Senior cohousing handbook excerpts

The following are highlights from the book: The Senior Cohousing Handbook:  A Community Approach to Independent Living, by Charles Durrett


Cohousing is an intentional community of private homes clustered around shared space. Each attached or single family home has traditional amenities, including a private kitchen. Shared spaces typically feature a common house, which may include a large kitchen and dining area, laundry, and recreational spaces. Shared outdoor space may include parking, walkways, open space, and gardens. Neighbors also share resources like tools and lawnmowers.

Common dinner in a senior cohousing community is prepared in turn, usually by one cook and one assistant. However, its significance goes far beyond sharing food and effort. Such dinners are the heart of cohousing, for they are the catalyst for many other social activities. Breaking bread together is a timeless community building experience. Just as important, it is over dinner that you might decide to go bird watching together on Saturday, or to take a walk after eating.

In other words, dinner is the number one place where relationships are built — not necessarily at the dinner table itself, but from all the activities that stem from dinner conversations. The common house is also the place where people drink coffee and play chess on a Sunday afternoon. It is inviting and friendly to the point where residents feel as if they are in their own space.

Features of cohousing:

  1. Participatory Process: Residents help organize and participate in the planning and design process for the housing development, and they are responsible as a group for final decisions. 2. Deliberate Neighborhood Design: The physical design encourages a strong sense of community. 3. Extensive Common Facilities: Common areas are an integral part of the community, designed for daily use and to supplement private living areas. 4. Complete Resident Management: Residents manage the development, making decisions of common concern at community meetings. 5. Non-Hierarchical Structure: There are not really leadership roles. The responsibilities for the decisions are shared by the community’s adults. 6. Separate Income Sources: Residents have their own primary incomes; the community does not generate income.

Senior cohousing is similar to the mixed-generational cohousing model, with the following modifications: • Careful agreements among residents about co-care and its limits. • Design considerations appropriate for seniors. • Size limitations (a maximum of 30 living units, usually 15-25).

One of the things that people forget is that children do tire of caring for an older person — then it’s off to the institution. Bill Thomas describes a nursing home as a marriage between a hospital and a prison. Although nursing homes have figured out the “care” part, what people hate most about being older is boredom, lack of purpose, and helplessness. None of that is addressed in a nursing home “care” scenario.

Broadly speaking, senior cohousing groups look for people over 50 who enjoy good health. Sometimes a group will set an upper limit of 65 or 69 at move-in. But the range can be 50-75. Physical health and chronological age often do not correlate, and there are exceptions to every rule.

As long as at least six members participate at any given time (post site selection), turnover does not seem to affect the final success of a project. The backbone of the project is the organizing group and the participatory culture it creates. The momentum of the people committed to it, because they intend to live there, carries the day. While people are in the group (even those who later move on), they contribute to it and each member in turn helps to build the community — a community responsive to real people’s needs because real people were involved to solve real-life issues.

If I seem to focus more on encouraging the social side of senior cohousing versus the protection of privacy, it is because American architects and developers are conditioned to put privacy above all other social concerns. Groups that create a senior cohousing community must, in effect, break the old habits of all involved to give community as much consideration as privacy.

It’s worth noting that the hundreds of cohousing residents we’ve interviewed almost never complained about the lack of privacy in their community, yet many readily pointed out design features that discouraged sociability. Community design should encourage social interaction and at the same time allow residents to choose whether to be with others or to be alone. When you walk into cohousing, you should always feel that you have the choice between as much privacy as you want and as much community as you want. In typical suburban neighborhoods you feel as if you have the choice of as much privacy as you want — and little opportunity for community.

People know that everyone has their own lives — it’s natural and accepted,” explained a resident. Body language readily signals approachability. One resident told us that some people might not be approachable for months because of how things are going on in their lives, but soon enough they will open up again.

“People in cohousing tend to be very honest with each other,” said a cohousing resident of sixteen years. “In my old house, when a neighbor used to ask to borrow a tool, I felt obliged to loan it, even if I felt uncomfortable doing so. In what might be a rare contact, I didn’t want to come off as un-neighborly. Here if someone wants to talk, or have coffee, or borrow a tool, and I don’t feel like it, I don’t hesitate to say no. They know me, and there is less likelihood that they will be put off by my honesty. In fact, it’s a sign of respect and intimacy to be able to say no.

All residents have to participate in common work tasks for a certain number of hours each year. Residents who work more than they are supposed to, get their extra hours saved in the time bank. For those who work less, they accumulate a deficit. The hours can then be bought or residents can pay them back by working more hours the next year. This system allows people to save up hours for their senior years while they still have the reserves of energy. Or it can simply allow people to pay the community for their absence when they don’t have the time to participate in the common work.

Overall, the system of time banking has been successful, so much so that other senior cohousing groups have created interesting variations on it that are wholly germane to the sensibilities of their own community. For example, in another senior cohousing community, residents start out with a requirement to perform 20 hours per month of common work (including common dinners). This amount then decreases to zero hours per month after 20 years of residency.

Planning issues:

There are generally three stages at which legal agreements need to be drawn up, reflecting the needs of each development phase. These agreements are: 1. An initial pre-site acquisition agreement (partnership). 2. A “building association” or development partnership (LLC). 3. A definition of the final ownership structure and management association (Home Owners Association/HOA DOCS). The initial agreement, drawn up before the group is ready to purchase a site, generally outlines the group’s purpose, decision-making procedures, membership recruitment methods and limitations, and fees to cover operating expenses and consulting services.

