approach it. People are hesitant to take risk with it, particularly now after seeing what's happened in the housing market. So it's slow to change. But I think you really hit it right there, Kojo, that the American families changed radically over the recent decades. There is no single American family type any longer.
MCCAMANTThe ideal of the two-parent household with son and daughters, you know, very, very small percentage. We actually have an aging population significantly, and at the same, as we're seeing there in Washington, probably looking at some fairly substantial cuts continuing in terms of our social services and schools. And so it's really important when you think about housing. It's nothing about just housing, but the neighborhood and how we as a neighborhood can support each other.
MCCAMANTAnd that's one of the things I love about living in a cohousing is that there is a larger support network for the kids, for the elderly, for working parents that you're not trying to care of all your day-to-day needs as one single family. And I know for me, it's just been wonderful as a working mother to know that I've got that support network right next door whenever I need to draw on it.
NNAMDIOn to David, who is in Takoma in D.C. David, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
DAVIDHi. First of all, I'd just like to preface this by saying I think cohousing is a fantastic idea. It gives people options beyond townhouses for high density living in and around crowded urban areas. I live right around the corner from the Takoma cohousing project there. And, actually, I've always been a little curious about it because I've -- I rarely see people outside.
DAVIDAnd I've found that also a little odd that the place has a great tall fence around it. And so as I'm listening to you describing the wonderful sense of the community that you have and being able to let you run free and all of that stuff, I just have to admit that it doesn't quite square with what I see from the outside. So I kind of wonder what I'm missing.
NNAMDIAnn Zabaldo, David has had you under surveillance.
ZABALDOHey. So, David, I want you to come visit me at Takoma Village, okay, so I could take you on a tour. I invite you to come by any Friday afternoon for our Viernes Social, which we have during the summertime. Any holiday, we are constantly -- we constantly celebrate things, and we barbecue a lot during the warm weather months. And people sit out in the piazza after work. People are out in the piazza when it's not too hot. They'll be outside a great deal.
ZABALDOIn terms of the fence, that fence is around our parking lot. And that was a requirement of the neighborhood, that we fence that lot because of the auto thefts that were going on in the neighborhood. We fenced our southeast corner. There's a small -- we own a small lot, and we fenced that so that the children could play there and not have the balls and toys and things go out into the street 'cause it's on the corner of a very busy street. And so -- but the community itself is open. From Fourth Street, you can come right in.
NNAMDIOkay. David, thank you very much for your call. We got a tweet from Dudley, who says, "I'm curious about legal aspects of the arrangements: agreements, rights, responsibilities, et cetera." Jack, can you talk a little bit about that?
WILBERNWell, the simplest answer is that it's -- for instance, in Blueberry Hill, it is a Virginia state-standard homeowners association. It just has a mission statement. And it tends to make decisions by consensus, not robbers' rules of order. So the basic legal structure is fee simple ownership. It's not that different. What makes it different is not how it's legally structured. It's how the people and the trust network that develops. That's what's different.
NNAMDIIn the book, "Cohousing -- Creating Cohousing: Building Sustainable Communities," Katie McCamant, do you deal with some of those kinds issues? The legal aspects of the arrangements, rights and responsibilities, agreements, et cetera?
MCCAMANTYes. I mean, the book is really about the actual lessons learned and how people actually create these communities. So it talks about the development process. A lot of the design characteristics, what we found really is important and successful -- creating successful communities.
MCCAMANTAnd I think that's really one of the things that cohousing gives to the larger world, is not only a very specific model of which, you know, of a housing, but also a lot of lessons learned that can be implied in different ways in different types of housing developments.
NNAMDIHere is Lenny, in Gettysburg, Pa. Lenny, you are on the air. Go ahead, please.
LENNYI'd like to show a bit about my cohousing community and tell you about an event where people can find out more.
LENNYMy wife and I live in a rural cohousing community in the Gettysburg area named Hundredfold Farm and have for the past 40 years. In addition to having traditional focus of community, Hundredfold also emphasizes sustainability, such as renewable energy, recycling of water and growing our own food. All the homes are solar electric, solar hot water, and they have -- we have an innovative design for processing wastewater.
