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Life Is Cheaper -- And Richer -- In Co-Housing

It's not just about saving money; it's also about re-creating the community and connection that we've been missing

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A few miles south, in a downtown Oakland area that is still recovering from 1960s and ’70s style urban renewal, Swan’s Market Cohousing is proof that it’s possible to build a thriving intentional community in even the most challenging inner-city environments. Completed in March 2000 as part of an innovative historic preservation project, the abandoned old market is now a brick and ceramic tile complex with affordable rental apartments, shops, restaurants, professional offices, and the Museum of Children’s Art. The original cohousing members worked with a local developer on the building’s design. It includes units of 600 to 900 square feet and a spectacular common facility with a meeting room, living room, and a state-of-the-art kitchen.

“The common space is a key feature of cohousing, where people eat together,” says cohousing advocate Neil Planchon, one of the original members who helped get Swan’s Market off the ground. While each unit has its own kitchen, residents share three meals a week, with rotating cooks and opt-in attendance. Planchon points out the importance of setting up a good system of organizing communal meals and activities.

“We have a really good structure to support the sign-up system. The cooks post the menu four days ahead of time, and closing for sign-up is two days before. We’ve also got a good system with the money—a meal ends up being between three and four bucks per person.”

Opportunities to pool labor and resources present themselves in every aspect of cohousing. For example, the community decided they wanted shared laundry facilities, so nobody has a washer or dryer in their home. “We save a lot of space, time, and money that way,” says Planchon. They also built a guest bedroom as a sweat equity project and decided to only have two hot water tanks for the whole community, one for the heating system and the other for hot water. “It’s a radical concept,” Planchon smiles. “Even the architect said, ‘Are you guys crazy?’ But it honored the whole concept of sustainability, of having more space in our homes and reducing natural gas consumption. And it’s working just fine.”

Two miles up Broadway in North Oakland is Temescal Creek Cohousing, where the Karlsons have found neighbors to know and trees for Greta to climb. 

This “retrofit community” was started in 1999 by five families who purchased three adjacent 1920s duplexes. Once they were settled in, they added a new upstairs unit and built a solar-powered common house. 

“None of us who started this would have been able to afford a single-family house, especially in this neighborhood,” says Karen Hester, one of the founders of Temescal Creek. They bought the duplexes for $785,000, which she says was inexpensive by the standards of the day, but still no easy feat. “Everybody was working in non-profits and nobody had much money. We were all pretty stretched. We all got loans, mostly from family and friends. It’s certainly the best financial decision I’ve ever made, no question. And for my sense of community, it was also the best decision I ever made. It was the right decision on so many levels.”

Karen says that even though the beginning was a ton of work, she likes the retrofit model because, unlike other communities where everything gets built and arranged in advance, the Temescal Creek members had to figure things out as they went along. “It was so organic. We just jumped in together and made it up from there,” she says. They still had to put some things down on paper, like their shared meals schedule (twice a week) and work days, but to Karen the most important thing was that they were all pretty much on the same page in terms of basic expectations. “We wanted to be a loving and welcoming place for kids, but also for a range of adults.”

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