Prospective members usually pool their equity and form a Limited Liability Corporation, or LLC. The LLC assumes the role of developer, negotiates with the lender, buys the land, and hires the architect. When the project is completed, each individual resident then “buys” their house from the LLC, and assumes responsibility for their own mortgage.

Most cohousing groups, at some point in their discussions, bring up the possibility of organizing their community as a cooperative. In this ownership structure, the entire community is owned by all of the residents as a nonprofit corporation, and each household buys a share in the corporation equivalent to the price of their home. Philosophically, a cooperative seems to be an ideal structure for a cohousing community. As one resident put it, “In a sense, I own everybody’s unit. I’m responsible for everyone’s unit working. It has a different feeling.”

Although cooperatives are a proven form of home ownership, American banks are generally wary of financing them. Even the National Cooperative Bank (NCB), which was created to support cooperatives, will not provide complete construction financing and offers only a limited range of loans. As a result, most cohousing projects have been set up as condominiums, a structure that banks and city officials already understand. Structuring the project as a condominium development doesn’t seem to have any effect — negative or positive — on the success or failure of community building. Most groups meet twice a month for about a year to develop the project.

In the early stages, monetary cost is not at issue. Time is the issue. Specifically, time spent in meetings for the group to come to consensus over any given issue. Since community consensus is a cornerstone of the cohousing concept (and is often a new concept to all involved), it is no surprise that the number one concern about cohousing has to do with meeting time. This is perfectly understandable. People, from their own experience, know that achieving consensus is difficult enough in a single household. But a community of 20 households who are just getting to know each other? How is that even possible? First and foremost, each household or individual must understand that when meetings take too long, the value of the community diminishes. Each must learn not to make a mountain out of a molehill, and to trust others to do things without requiring the involvement of the entire group.

Committees ebb and flow as required. If something needs to be done, a few people get together and do it and call themselves a committee. When no longer needed, they dissolve. Some form of this is engaged throughout the development process on into residence. Fundamental to all cohousing is the concept that everyone who wishes to participate in making a decision can do so. In other words, everyone has a say in the business at hand, if they so desire. Thus, a clear decision-making process, based on consensus, is the first step in ensuring the complete involvement of all. When everyone is involved, people get to know each other quite well, and this fosters community. (Later, key items for the group to agree on include everything from when to meet, how often and when to eat together, etc.)

In urban and suburban areas, sites are often expensive and hard to find, and competition for appropriate sites can be fierce. Core groups consisting of just a few households have to compete with experienced developers; and developers who are familiar with the steps involved in securing land can act quickly to make decisions and put up option money. In rural areas, zoning, septic system requirements, and the cost of off-site infrastructure improvements can rule out many otherwise ideal sites. All these challenges make finding and securing a site a watershed moment in the cohousing development process.

The Municipality. Be it within a city’s limits or in unincorporated land, once a senior cohousing group identifies a potential site for their community, it’s time to get local officials involved. The local municipality plays an important role early on in the process in terms of accommodating for zoning regulations, public service availability, cost feasibility considerations, and more. Misconceptions about cohousing persist; people often think that “cohousing” is another name for “hippie commune,” straight out of the 1970s. It is important that the municipality gets a realistic picture of what senior cohousing actually is.

If you can get a slate of key local officials “sold” on the idea of the project early on, both already committed and potential residents will feel more secure going forward. It is a comfort to know that local officials won’t hold up, pick apart, drive the costs up, or block a project before it really even starts. While it is extremely useful to have all the bureaucrats on board, it is not absolutely essential. Too often they are the last people to “get” it. Luckily, in our private enterprise system, one can propose anything, and — with enough tenacity and public support — champion it through. It’s not unusual to be voted down 2-3 at the first hearing or two, only to win 5-0 by the third hearing.

A detailed design program is important.  New members to the group (joining after the design program is finished) will be able to see how thorough the group has been and won’t be tempted to backtrack. For instance, when Larry, the new participant, asks, “Did you consider how big the front porches should be?” Sandra, who was there when the issue was discussed, can reply, “Yes, let’s look at the program to see what decision was made.” A membership committee should be charged with the very important task of carefully walking new members through the decisions that already have been agreed to. It’s not enough just to hand them the program. It’s best to take them out for coffee and walk them through each line item.

The architectural design starts with the design of the overall site, determining where to place buildings, identifying areas to keep open, locating the common house, orienting the buildings. We address the site plan first because its configuration relates to key questions about feasibility and design, and it will be required for the city planning approval process. The site plan will show the location of the potential common amenities, the number and type of houses, the number of parking places, and so forth, and costs can be explored. Once the site is laid out, we proceed to the specifics for the design of the common house.

It is extremely helpful to have the common house design precede the design of the individual private houses because once group members understand the amenities featured in the common house, they will be able to see how the common house will supplement and become an extension of the private houses. People are much more comfortable with smaller private houses once they see that the common house will contain guest rooms or suites, laundry facilities, entertainment rooms, a sewing room, and other amenities, as well as a gourmet kitchen and large dining/living space that will accommodate a twice-a-year party or family gathering as well as community dinners several times a week. Once the common house is designed, the private house discussions typically go quite smoothly and rapidly.

The most effective participatory design processes recognize both the value of resident input and where it should be limited. How much influence residents want over the design, and where they should step back, is the art of the process. The group should, of course, be involved in the establishment of design criteria. Many past participants, however, recommend leaving most technical and aesthetic decisions to the architect, since it is almost impossible for most groups to agree among themselves on these more subjective issues, and the architect must be kept solely on the hook for the technical solutions.