LENNYWe use a greenhouse, which breaks down the waste, so it can be reused for designated purposes. And we have an open house coming up this Saturday, Aug. 6, from 4 p.m. on. People could take tours of our homes and property, as well as mingle with the residents. We're also going to have a campfire that night as a backdrop for conversation and stories. And if anyone would like to find out more about our community, you can find it out -- about how at hundredfoldfarm.org.
NNAMDIOkay, thank you very much for sharing that with us. Katie, Jack, Ann, sustainability is a trend that many cohousing developments are promoted as, as being green. Is that something that was part of this movement all along or was it adopted along the way? Katie.
MCCAMANTWell, it's always been integral to it. It's interesting 'cause we don't include it as part of the definition of cohousing. But from the very beginning, it has definitely been one of the strong values. And I think one of the things that's really interesting to me with these communities is what you can do as a community and to live a more sustainable lifestyle that is really impossible to do as a single family because you can really take sustainability to a different level when you're collaborating with your neighbors.
NNAMDIAnd in your case, Jack, it's my understanding that Blueberry Hill is loosely tied to a farm.
WILBERNIt is. The two or three of the founding member families actually have an organic farm that we're adjacent to, and I'm a perfect case of -- I drive through the farm, and I don't recognize anything that's growing there. I have no clue about anything that's there, willing to eat almost anything comes off of it, and I have actually volunteered to plant garlic. I just want to back up a little bit to the whole sustainability issue
WILBERNIt's -- it is an interesting concept. It was not built-in originally, but given the opportunity, people will choose to be more sustainable. And sustainable doesn't just mean alternative energy, utilities, that sort of thing. It means I want to recycle batteries, and it's really hard as an individual. My next-door neighbor has a bucket on their porch, and he's going to collect all the batteries. And it makes it really easy for me to recycle.
WILBERNSo that, as a specific example, is something that it's very difficult to do on your own. But if you have somebody who's a real advocate and is willing to step up, it makes it very easy for you to be a better person, if you will. There's somebody in our community, one of the farmers, who's a vermiculturist. It's all about worms. And so they have this entire composting system they've set up, and they're willing to maintain it. I don't have to worry about it. They're experts at it.
WILBERNSo it's that sort of shared resource that's unexpected benefit. It's not just whether or not you have solar cells or this, that and the other, that you have people who are advocating and pushing and helping you make it easy for you.
NNAMDIAnd, Ann Zabaldo, one of the residents of Takoma Village, who shall remain nameless, Paul, has always been lecturing me for years about issues of the environment. How does that work at Takoma Village?
ZABALDOWe get lectures about the environment from Paul on water. We do that, and we're grateful for it, actually. He brings us very good information about various issues on water and the environment. And we do have people who are passionate about the environment. And we have regular meetings twice a month, and so we get to listen to the information. But I want to say something about this sustainability thing because it's something near and dear to my heart.
ZABALDOWe think of sustainability, as Jack was saying, in terms of the bricks and mortar. But what I say and what my colleague, Jim Leach, says -- I believe this is correct -- is that buildings are green, but only communities are sustainable. And the reason for that is that only people can change over time. Once a building has been built, it's there. Unless people are making a decision to make a change in that building, the building is going to be wherever it was when it was finally commissioned.
ZABALDOSo at Takoma Village, we are in the process of greening our community even more, 'cause we're talking about possibly, maybe, having to redo the HVAC system or something like that. And somebody said, well, let's make sure that we have as green a system as we had when we moved in. And somebody else said, no, let's make it greener. Let's make it even more sustainable than we had.
ZABALDONow, see, that's a community because we know each other, because we worked together, because we ran the community where it's more -- it's easier for us to make that kind of decision than it would be for a standard -- I mean, I can't even figure out how you would start this conversation about we should spend more money to have a greener, some more sustainable HVAC system in a regular condominium. I can't -- I don't even -- not sure how you would do that.
