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Cohousing: Bringing the Sharing Economy Home

Words by Sarah Lozanova

TriplePundit Sponsored Series

The Rise Of The Sharing Economy

My family will soon be moving to Belfast Cohousing & Ecovillage (BC&E) on the midcoast of Maine and we're excited to live in a community that is part of the sharing economy. Cohousing is collaborative housing where residents actively and intentionally participate in the design and operation of their own neighborhood.

BC&E will be a 36-unit community on 42 acres that will soon break ground on an approximately 4,000 square foot common house with a shared dining room, commercial kitchen, laundry room, guest bedrooms, and playroom.

Construction of the private homes is in progress and a majority have already sold. During sluggish economic times, BC&E priced its units between $167,000 and $342,000, much higher than the $150,000 average home value in Waldo County. Providing a unique offering has positioned the project well in a niche market that values shared space, human interaction, and sustainability.

Study of resales prices over the first two decades of cohousing in California has confirmed that cohousing communities hold their value over time, and in some cases even increase in value from their initial costs-based sales price. A report completed in January 2010 by the appraisal firm of Bartholomew Associates concluded that resales in cohousing communities in Northern California sold at 1.7 to 3.12 times the prices of other townhouses and condominiums in the area. When prices were adjusted for specific differences in age, condition and location, cohousing homes sold at 11 to 63 percent premiums compared to the closest comparables. This data was collected through 2009 and thus includes the years of the great recession."  Creating Cohousing: Building Sustainable Communities (New Society Press, 2011).

The fact that many cohousing communities are partially or largely self-financed and self-developed lowers expenses, but requires far more of members than typical housing developments. BC&E has relied largely on word-of-mouth marketing, but have also utilized social media, fliers, and events. Members have proven themselves to be very resourceful and creative, but some have also experienced burnout.

Cohousing offers some intangible benefits that are appealing to certain homebuyers. The BC&E community layout, including restricted access to automobiles with parking on the periphery, clustered homes, front porches on multi-unit buildings (mostly duplexes), a shared tool shed, community vegetable and flower gardens, and a central mail room encourage spontaneous interactions, sharing, and voluntary simplicity.

This layout contrasts most new neighborhoods in the U.S. that are largely automobile-centered, thus significantly reducing contact with neighbors. "I know a lot of people who live in houses with attached garages and they have never even seen their neighbors," says Dan Capwell, a member of BC&E. "All they see is a car enter the garage in the evening and a car leave in the morning."

Walking trails are planned for BC&E and several acres are designated for community gardens and food production. In many established cohousing communities, the garden space brings people together and encourages the sharing of knowledge and resources.

Community gardens and cohousing in general can also reduce resource consumption. "We are farmers and gardeners," says Nessa Dertnig, a member of BC&E. "We have thought about the fact that not everyone would have to own their own rototiller, hoe, or snow plow. We also have just one car and we've thought of car sharing in the future. If there are a few people interested in sharing a car, there can be fewer cars on site. There are all kinds of ways we can share resources and time and it is all so convenient."

Although sharing space has its benefits, it can also create difficult situations. "I've been thinking about how my children have to share a yard," says Forrest Espinoza, a member of Troy Gardens, an established cohousing community in Madison, Wisconsin. "If you were in a typical community, you would invite other children to come into your yard. If your children weren't getting along, you wouldn't invite those kids to come over and play. In a cohousing community, they have to work things out. It was frustrating in the beginning, but our whole family has experienced incredible growth."

Despite the challenges, more than 120 communities exist across the U.S., with many more in the development phase. "Interest in cohousing has grown and I think it is because of a combination of factors," says Jim Leach, president of Wonderland Hill Development Company. "We have the Baby Boomers seeing it as the ideal way to age in place. The social changes that are happening in the U.S. as we deal with issues around gun control or how we economically survive in a changing world make having community and deeper relationships with the people we live near take on more value and is being well recognized."

[Image credits: Jeffrey Mabee of Belfast Cohousing & Ecovillage]