Co-housing: Not Your Grandmother's Commune

Somewhat like 60 being the new 40, co-housing is the new yesterday’s small town. Think pioneer groups sharing meals around a campfire… then think post-2000 college grads seeking affordable housing and wanting community; or think 60s communes with wifi and central air conditioning. You’ll get an idea of today’s growing U.S. co-housing movement. (The term is written with or without a hyphen.)

At a recent OWL-sponsored panel discussion, two representatives of different (in some ways vastly different) California cohousing projects outlined some of the reasons this option is attractive to Boomers (downsize into simpler lifestyle, find community) and seniors (anticipate future needs, find community) in particular, but multi-generational others as well. The big key word: community. Cohousing villages are designed and self-managed with intention. They range from west coast to east and in between, from simple to posh, urban to rural. Swan’s Market in downtown Oakland, CA is on the National Register of Historic Places in an area fast morphing from down-and-out to up-and- coming. Mosaic Commons in Berlin, MA west of Boston boasts of green space, green planning, green building. Blue Ridge Commons near Charlottesville, VA touts organic gardens and a renovated 1890s farmhouse, while recently completed Great Oak Cohousing, Ann Arbor MI’s second such venture, lists 30-some households which include “about 65 adults” and “about 37 kids.” Cohousing populations are moving targets.

The common thread is the desire for economically and ecologically viable close-community living. Most cohousing villages have at least two or three shared meals per week with everyone taking turns in the communal kitchen, while the rest of the time residents dine at home. Most share other things like laundry space, recreational space and assorted activities. The same occasional conflicts that probably afflicted cave dwellers arise among today’s cohousing residents, but enthusiasm runs rampant.

And increasing numbers of Americans are considering, or at the very least familiar with, the concept. This reporter appeared to be the only person in an overflow audience who had to ask who the oft-mentioned Chuck and Katie were. (Kathryn McCamant and Charles Durrett; they wrote the book.)

Waterfront Condos: More on the housing dilemma

Waterfront esplanade, expansive views from a sunny terrace, walk to the ballpark — what’s not to love about this housing choice?

Downsizing from a large, Victorian house filled to overflowing with the accumulations of two very active lives, the Langleys of San Francisco decamped, a few months ago, to a new, easy-care, sun-filled two-bedroom condo in the city’s happening-place Mission Bay neighborhood. They love the convenience, the mix of ages and cultures, the freedom from old-house maintenance worries and some unexpected bonuses like new friends living on houseboats from another era who are within conversation range of their 4th floor deck. “We (the new condo development) block the view they used to have all those years,” Judy Langley says, “but there are a lot of  trade-offs like getting the creek (which leads into San Francisco Bay) cleaned up, and the park over there…” For the newcomers, the young dog-walkers on the esplanade below, the middle-aged Chinese couple doing tai chi on the common lawn, it is an urban idyll.

Urban condos, even those without kayaks at the door and aged houseboats for neighbors, are an increasingly popular answer to the downsizing dilemma. But the dilemma remains huge and answers are seldom easy.

On the day the Langleys were hosting an Open House in their new digs, my sister was packing the last boxes from the high-ceilinged Boston condo that’s been her family’s home for decades. She and her husband are headed for a New York retirement community to which a physician daughter will also relocate from the west coast. Elsewhere this weekend a childhood friend was finalizing plans for a move from Northern Virginia to a coastal community where her husband will be able to live in a Memory Unit while she lives independently nearby.

These choices typify the variety of factors that go into contemporary downsizing decision-making: Is it affordable? Will I (or my parents) have the care that’s needed? Can life still be good (or even get better?)

And any of these families might also have considered co-housing. Yet another option for Boomers and Beyonders as well as for younger families and individuals, co-housing in some ways harkens back to a simpler, long-ago lifestyle and in other ways could only work in the 21st century. It was the topic of an OWL-sponsored panel discussion on Saturday, and will be tomorrow’s Boomers and Beyond topic.

Grassroots Healthcare Reform

If we get a health reform bill, it may be thanks in part to a push from the ground up. That belief is leading to a variety of grassroots support endeavors.

At a hospital-sponsored town hall meeting on the issue this week in San Francisco attendees were invited to take the microphone to tell their stories. Probably a bad idea at any meeting, since such an invitation guarantees off-point rambles and rages and this one certainly proved the point — but there were enough horror stories to assure everyone that our current non-system is a train wreck.

A cardboard cut-out of President Obama stood at the back of the room (there was a lot of photo-op going on before things got started) and the promise was that videos of the stories would go straight to Washington to help speed passage of the hoped-for health reform bill.

Participants told of needed care that couldn’t be found, needed drugs that couldn’t be bought and the widespread suffering of the un- or under-insured. A panel of local experts presented aspects of the hoped-for national plan and spoke of San Francisco’s own moderately successful effort to provide health coverage for all.

Speakers were asked to keep their remarks to under three minutes, another dictum doomed to failure, and a few did. My own plea (one minute, forty seconds) was for inclusion of some guarantee/protection of individual choice at the end of life. It stemmed from working for many years (as I still do) with terminally ill adults who seek options including hastening their dying. It was tempered in deference to the hosts, since St. Francis is a member of Catholic Healthcare West and the opposition of the Catholic Church was largely responsible for defeat of a widely popular physician aid-in-dying bill that narrowly failed in California two years ago. And the likelihood of such a controversial issue getting into the massively complex bill we may or may not get is somewhere between slim and none, but what the heck. With Mr. Obama standing there, I couldn’t resist.

At similar gatherings around the country, I suspect the message and the messengers are much the same. Health reform is a national need that translates in millions of heartbreaking individual stories.

My personal favorite message came from panel member Catherine Dodd, PhD, RN, District Chief of Staff for Nancy Pelosi in her pre-Speaker days. Dodd explained the current three-fold status (two in the Senate and one in the House) of the healthcare bill and defended its  probable cost. Then she threw out one new number: 19.7. After everyone had let 19.7 sink in, she told us that is the number of years it has taken this country, every time a health reform bill has been floated, to bring it up again. “We can’t afford another 19.7 years,” she said. I think she’s right.

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