NNAMDIGo ahead, please.
ZABALDOWell, I'm just going to say, the thing that is so interesting to me is that cohousers will make decisions not based on money solely. They will make decisions based on values and then money.
NNAMDILenny, thank you very much for your call. Katie, in many ways, this concept is a complete 180 from the McMansions and large lots that were popular from much of the last few decades. Is a step back from large houses and the downturn in the housing market boosting interest in cohousing?
MCCAMANTWell, I think we've seen a significant shift in the paradigm of American values and sort of really got whacked pretty good in terms of bigger is better, and, not necessarily true, we found out. You know, I think the recession has hurt the entire housing market, including cohousing. People are having a harder time getting rid of existing houses. It's very hard to get loans right now. That affects us as well.
MCCAMANTBut I think as -- that we are -- a lot of people -- and we are seeing that interest and people are looking at alternatives and that maybe the McMansion isn't the great American dream that many people thought it once was. And so in that sense, I think recession has sort of forced a lot of us to sort of take another look at what's important in our lives.
NNAMDIHere is Erik in Manassas, Va. Erik, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
ERIKYes, good afternoon. I just wanted to suggest three groups of cohousing that you want to -- that you or somebody would want to study, and that is, number one, the Catholic Worker under Dorothy Day. And that has a lot of similarity with cohousing. And another thing I want is the labor movement. And another thing is -- it was, I think, Amalgamated houses. There was a documentary just about that place, about midway up in Bronx. And also, Amalgamated Warbasse out in Coney Island, (unintelligible).
ERIKAnd then the third group would be the Quakers. The Quakers have, for instance, friends, housing, even (word?) where the train comes out from the -- where the (unintelligible) commuter train, and (unintelligible). And I think this is -- all these are groups that have kind of different takes, you might say, on the cohousing issues.
ERIKAnd I think most of them, of course, have their own "liberal" or left agenda as opposed to what started out with just this (unintelligible), although that in itself is also starting the ball rolling. And I'll take any answer or comment off the air.
NNAMDIErik, thank you very much for your call. Care to comment, Ann?
ZABALDOWell, the -- go ahead, Katie.
MCCAMANTOkay. I think one of the things that we find is, when you start looking, there are a lot of examples of community-based housing throughout. I mean, and particularly in the United States, probably more so in the United States in terms of modern models than in most other places. And yet, what we found is that we tend to think while you got to, you know, join a union. What we -- what I like about cohousing is just ordinary families.
MCCAMANTYou know, I mean -- you know, how do I -- as you know, we're working. We've got our kids. We're trying to figure out our lifestyle. And, you know, I don't have time to take on -- you know, I'm not looking for a new religion. I'm not looking to a new movement. I'm not going to donate my life to taking care of the poor. I just need a place to live. I want a good neighborhood. And that's what cohousing, I think, can offer as to the typical American family or a person.
MCCAMANTIt's a place that you can plug into it, and you're not trying to recreate a new world. It's a neighborhood. And one of the exciting things about cohousing neighborhoods is that they're very engaged in their surrounding communities. You'll find that these people are very active in school districts, in city councils, in local organizations. And so I know, for me, what my cohousing community does is that it feeds me.
MCCAMANTIt helps support me so that I can give more to the surrounding world, to my larger community outside of my immediate neighborhood. And, to me, that's a really important part of what we're doing, is that we're not trying to be isolated separatist. We're very engaged with the world. The world needs us.
NNAMDISo, Katie, who is the typical resident, if such exists, of cohousing? And how diverse are these communities?
MCCAMANTWell, you know, my standard answer to this, Kojo, is NPR listeners.
MCCAMANTIf you want a direct hit on who your cohousing residents are, they're NPR listeners.
MCCAMANTBut within that, I mean, they're actually very broad. And so you have single people. You have families. You have empty nesters. You have elders. You have -- there is one thing we do find pretty consistently, is a very high level of education, not necessarily high incomes but fairly well-educated people. And I think that's partially because it's still such a new idea.