Brainstorm, discuss, and decide on the activities between the houses that facilitate community and individual goals (sitting and talking, gardening, washing the car, playing games, hanging out the clothes, drinking a pot of tea, laughing, etc.). • Establish which activities require their own place (e.g. parking lot, gathering nodes, common terrace, clothesline, swimming pool, bocce ball court, common garden, private front porch, private front yard, or private backyard). • Establish where activities occur that don’t need their own place (e.g. car washing at the car park, basketball court at the overflow car park). •

Create clear design criteria for each place (e.g. for the garden: fruit trees and raised beds, a watering feature, compost, greenhouse, tool shed, south facing, gathering place, picnic table). More specific decisions are usually established later by a committee; the type and quantities of fruit trees, for example, would be a gardening committee decision. • Establish the character of each space, where each space is located in relation to other places, and the details of each place. • Establish optimal distances between houses (front door to front door). • Use wooden blocks to represent houses on a scaled survey of the site to locate houses, parking, garden, picnic area, bocce ball, etc., based on the above criteria.

Circulation to the individual houses from the parking areas and the main pedestrian entrances into the development should be centralized along a limited number of paths in order to increase the chances for neighbors to pass one another and to help maintain privacy on the back sides of the houses. Site plans with the clarity of a central street or courtyard work particularly well at promoting such encounters. When houses are scattered around the site, connected by a multitude of small pathways, no single route gets used enough to ensure that people will actually meet other people. With centralized circulation, life unfolds between the houses.

Car access and parking have a major impact on every site plan and are often the first aspects considered in an architectural design. Almost without exception, cohousing developments are pedestrian-oriented, with the parking relegated to the periphery of the site. Car-free pedestrian lanes and courts are essential to creating places where everyone can move about relaxed and worry-free. Clustering the parking also frees up the orientation of the houses, allowing them to optimally relate to people, the sun, and the terrain.

A few cohousing communities in cold climates have enclosed interior streets and courts, and the transition area between dwellings and common space, though reduced, still plays an important role. Not having to worry about putting on shoes or warmer clothing in order to go outside their home, people can move more casually from private to common areas. Private entrances can be set back from a covered street to provide vestibules for storing shoes and other outdoor clothing.

Casual sitting areas along the street are well used all day long. A private outdoor space is usually provided in the rear of the house, although even here there has proved to be little need for barriers such as fences or hedges. Usually, once residents get to know their neighbors, they find it unnecessary to define territory with fences. Visual privacy can be provided with plantings, and if at some point later residents feel the need to install fences, they will have a better idea of where and how high they should be.

Typical Common House Kitchen Characteristics

A. If there is a happy interface, a warm and inviting space open to, but not within the kitchen activity, then this will be the most utilized place on the entire site. It makes for a more open kitchen where people will come to talk to the cook, but not go into the kitchen and get in the way.

B. The countertop is open and unencumbered, making room for dishes ready to go out to dining and dirty dishes coming back to the kitchen. This eliminates unnecessary walking around the bar, especially when two people are working together. One person puts things on the bar, and another puts them on the table.

C. A cart takes things to the table and brings them back efficiently. Clean dishes go from the dishwasher to the cart, ready to go directly to the table the next day. There is no extra motion of putting the dishes onto the shelves, only to take them out again. No shelves, no wasted motion.

D. The four activity triangles (prep, cook 1, cook 2, clean) should not overlap; separating these areas makes the kitchen safer and more efficient.

E. A central island brings people and activities together — it facilitates community. You’ll find folks there drinking coffee ’til the wee hours if the kitchen is warm and cozy and attracts people. You’ll find the lights on there when they are out everywhere else (except maybe the sitting room). Common kitchens are designed to be centripetal, that is to bring people together, to make cooking social and fun.

F. Open cabinets: If there are no doors on the upper cabinets and if most utensils can be seen, working in the kitchen is much easier. We have stayed in the guest rooms of many common houses. In half of them, you could always tell when it was 4 p.m., because you could hear the noise as people went through the cabinets, trying to remind themselves where everything is because the last time they cooked was a month ago. Having things open and accessible, with a French utensil bar, pot rack over the island, or pullout shelves facilitates a j.i.t. kitchen (j.i.t. means “just-in-time,” in manufacturing parlance).

G. Floor drain: This saves the cook or assistant 15 minutes at the end of the evening — just when one needs it most. The last thing done is mopping the floor. The floor drain makes that a lot easier, and therefore helps keep the kitchen sanitary, too.

H. Industrial appliances: This is important. When it’s a quarter to six, you’re expecting 50 people for dinner, and the pasta water is not boiling, that “wooff ” of the 15,000 btu/hr burner is music to your ears. The dishwasher needs to take less than three minutes to get 20 dishes spotless, etc. But this in no way implies that the kitchen needs to feel cafeteria-like or institutional.

I. Refrigerator is near the entrance to the kitchen, so it is easily accessible to cooks as well as to people who want to access the refrigerator (to see if that orange drink they left there yesterday is still there, for example). Accessing the refrigerator will be the number one reason a non-cook/assistant will enter the kitchen. Non-cooks/assistants walking around the kitchen can be dangerous (sharp knives, hot pots, etc). Keeping them out of the cooks’ way is important. ☛

J. Wet bar to keep the thirsty out of the kitchen. Grabbing a glass is the second most common reason someone will wander through the kitchen. Placing glasses and drinking water just outside the kitchen, but close to the refrigerator and the dishwasher, is the most efficient solution.

