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

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.”

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.”

These connections in turn empower and enable individual cohousing neighbors to have a positive impact on the broader community. Whether it’s Karen Hester running a weekly local food event called “Bites off Broadway” or Doyle Street’s Jennifer West running for (and getting elected to) the Emeryville City Council, having the community’s organization and support is huge. “I think that society is getting more creative as a whole,” says Brad Gunkel. “To be able to pool resources, to not just buy your way out of everything,” he adds, “there’s a lot of value that comes out of that.”Regardless of the physical set-up, the common thread that seems to run through all cohousing communities is that the most important values and benefits cannot be measured in dollars and cents. Neil Planchon describes cohousing communities as high-functioning neighborhoods. “Out in the world there’s so much—too much—it’s diluted. And here there’s an opportunity to do more meaningful work and make connections to help our brothers and sisters.”


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