MCCAMANTSo, you know, that as -- what we're seeing now is the idea of sort of broadening now that we have communities built all across the country. It opens it up to a broader range of people who are not built to have to take sort of a -- the view of a book, but can actually visit a neighborhood and say, oh. Oh, this is a kind of nice place to live. And so I think that's what we'll be seeing more and more in the next decade.
WILBERNWell, I think Katie has it about right. You have a fairly well-educated group. I think the future diversity -- and this is going to be economic -- is trying to take it out of just a strict homeownership model because that's not necessarily what America needs to have is everybody owning a house. That got us into trouble. This is maybe not the best idea.
WILBERNBut, yet, the same basic principles of having a neighborhood where you know people you can trust, where you can literally can go next door and borrow a cup of sugar, is a pretty core value, left liberal, conservative, purple, whatever flavor you want. I think most cohousing communities are a very self-selected group, and they reflect where they're drawing from. So if you're out in -- wherever, you're going to grab the people that are there.
WILBERNYou know, nobody typically moves from where they want to live. If you want to live in an urban environment, you're going to find an urban cohousing group to get involved with. And that's actually the biggest thing at issue. It takes a group of people. It takes a community to build one. So it's really about finding like-minded people.
NNAMDIAnd, Ann, we have an email from Myrtle specifically asking, "What is the racial make up of your village?"
ZABALDOYeah, ours is -- I think I did the calculation on this. Ours is about 14 percent non-white. So cohousing is generally a pretty white movement. But ours is about 14 percent.
NNAMDII thought it was more than that because...
ZABALDOIt might be...
NNAMDI...I guess only because your participants of color are very outspoken and, therefore, I guess, I thought there were more of them than there really are, in particular, one African-American public school teacher in Montgomery County who shall remain nameless. We're going to take...
NNAMDI...a short break. When we come back, we will continue this conversation on cohousing. Taking your calls at 800-433-8850. You can send us email at email@example.com, or send us a tweet, @kojoshow. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWe're talking about the phenomenon of cohousing with Katie McCamant, architect and co-author of "Creating Cohousing: Building Sustainable Communities." Ann Zabaldo is the principal partner in Cohousing Collaborative and a founding resident of Takoma Village of Cohousing in Washington, D.C.
NNAMDIAnd Jack Wilbern is a partner in the architectural firm Butz-Wilbern. He's an architect, planner and a founding resident of the Blueberry Hill cohousing community in Vienna, Va. Let's go to Mike in Millsboro, Del. Mike, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
MIKEHi. Good afternoon, everybody. And thank you for lending me your ears. Okay. First, really -- well, first off, I'd like to comment on the fact that I really expected to hear this quotation a while back in your discussion over there, that it takes a village to raise a child and especially in this day and age of dwindling moralistic values and all of that. I like the idea that a child can grow up in a village where they feel responsible and can also show respect to all adults.
MIKEAnd all adults can become the extended eyes and ears of that child's parent, no matter where that child goes into the area. And I think that that really lays a good foundation for respect for a society and authority in the future. Okay? Now, the flipside of the coin. All right. I don't want to cast the shadow on this. However, I have a unique perspective in the fact that -- although I'm in Delaware now. I'm a transplantee from New York, both the city and the suburbs.
MIKEAnd what I've noticed in the city -- rather the suburbs, sorry, that some of these communities grew up or blew up around, let's say, religious, you know, foundations. And what I've seen is that, a lot of times, these communities become gated communities. And they conduct business, commerce, patronize each other within the community, and they don't go and use our supermarkets. They don't use our public schools. They have tax write-offs by claiming that their homes are places of worship, and they get away with this.
MIKEAnd one thing that, in particular, bothers me is that way up in New York state, which is called Sullivan County in the Catskills, there is a similar community, which I believe is called Islamberg, where no outsiders are allowed in and...