K. Storage above the work areas for less frequently accessed items like salad and punch bowls.

L. Phone and cook books at hand.

M. Plate rack over the door to store and display large platters.

N. Probably most important is a cozy feel. People will want to be in an extraordinary space — and it is essential to the success of the kitchen that people will fundamentally want to be there. To accomplish this, the kitchen should be:  1. Open: To see and be seen. The pleasant distraction of saying hello to a passer-by. To be appreciated: “It sure smells good.” The cooks need to see folks and folks need to see them. Seeing them will attract other activities. Not seeing them facilitates an otherwise empty common house.

When cooking in an open kitchen, the cooks feel like the heroes for the day. In a closed kitchen, they feel like the servants. 2. Warm: Lots of natural wood; rounded wood edging at the countertop; wood cabinets (upper and lower). Besides the custom upper cabinets, I recommend a shaker lower, of which there are many reasonable manufacturers on the market; a deep, rich-colored linoleum for the floor; natural finish at the door to the pantry; wood baseboard; and other warm aesthetic touches.

3. Light: Natural light and supplementary lighting. Lighting needs to be strong at the task sites (100 foot candles) and softer for general lighting (50 foot candles). No ceiling-mounted fluorescents. 4. Gourmet in feel: “Wow, what a great kitchen,” — like you would find in a nice house, never commercial. Commercial kitchens are designed to keep everyone separated and task focused. Cohousing kitchens are designed to bring people together, to make cooking fun — like a French country kitchen — yet also very efficient.

The relationship between the sitting and dining areas is also important. Although these spaces should be within hearing distance from each other, they need to be separate enough so that people have a place to relax before or after dinner. With this in mind, sometimes people use the common lounge to get away from people, or as a place to stretch or practice a musical instrument. The common house can be a place to go when one needs to “get out of the house.

Guest rooms in senior common houses are usually larger than guest rooms in intergenerational cohousing. They are designed to allow for a family to have an extended stay, or even for caregivers to live in. They are more like suites, with their own bathroom and, with full use of the common kitchen, sitting room, laundry, and other amenities, they can feel like luxurious accommodations. Sometimes common houses have several guest units, some for guests and others for caregivers. Caregivers might move in to assist a resident in a typical caregiver capacity (dressing, showers, etc.) for, say, ten hours per week at first. Meanwhile, they might have a full-time or part-time job elsewhere, or they might be a student who needs the part-time employment and inexpensive housing.

When located in the common house, laundry facilities generate the second highest number of people-hours spent in that place (the only more-utilized space is the dining/kitchen area). As a result, this lonely chore instead becomes an opportunity to socialize, be it for a few minutes or an entire afternoon. You don’t have much of a community unless you have things in common, and like the washing rock by the river, common laundry machines help achieve that sense of community. In terms of economics, it’s more cost effective for a group to purchase a bank of machines than it is for each household to purchase its own set. Fewer machines purchased means less money spent, not to mention the per-household savings in construction costs.

Common washers are also a cost-effective way to collect gray water for irrigation purposes and conserve water. As well, the highest quality biodegradable detergents are affordable only when purchased in bulk (I’ve only seen these used when laundry facilities were located primarily in the common house). Laundry machines generate heat, and it’s more difficult for each household to eliminate (or cut down on its) air conditioner usage when washer-dryer heat is generated inside. Finally, the sound of a washer-dryer in your house is like a diesel truck idling in your living room, whereas the noise can easily be isolated in the common house. All of this is not to say that individual households in a senior cohousing community can’t have their own washer-dryer; many communities have made laundry hook-ups an option in the private residences. However, a truly usable, readily available, common laundry maximizes use of space while fostering community and ecological goals.

One of the primary problems with conventional senior housing today is its monotonous and impersonal feel.  Designing cohousing with the future residents is the only way to produce a meaningful community. It’s also the fastest way to do it. While this deliberate sharply focused private house programming process can lead to heated discussions, if done right, it avoids any serious acrimony and eliminates backtracking. Cohousing communities can save money by limiting the number of floor plans to one for each house size and by keeping finish options (flooring, cabinets, bathroom tiles, etc.) to a manageable number.

Residents may be able to accept such limitations if the units are initially designed so they can be easily expanded or customized later. New senior cohousing communities usually agree together on four to six different house plans for residents to choose from, and those who prefer a specific model work with the architect to refine that design. Individual households often make additional changes (by selecting options and upgrades such as flooring and appliances), so that in the end, every house is slightly different. Being realistic about what the future may hold, senior cohousers can choose which features to include at construction and which may be added later. The design should be readily adaptable for sudden and unexpected needs of residents, including the possibility that residents can easily swap units. While it is not essential to make every unit conform to the highest accessibility standards from the beginning, it is important that there be contingency plans.

A truly effective way to keep prices down is for residents to consciously limit the number of custom features incorporated into the design of their individual houses. The price of a custom house is substantially higher than that of production housing, where a few floor plans are repeated over and over. As one contractor explains, “If the builders have to think too much about what they are doing and keep track of what goes where and in which house, they charge more.” If not carefully planned for, “individualizing” can add considerably to construction costs. Undisciplined design efforts have been known to increase unit costs beyond some people’s reach.

Unfortunately, some cohousing groups have only discovered this the hard way. Minor custom touches such as an extra wall or different bathroom fixtures, though relatively inexpensive when viewed one-by-one, have a cumulative effect that can increase the cost of construction exponentially for everyone, since they effect larger design considerations and construction timelines. Several communities that allowed residents to incorporate numerous additions and changes into the design were shocked in the end by a construction price $5,000 to $10,000 higher than they had anticipated. Residents later calculated they would have been much better off if they had kept to standard designs, even if every household had later customized with its own contractors. Once construction begins, any subsequent changes, no matter how minor they appear, will increase the final price of the units.

