Co-housing Neighborhoods Blossom in Madison

By Elli Thompson

The recent housing slump in Madison and the rest of nation has started to feel a lot like winter in Wisconsin: long, cold and with seemingly no end in sight.

But under the thick blanket of real estate recession, one crop of housing has not only stayed strongly rooted, but has also continued to spread its seeds. Three existing and up-and-coming cohousing villages have managed to escape the sting of the poor market, allowing the lifestyle of community living and sharing, among other things, to stand as an example to the greater Madison area.

“We’re the little shining bright spot in the Madison housing market,” said Ann Bell, a future resident of a new village of cohousing in Madison, Arboretum Cohousing.

Cohousing, a fairly recent phenomenon in the United States, seeks to foster community by building units where tenets share some facilities, spend more time with their neighbors, make joint decisions and work together to achieve more sustainable living. The idea originated in Denmark and made its way to the United States in the 1980s. Village Cohousing, on the corner of Mills St. and Mound St. near the UW-Madison campus, became the first local cohousing neighborhood upon completion in 1999.

“One of the interesting things about cohousing in a community like Madison is we were sure that …[we’d] not have any trouble locating people wanting to live in it,” said Art Lloyd, a developer and current resident of Village Cohousing. “People get tired of the sort of alienation of apartments, condos, even single-family houses where you don’t know your neighbors. People really like this idea. We had no trouble at all selling their units.”

Not only has cohousing in Madison withstood the pressures of the troubled housing market, but it has also blazed a trail in environmentally-friendly living, fitting well with the recent push by Madison city officials, organizations and the local media for greener living.

“We like to see it as a role model for other things, kind of a different way to think about doing housing,” said Dirk Herr-Hoyman, Owner’s Representative for Arbco.

For starters, the materials used in constructing the villages often bode well for the earth or at least minimize damage. Residents at Arbco can choose locally harvested wood for cabinets and flooring, and both Village Cohousing and Troy Gardens Cohousing, located on Madison’s north side, offer a cement-wood siding in place of the traditional vinyl siding. Some units have or will install solar panels and use fluorescent lighting.

“In terms of green building, there’s just a lot of traction on that in general,” said Greg Rosenberg, executive director of Madison Area Community Land Trust, which partnered with the Friends of Troy Gardens to develop Troy Gardens Cohousing. “We just hope that they’ll just copy it. I think people who’ve experienced Troy Gardens have a sense that there’s a different way you can do things.”

However, in most cases, this different way – green building – comes at a significant price, presenting one of the greatest barriers in the process. Many residents and builders must make compromises in order to ensure that homes are still affordable. Troy Gardens has recognized this hurdle and has found a way to have the best of both worlds. Twenty of Troy Gardens Cohousing’s 30 units were priced to be affordable for households for which the average incomes were 65 percent of Dane County's median income, according to Rosenberg. Two-bedrooms condos sold for $109,500 and three-bedroom condos sold for $139,500. Troy Gardens used federal and local funding and the profits from its 10 market-rate homes to subsidize the below market-rate units. In addition, such financial support has made it possible for the affordable homes to have the same environmentally friendly features as the market-rate homes.

“In terms of cohousing and affordability, the (original) hope was a model that was more affordable housing than conventional housing,” Rosenberg said. “In practice, it hasn’t quite played out that way. Troy Gardens may be one of the few where the majority of homes are affordable…You shouldn’t have to have money to live in a cool place.”

One-bedroom condominiums at Arbco start around $200,000, with prices going up from there. Arbco also offers two- and three-bedroom condominiums, and community members have access to 6,000 square feet of communal living space. Three-bedroom condos can go for around $330,000.

But focusing on green living isn’t restricted to the special – and pricey – housing features. Residents can put the environment first in everyday practice, which often saves money, too. Arbco and Village Cohousing have communal washing and drying machines available to members. Lloyd says that some residents at Village Cohousing opt for air-drying clothes on outdoor lines when the weather permits. Installing one hot water tank for the communal building saves on heating costs, and composting eliminates waste and creates fertilizer for gardening, another key aspect of Madison’s cohousing neighborhoods. Greenhouses and gardens provide natural beauty, fresh food and a way to bond with neighbors.

“For me, the environmental benefits and sustainability really come from living in the community, rather than the features,” Bell said.

Caring for the environment ranks high on the list of priorities for the cohousing villages, and most members strongly agree on that value. Such shared commitment to the neighborhood and communal activities laid the foundation for the original idea of cohousing and continues to breathe life into Madison’s cohousing developments.

“We’ve got a good mix of people, and we’ve been pretty lucky,” Bell said. “Our statement is ‘Know your neighbor,’ and I think that’s what it’s really about.”

Living in a close-knit community doesn’t come without its challenges, however. Cohousing communities usually consist of a wide range of age groups, spanning anywhere from 2 year olds to 85 year olds. Issues, such as how to raise children in such a neighborhood, have caused problems in the past, according to Lloyd. But mixed communities and the opportunity to live long-term in the same neighborhood also give cohousing a unique appeal.

“This idea of inter-generational or housing for lifespan is really going to be a big trend nationally over the next 10 years,” Rosenberg said. “You’re going to have a group of folks who don’t want to keep moving as their physical abilities change.”

Diversity brings important experiences and knowledge to cohousing. In all three Madison cohousing developments, residents use the consensus process to reach final decisions, which while sometimes tedious and frustrating, also produce a healthy variety of ideas.

“By committing to that process, you find solutions that you never thought about at the beginning,” Lloyd said

Rosenberg pointed to the fact that each person’s unique interests play a beneficial role in the community. One man living in Troy Gardens Cohousing, for example, loves shoveling and plowing snow and takes on the task for his neighbors. Differences work to the benefit of residents who value community first.

“There’s a diversity in interest and talent,” Rosenberg said. “They’re finding out as they go kind of how they’re going to get stuff done.”

Janet Kelly, chair of the board of directors for Arbco, agrees that the differences are positive, if not essential to the cohousing idea.

“We don’t want everyone to be the same,” she said. “That wouldn’t be any fun.”

Shared commitment within the cohousing community has translated into helping out the general public as well. In a sort of trickle-up process, cohousing developments have found ways to expand their reach to the rest of the Madison community.

Troy Gardens, which won the 2007 Livable Community Award given out by the AARP and the National Association of Home Builders, plans to break ground next year on a community education center that aims to bring together not only members of Troy Gardens Cohousing, but also people from outside the community. Rosenberg sees the planned building as “a gathering space for all 12 months” of the year.

Arbco connected with Habitat for Humanity to build one of its units. Troy Gardens has plans to develop a similar partnership in the future. Kelly hopes to “lobby for changes in some of the state laws” to make the option of building cohousing communities more viable and the building procedure a little easier for others who hope to give cohousing a try in the future.

Although the idea of cohousing has received much positive support from the Madison community, according to Bell, the process still takes much time and energy. Those interested must weather the challenges and commit to the long haul, even when it seems the project may not blossom for quite some time. But Kelly believes the special end result makes it well worth the wait.

“It’s an act of faith, a leap of faith,” Kelly said. “It’s an idealistic thing, and it’s rare in that way.”


Documentary film on cohousing!

For those who are not yet sure about the advantages of cohousing, watch the 2007 award winner documentary film "Voices of Cohousing. Building Villages in the City". Info and trailer: Enjoy and good luck with the project!