NNAMDIWell, I know you've got a lot to say, but there are plans in this area to have one cohousing community that is targeted specifically towards people of the Islamic faith, even though it will be open to anyone else who is interested. They're trying to develop a cohousing community called Good Tree Village.
NNAMDIPeople of all faiths will be welcome to buy there according to their website, but they plan to tailor our community to suit the needs of practicing Muslims. First, that aspect of it, Katie McCamant, to what extent are cohousing communities affiliated with religious organizations or religious beliefs?
MCCAMANTI actually don't know of any. They are -- the communities that I'm familiar with are -- one of their goals has always been to encourage diversity and encourage the conversation between different -- people of different religious beliefs. And so they tend not to be organized around religious beliefs. And, again, I think one of the things is really learning how to talk with the people and with each other about -- and sharing different views.
MCCAMANTAnd so one of the fun things I've really enjoyed in my communities is that I -- I'm not Jewish. But I have celebrated Jewish traditions because other members of my community bring them and share them with the rest of us. And so we actually celebrate a wide range of different practices and different rituals just as a part of our sort of broader view of the world. So the communities your caller is taking about certainly are not cohousing communities.
NNAMDIThe other aspect of what Mike raised, Ann Zabaldo, has to do with taking a village to raise a child and raising children in those communities. It is my understanding that Takoma Village just had their first high school graduation of a kid who lives there.
ZABALDOWe did. It's hard to believe that he was eight years old when he moved in. I'm starting to feel fairly old myself from that. Yes, we did just have a -- just going off to college now, so...
NNAMDITalk about what you feel that cohousing communities can do for children and to bring children into those communities.
ZABALDOSure. It's -- and it's not just children. It's really a panoply of social issues, I think, that cohousing can address. And Katie's the expert at this, but I'll go out on a limb here. My -- I was a latchkey kid growing up. And my feeling is, living in Takoma Village and being around other cohousing communities, that really -- that idea of a latchkey kid who comes home where there's no adult supervision is a thing of the past in cohousing.
ZABALDOSo there are always people to look after a child in cohousing. And, actually, kids, when they get to be about 12 or 13, they don't like that so much because there are, like, eyes everywhere. So it's a little stressful on them. But I think that the latchkey kid is one thing we can put to rest in cohousing. The other thing is that...
NNAMDIExcuse me, allow me to interrupt you for a second because we have a call from Bill in Takoma Village, who I think would like to testify.
ZABALDOOh, hey, Bill. Go for it.
NNAMDIBill, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
BILLListen, I just want to say, in cohousing, we have a number of single parents, and I'm of them. And I have a couple of boys, Tony and Brian, who are eight. And it's really nice to know that I have 42 household neighbors that I don't worry about. And also that, you know, people do look out for them, and if there's problems, they'll bring it to my attention, or they'll talk to the boys.
BILLAnd that's a real good sense of community that, when I leave the, you know, when I leave the premises and, you know, I'm not always sure about. I also wanted to say someone had talked about the recycling and composting. There are a couple of things that go on, which I really approve of and want to do because, as a single parent, I don't know how much I would do.
BILLBut because somebody else actually kind of sets up the system and I can contribute, I mean, I find that really helpful. And also, that's a good value, you know, to be teaching my boys, which I don't know if I'd be doing if I'm, you know, by myself.
NNAMDIJack, you've also raised kids in cohousing. What was your experience like?
WILBERNWell, it was interesting. Actually, Katie's daughter and my son have had conversations about this, growing up in cohousing. One of the very specific examples and benefits of this is Fairfax County has half-day Mondays for elementary school, one of those unpleasant realities for parents in this area, where you have whatever afterschool care organized on a normal basis.
WILBERNAnd then on Mondays, all of a sudden, 11:00 or 12 o'clock, all these one -- first to sixth graders are coming home. Blueberry Hill arranged a system where everybody takes a turn. You know, all the -- and it's not just the parents of the kids involved. There are people who are stay-at-home work or stay-at-home parent, and they would all take a turn. And it's become sort of a self-propagating idea because the older kids are given some responsibility.