Cohousing participation and co-care:

Membership of the committees is not fixed; members can move from one committee to another. This is a good way they found to split up their work: The Basic Committees: • The Outside Committee Responsible for: • Maintaining the outdoor areas: lawn mowing, hedge cutting, pruning and planting. • Upkeep of the driveway and parking lot. • Sweeping the flagstones on the footpath and the square. • Buying sand for the sandboxes and gravel for the road. • Cleaning the duck pond and the hedge around it. • Clearing snow. • Buying and maintaining the garden tools. •

The Garbage Room Committee Responsible for: • Cleaning the garbage room: removing old newspapers, cardboard boxes, sweeping the floor. • Ensuring that the garbage truck has clear access each week. • The Vegetable Garden Committee Responsible for: • Sowing, planting, weeding, harvesting of vegetables and flowers. • Beekeeping. • The Shopping Committee Responsible for: • Pricing and ordering of supplies, including beer and soda. • Keeping supplies in order, maintaining accounts • Cleaning and maintaining the common refrigerator and freezer. •

The Kitchen Committee Responsible for: • Buying and maintaining the service machines and cleaning supplies for kitchen and basement. • The Common Living Room Committee Responsible for: • Maintaining the hall and common rooms. • Washing sofa covers. • Keeping flowers and decorations in the common rooms. • Maintaining the furniture, lamps, and plants. • The Laundry Committee Responsible for: • Maintaining the machines and clotheslines. • Purchasing detergent. • Keeping the laundry and drying rooms clean. • The Social Committee Responsible for: • Organizing common parties and get-togethers, Christmas parties, etc. •

The Workshop Committee Responsible for: • Creating and maintaining a workshop for the residents of the cohousing community. • Maintenance of the common tools. • Assigning a resident to be responsible for overseeing the cleaning. • Cleaning Rules. • All common rooms, on the ground floor and basement must be cleaned every Sunday morning. • The cleaning team makes sure that everything has been cleaned thoroughly, including the kitchen, tables, floors, and window sills in the common living room, the staircase, and the bathroom in the hall. •

Kitchen Rules The cooks: • Decide the menu and post it on the kitchen message board as early as possible. The cooks shop for, cook, and serve the meal, and keep receipts for reimbursement. • Set the tables. • Clean and do the dishes; put crockery and cutlery back into place. • Ensure that the dining room is cleaned up, floor swept, and tables wiped clean. The cooks put buckets of soapy water out on the tables, and the residents clean their own tables. The chairs are put back after the floor has been swept. Empty beer and soda bottles are put in boxes under the kitchen table, and wine bottles are put in the bottle containers. • Toss out the leftovers, if none of the residents want them. Feed for the chicken must be put in their respective bowls and taken out to them. • Clean the kitchen floor, and the big trash bag must always be taken to the trash room.

It is not quite as necessary to absolutely fix the level of cooperation ahead of time, provided all members of the community can agree on a plan for working out issues in an ad hoc fashion, whenever problems arise. A smart list (an agreed-on plan) covers basic issues like who maintains what and when and who belongs to which committees (finance, social, kitchen, etc.). What agreements the Danes do have, they hold close and dear: “You have to cook dinner every six weeks; you have to belong to a management committee; you have to participate in four work days per year. In other words, once it’s agreed to, we adhere to it — and if there are any exceptions at all, we have agreed to those as well.

Some of the issues about eventual co-care that might be addressed are: • What are the extents and limits to care that residents should be expected to provide to other residents? At what point can an individual say, “No, I can’t do that”? • How are the costs of outside caregivers shared? • When residents become seriously ill, under what circumstances should they move out? • What amount of work (chores, etc.) should be required of each resident.

Should it be dependant on age? Length of residence in the community? (Often it averages about 20 hours a year of required time.) Usually, everyone can do — and enjoys doing — something, from telephone reminder calls, to shopping, to physical work. If residents can’t do all of their hours, can they pay an hourly fee, and if so, how much? • How often can ill residents expect to have people checking in on them? • What are the rules for new residents entering senior cohousing? Are there age limits? Health requirements? • How does the money work (dinners, supplies, insurance, guests, etc.)? • Who pays for the rental unit that one person’s caregiver has occupied for two months?

These are examples of the kinds of issues to address. Residents should consider enough scenarios to feel comfortable. That said, I often argue that people who are new to the cohousing concept should just take a deep breath and relax. After they experience the upside of living in a cohousing community, they often discover that, in retrospect, they worried too much about these issues. But, since it takes time to get a project built, talking over these items gives an excuse to get together. Planning for Acute Disability If the group wants to, it is sometimes helpful to consider hypothetical cases based on plausible “fourth quarter” scenarios.

For example, consider Joe Smith, a previously healthy 60-year-old in a senior cohousing community, who has a sudden stroke. With his right side paralyzed, he can’t dress himself. He may not be able to talk coherently for a while. He cannot do anything that requires the coordination of both hands. All maintenance tasks are out for him, perhaps permanently. How do the routine tasks that he was happily performing get shifted around to other seniors? Must Joe hire an outsider to mow the lawn?

Of course, these are minor issues compared to Joe’s healthcare needs. But when Joe gets out of the hospital and wishes to return home, does co-care in senior cohousing include requesting, or assigning, another person or two to help him to dress in the morning and undress in the evening? Can Joe make it to the common house for dinner? Can he cook for himself? Who might bring him three meals a day, or stock his fridge with microwaveable frozen dinners as a fallback? Who will take charge of installing the extra safety bars for the shower? Does he need a wheelchair?

