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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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Photo Credit: Cameron Karsten for YES! Magazine

 

When Sarah and Andy Karlson’s daughter, Greta, was born, they were living in a one-bedroom apartment in Oakland. They had been feeling a bit strange about living in a building where they rarely saw the other residents, but it really hit Sarah when she bumped into a neighbor one day and was greeted with a stunned “You had a baby?”

“She didn’t even know I had been pregnant,” Sarah remembers. “After two years we didn’t even know all of our neighbors’ names.”

With no family in California and feeling isolated in their tiny apartment, Sarah and Andy were dreaming about a place with a feeling of neighborliness, where people watch out for each other and Greta could have space to run around. “We had no outdoor access except for the parking lot behind our building,” Sarah recalls, “and I felt this deep sadness, wondering where Greta would learn to climb a tree.”

They started looking for apartments but were unable to find a place they could afford that had green space—let alone a sense of community. Then, last summer, Sarah and Andy heard about an opening at Temescal Creek, a block of adjacent 1920s duplexes retrofitted into an eleven-unit, multi-generational cohousing community in North Oakland’s Temescal district. They jumped at the opportunity and still can’t quite believe how lucky they are to be sharing meals with their new neighbors and watching Greta run through this urban oasis with nine playmates and with pet rabbits and chickens to enjoy. It’s just a matter of time until she starts climbing the avocado and fig trees.

The yearning to live in community is not a new one. Human beings evolved sharing common space, resources, and neighborly support, not only for physical survival but also for a sense of belonging and togetherness. 

But modern society values autonomy, often at the cost of the social connection offered by traditional communities. Cohousing, an idea that originated in Denmark in the 1960s, has been increasingly filling the gap. Each household in cohousing has an individual residence but takes part in the design process, consensus-based decision-making, shared meals, and socializing. 

The model is flexible enough that each cohousing community has its own aesthetics and sense of place. In San Francisco’s East Bay alone, several cohousing communities have been in existence for more than a decade, showing not only their staying power but also how they can evolve and mature over time.

Doyle Street Cohousing in Emeryville is the second oldest such community in the United States. Led by architects and American cohousing pioneers Katie McCamant and Chuck Durrett, the original group moved into this urban industrial neighborhood in 1992. The complex consists of two buildings—one housed in the shell of an old factory—that form an “L” on two sides of a garden courtyard with outdoor dining and play areas. Indoors there’s an expansive common room, an industrial kitchen, a children’s playroom, and 12 loft-style flats that range from 700 to 1,600 square feet.

Four-year resident Brad Gunkel explains the air of tranquility exuding from an established cohousing community like Doyle Street. “I’ve visited recently established communities, and there’s this crazy ‘let’s get together, let’s do this and that’ energy,” says Gunkel. “But here it’s not quite like that. There’s definitely the community, connection, and support, and the feeling that everyone has got your back, but it’s settled in. It’s just part of the culture.”

Gunkel says that Doyle Street has deepened his life beyond anything he could have imagined. “I’ve lived in single-family homes, and you might run into your neighbors and chat or even hang out,” he says, “but for the most part you’re not really sharing with them your concerns and feelings of day-to-day life. You don’t get that support and empathy. You get that with your friends, but your friends aren’t all right there.”

 
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