WILBERNAnd they do sort of the Montessori method. They're helping the younger kids with homework, and there's activities and things. It's just one of those very simple, basic, pragmatic benefits of having a trust network that you can work with.
NNAMDIKatie, as baby boomers get older, a lot of them are looking for ways to age in place rather than move to a retirement home or assisted living facility. How is co-helping -- cohousing helping seniors to stay in their homes?
MCCAMANTIt's amazing what -- how much longer you can stay in your home and how much healthier you will be with a little bit of assistance right next door. And so -- just as an example, in my cohousing community, I have two older neighbors across the walkway. One is 93, and one is, I think, 86, just turned 87. And they're very healthy and active women. But, occasionally, they need help with, you know, can you get something off the shelf?
MCCAMANTCan you turn this on? Can you open this can? But, more importantly, it's also that they -- there's community dinners. So there's always a social network there that's easy to plug into. And I think with illness, with aging, with kids, one of the most dangerous things is isolation, that you can take something that's a normal feeling. And when left in an isolated situation, it becomes much worse. And that's the thing you get rid of with a community 'cause it's so easy to plug in.
NNAMDIAnd if someone is listening and says, this sounds great. I want to start a cohousing community. What should that person know about what it takes to get a project off the ground?
ZABALDOWell, we got something for you. So Mid-Atlantic Cohousing is a nonprofit -- it's a little regional organization. It's a nonprofit organization, and we are having -- we're sponsoring a presentation called Cohousing 101, which Jack Wilbern is going to be presenting. And this will be an overview of what cohousing is and how to get it started. And it's going to be on Saturday, Sep. 10 from 3:00 to 5:00 in a private home.
ZABALDOIf you're interested in signing up for it, go to midatlanticcohousing.org and read the post entry there. And you'll see an email address to RSVP to, and we'll be happy to send you the directions.
NNAMDIBut, Jack, it can't be sunshine and roses all the time. What happens if someone isn't pulling his or her weight when it comes to contributing to the community?
WILBERNI think that might be along with pets and kids and -- I forget what the other one is.
WILBERNThe -- one of the biggest topics. I think it's always interesting. My analogy is when you have a group of friends going to the beach, you don't come up with all the rules in advance. You say, we're all going to the beach. You figure out how you're going to have fun, just like any other. And then you figure out how to deal with it. A lot of times, somebody isn't pulling their weight because they haven't been asked.
WILBERNI love the 20 -- 20-60-20 rule. Twenty percent of the people actively jump out of their seat and go help. Sixty percent are happy to do it if you ask them. There is 20 percent of the population that will not help, no matter how many -- much you ask. They tend not to live in cohousing communities because it's an eyes-wide-open expectation. Not everybody meets it the same way. I mow lawns, and my friend there across the way does not.
WILBERNSo it's something where she brings me water and tells me jokes. And, you know, while I'm pulling weeds, she's there to help out. So everybody contributes in their own way, and there's different methodologies. Every cohousing community has a different approach to this. Blueberry Hill takes a very organic, hands-off. Some people have developed a nice, clear system where people have clarity.
WILBERNI contribute so many hours a month. I can do these following things, and I feel good about it. And everybody else knows I'm pulling my weight. There's no perfect system. Trust me.
NNAMDIAnd I'm afraid that's all the time we have. Jack Wilbern is a partner in the architectural firm Butz-Wilbern. He's an architect, planner and a founding resident of the Blueberry Hill cohousing community in Vienna, Va. Jack, thank you for joining us.
WILBERNThank you very much.
NNAMDIAnn Zabaldo is the principal partner in Cohousing Collaborative and a founding resident of Takoma Village Cohousing in Washington, D.C. Ann Zabaldo, thank you for joining us.
ZABALDOThank you. Let's do it again.
NNAMDIAnd Katie McCamant is an architect and co-author of "Creating Cohousing: Building Sustainable Communities," now in its third edition. Katie McCamant, thank you for joining us.
MCCAMANTThank you very much.
NNAMDIAnd thank you all for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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