Who is going to take him to physical therapy sessions at the medical clinic two or three times per week, perhaps for months? Maybe it will be someone from the group or maybe not. While it’s key to avoid overburdening the individuals within the group, it is encouraging to see how in a village, it’s just natural to help out. While the questions are many, the answer is straightforward: yes, cohousing residents can be counted on to do some of these tasks — which ones depends on the agreement. Most likely, the cohousers will take care of a couple of tasks; relatives and friends will do others; insurance will take care of a couple; some will be hired out.

Cohousing links

— Listen to CBC radio show about Harbourside, Sooke BC: BC seniors build a new way to age in place  or the PBS program about places in Denmark and the US:

— Harbourside’s website: This website has videos, floorplans, and lots of detail about the process. Harbourside required a $20k deposit, and all prospective residents must attend a weekend course.  Planning meetings were 1 weekend/month for three years.  You didn’t have to attend meetings, but decisions would be made for you if you skip.They decided on 5 sizes of unit, from small 1 bed to 2bed+den, average price 374k.

— Ronaye Matthew is a cohousing consultant who worked with Harbourside and most of the other cohousing projects in Canada; her website:

— Cohousing consultants in Canada also include:  Durrett sells THE DEFINITIVE SENIOR COHOUSING POWERPOINT PRESENTATION for $99.95USD:

— has a list of intentional communities, with details on each:

— The founders of the US cohousing movement have information here:

— Elderspirit is one of the first senior cohousing communities:

— Bryan Bowen is a Boulder architect who specializes in cohousing:

— look at

— Canadian Senior Cohousing site

— AARP backgrounder

— There are courses, and holds annual conferences (May 2017 – Nashville) to help people get started., and most existing communities are happy to show you around and answer questions.

— gives answers to some typical questions.  Their bylaws are online at:

— One Toronto cohousing project in the planning stages lists their consultant as:

— There is a group trying to start up in Toronto:

— Solterra has a model for a smaller group ( page) which doesn’t require rezoning, because it is a single kitchen home with multiple owners (as tenants in common); ownership portion can be freely sold.  They renovate existing homes to their model and provide nursing care to various need levels: They offer courses, a turnkey franchise option, and details about their various projects, which are designed for small, rural Ontario communities.

— Similarly, , Caledon, or Durham – small complexes with private single (tiny) or double (larger) suites, with communal areas, and these aren’t owned, but are rented (from $1800/month).  Both of these are in communities of about 2500 people, which is the same size as Lakefield.  They are intriguing because their model is of a smaller group of people (10-14) who have lower costs because they have very limited private facilities (no kitchen, dining or personal outdoor seating area), but because of the small size, the communal facilities can be used by the residents as if they were their own.

They see themselves as a self-selected family, which is essentially what we want.  They turn two singles into a double by just opening a door and turning one sleeping area into a living area for two; they keep two bathrooms.  We might want to do something similar, but with an option to turn the second bathroom into a kitchenette for the double units.  Both singles and couples can choose whether they want the cheaper single unit or the larger double unit, and these can be reworked for future tenants needs. Personally, even if I was on my own, I think I would want my own private living space and at least a kitchenette.

— has a free open source set of programs to run a cohousing website

— The people who run this blog have visited a bunch of different communities, including the Nyland one that Kris visited — they have photos as well:

— They also visited River Rock Commons in Colorado, which consists of 34 homes near a park in Fort Collins:

— This is a good NYT piece on what it’s like living at Silver Sage:

— This community in Peterborough, New Hampshire is very different from most — the houses are huge: (it actually appears that the buildings are duplexes or quads, so the actual homes range from about 1000-2000sq ft)

— Duwamish is a community of 23 condo-style units in West Seattle:

— The Duwamish Facebook page has some more photos that give an idea of what it looks like:

— Touchstone is a community in Ann Arbor, with multiple apartment-style buildings set on 35 acres of land, with two ponds and a small forest. This listing for one their units has some photos that give an idea of how it is set up:

— This group describes initial and ongoing membership costs: and the basic function of the committees:

Globe articles on cohousing

Meet the new Golden Girls (and guys): How boomers are coming up with creative living arrangements


The Globe and Mail

Published Wednesday, Nov. 11, 2015 3:16PM EST

This is part of The Globe and Mail’s week-long series on baby boomers and how their spending, investing, health and lifestyle decisions could affect Canada’s economy in the next fifteen years. Is Canada ready for the boom?

For more, visit and on Twitter at #GlobeBoomers.

Marianne Kilkenny’s salad dressing recipe called for honey. She was all out, so she picked up her phone and texted. “Here are three women with honey at my door,” recalls Kilkenny, whose salad was dressed in less than five minutes. “Having proximity, having people close? You cannot buy that.”

Divorced with no children, Kilkenny shared her home in Asheville, N.C., with a parade of middle-aged housemates for four years. She kept a mother-in-law suite with its own kitchen, while her Golden Girls shared the rest of the house. Many were single women between 54 and 72, like herself, although a married couple and a single guy passed through, too. For Kilkenny, 66, living with this “chosen family” was heartening. “I could sit at the dinner table with somebody and say, ‘How was your day?’ Or soup would magically appear in my fridge because somebody made too much,” she says. “Little blessings that add up.”

Kilkenny now wants to go bigger: She is planning her own “pocket neighbourhood,” a pedestrian-centric settlement with 12 small cottages, a 4,000-square-foot communal space and shared garden. She envisions a place where interdependence among residents is key, with people relying on those they know and love – not on medical staff.

“I can’t count on the government,” says Kilkenny, who founded the organization Women for Living in Community to advocate for alternative housing options such as the ones she dreams up. “Us boomers, we’re not afraid of being the first at something, or being accused of being self-indulgent. … We’re vocal and we know what we want.”

Baby boomers have long rejected tradition. Now, some are hoping to re-invent yet another stage in life: old age. As the first wave of boomers retires, some are writing a new script for what comes next. While their parents also sought to avoid institutions, most did not think further than the family home. They “aged in place,” often suffering social isolation and reduced mobility, especially after the death of a spouse.

Their children do not want to grow old alone. They want to age well in community, not in a pod in the sky or a rural home on the peripheries. The buzzword is “interdependence:” You want your own space but you also want to know – and to some degree, depend on – your neighbours. These boomers want someone to be there for them before a nurse is needed, which may be a while given their unprecedented health and longevity.

To that end, alternative housing arrangements are popping up all over North America, with a small but determined cohort – many of them single, divorced and widowed – thinking up many of the setups themselves. Harkening back to the communes and co-ops of the boomers’ youth, about a dozen “co-housing” communities have sprouted across Canada, with dozens more in the planning stages.

Most consist of small individual apartments or houses with large shared kitchens, dining rooms, terraces and gardens where neighbours willingly interact. For those who want the energy of the young, there are multi-generational communities that welcome families. For others who would rather splurge on yoga mats, elevators and respite suites than on playgrounds, certain developments are reserved for empty-nesters. They are planned, owned and managed by residents, not outsiders.

Those on more of a budget are starting to take up with housemates in shared homes, à la The Golden Girls (and boys). Many are hiring housekeepers to avoid bickering over the chores; when the time comes, many are also planning to bring in caregivers, some of whom might live on-site in special suites.

What the trailblazers of this movement have in common is this: They saw what happened to their parents and do not want it to happen to them. Ferociously independent, boomers are saying “no thanks” to expensive retirement and nursing homes where itineraries are set and staff call the shots.

“There are a lot of boomers who do not go happy into this night,” says Janet Torge, Montreal founder of Radical Resthomes. “You don’t want us in your institutions, really. We are not going to be docile.”

The Montreal organization (tagline: “A Complete Re-think for a New Generation”) helps people who want to bring community into their lives for their senior years. Torge grew up in a big family and says she likes “circus” around her; at 68, she hopes soon to live with two or three other boomers. “It’s a completely different way of dealing with your old age,” she says of shared homes and co-housing colonies.

The movement traces its roots to Denmark, where multi-generational communal homes began appearing 40 years ago. California architect Chuck Durrett exported the concept to the United States in the 1980s, when he coined the term “co-housing.” Today, the focus is shifting to seniors. The idea is to age in dignity – independently but with communal support.

“At its best, this system works even better than only relying on a spouse because you have a whole group of people and no one is overly burdened,” says Bella DePaulo, author of How We Live Now: Redefining Home and Family in the 21st Century, which traces the shift away from the nuclear family home. A social scientist at the University of California, Santa Barbara, DePaulo finds the level of innovation and experimentation remarkable. “You can meet your friends and eat and drink and walk home across a stretch of green.”

For Margaret Critchlow, co-housing is “a livelier way of growing old together” that does not stress the aging part. In January, the 68-year-old anthropologist and her husband, John, are slated to move to Harbourside, a deluxe co-housing community in Sooke, B.C. The average price for one of the 31 homes is $375,000. Individual units, some of them rental, are only about 845 square feet, but all residents have views of the water, gardens, a wharf and a 4,000-square foot common house complete with a kitchen and a library.

So far, the future residents range in age from 48 to their late 80s, including three families of more than one generation. One member of each household is asked to take a weekend course on the core values of co-housing, the guiding principle being “voluntary, neighbourly mutual support” among residents.

“It starts with the recognition that we’ve been doing this as neighbours for centuries in our culture – supporting each other,” says Critchlow, who has noticed that giving is not as hard as receiving for the boomers. “This is really hard for us: to be open to accepting support and care from other people. We’re practising.”

More than anything else, baby boomers are shifting social expectations of what a neighbour should be. In Saskatoon, the three-year-old Wolf Willow Cohousing complex is designed to encourage interaction. It has 4,500 square feet of common space and a whiteboard that fills everyone in on what is happening, from movie nights to communal meals.

Thirty-five people from the ages of 55 to 85 live here – half singles and half couples. Currently, one person is recovering from major heart surgery upstairs; the others are informally making meals and ferrying them up.

“We’re not a nursing home. We are here to age in place together and to watch out for each other,” said Christine Smillie, a 62-year-old Wolf Willow resident. When Smillie’s husband, Glenn, discovered a neighbour had pneumonia, he drove her to the hospital. The community has helped each other through three knee replacements in the span of five months. “There were lots of meals, driving people places and going and helping them put their socks on,” Smillie chuckles. “It’s just the way I like to live. This is the way it should be. You take care of each other.”

Some advocates believe women in particular will benefit from these communal initiatives. Beverly Suek, founder of the Women’s Housing Initiative Manitoba, notes that women live longer, tend to have lower retirement income and end up alone more often than men, who frequently marry younger women post-divorce.

Since April, Suek, a 69-year-old widow, has lived with two divorced women in their 50s in an elegant shared home on a leafy street in Winnipeg. A fourth divorcée arrives in January, and they are hoping for a fifth. Each will have her own bedroom. The kitchen, where they take turns cooking, and bathroom are shared, as are the expenses, including for a housekeeper and someone who mows the lawn and shovels the driveway.

Suek met her roommates through word of mouth and screened candidates with interviews and a questionnaire to gauge their values on neatness, food, guests and “community-mindedness.” Like other boomers, Suek said she made the unconventional choice to live with older roommates because she is not a fan of “paternalistic” institutions for the elderly.

“I don’t want to spend my time making Styrofoam snowmen – the arts and crafts thing, you know? We talk politics, social change, what’s going on in the news. I’ve learned stuff I never knew before because I’m in this constant learning process,” she says.

Canada counts about eight million baby boomers born here and another 1.5 million who are immigrants, according to the Canadian Association of Retired Persons. In 2011, Statistics Canada found that boomers made up nearly 30 per cent of the population; the oldest are now 69. The ones considering these alternative arrangements for their old age are thinking ahead – way ahead.

They are something of an anomaly in a generation that has always considered itself “forever young” – many boomers quip about never retiring and most would prefer not to contemplate their senior home options just yet. While denial is rampant, given the critical mass of this demographic – it has been dubbed both a shockwave and a “pig in a python” – boomers would be wise to plan ahead.

“You have to make this move before you’re ready for it,” Torge stresses. “When you actually need people around you, you’re probably already sick. You’re trying to do it before you need anybody.”

While their residents love them, these unconventional homes face hurdles, from a dearth of skilled project managers to affordability. Without government or foundational support, it is hard to build places with so much common space below market rate (one idea is retrofitting existing social housing and condos into more community-minded places to live). Developers and government agencies have not exactly clued in to the bulge of boomer retirees heading their way.

“They still see ‘seniors’ as 80 and over,” Torge says. “We’re not even on their radar.”

The co-housing rules

There are four key tenets of co-housing, says Janet Torge, Montreal founder of Radical Resthomes, which hosts workshops on alternative housing choices like co-ops, cohousing and shared homes.

  • The spaces are managed by the people who live there, without outside directive. “It doesn’t mean that you always get your way,” says Torge. “There’s always going to be compromise but you’re in charge of your own life.”
  • Residents respect and look out for each other. “Every time you need something, you don’t call a nurse. It’s building of community again,” says Torge. Cohousing experts recommend that values and expectations for the home are stated explicitly, even in document-form (hot zones typically include cleanliness, chores, noise and guests). Some people screen incoming housemates using interviews; others go so far as to host seminars on “non-violent communication.”
  • When neighbourly “co-care” becomes too much, professional caregivers are summoned to come to the ailing person, not the other way around.
  • Residents age among community, not alone. “We die in our own beds, not in institutions, as possible,” says Torge.

The 21st-Century commune


Special to The Globe and Mail

Published Friday, May 12, 2006 12:00AM EDT

It’s a sunny day in Roberts Creek, and Kurt Grimm is helping landscape the new common house. He takes off his gloves to shake hands, then heads to a conical pile of fresh topsoil and sits down on the dirt. An associate professor of Earth and Ocean Sciences at the University of British Columbia, Mr. Grimm doesn’t miss a beat when asked what drew him to Roberts Creek Cohousing.

“Climate change and ecosystem collapse are a symptom of a deeper social problem,” he says, squinting into the sun. “The highly individuated lifestyle we’re leading is driving the problem. It’s the huge-footprint lifestyle of the wealthy north, and we moved here to get away from it, towards authentic rather than material fulfillment.”

He considers for a moment, then smiles. “Of course, that’s not what everyone would say we’re doing. My wife would say we’re doing this because it’s great for us and our kids.”

If phrases like ‘authentic fulfilment’ sound like a throwback, Mr. Grimm is unconcerned. “I’m not a noble savage, back-to-the-good-old-days type. But if we’re going to find a new way of living together that works, this is very close.”

Mr. Grimm and his family are one of 31 families at Roberts Creek Cohousing, an intentional community in Roberts Creek on the Sunshine Coast. It’s the first rural co-housing project in Canada, and one of about 40 such communities established in North America. Completed in December of 2004, RCC is also one of the newest developments.

Co-housing began in Denmark — under a name considerably more difficult to pronounce — over thirty years ago. By clustering homes around shared gathering areas, it attempts to overcome the isolation of single-family housing, use less land and resources, and return village-like interaction to urban and suburban life. It was introduced to North America in 1988 by architects and authors Kathryn McCamant and Charles Durrett.

As a rural development on 20 acres, RCC is something of a co-housing rarity. But in terms of structure, it’s mainline orthodox, with all the defining attributes set out by Ms. McCamant and Mr. Durrett. With the help of several architects and consultants, residents made all design decisions. Homes are clustered to encourage personal interaction, in this case on 11-by-30-metre lots around a 2,900-square foot central common house (with a kitchen, children’s room, guest suite, office, laundry, and, not least, a movie room with a big-screen projector). Decisions are made by consensus, and houses are privately owned in a bare-land strata, fee-simple arrangement.

The homes themselves vary from one to four bedrooms, and customization was kept to a minimum. They are small by North American standards: two-bedroom homes are 860 square feet, three-bedrooms run to 1,300 square feet.

Most are less than five metres apart. In addition to promoting community, clustering enabled savings on sewage, water and underground telephone infrastructure. It also allowed five acres of forest to be preserved in a land trust.

Aside from Hardiplank fly-ash cladding and non-toxic interior paints, RCC is fairly light on ecological architecture (which “smacked right up against affordability” in the words of a resident). The development was planned for minimal impact on the trees, however, so that only 20 per cent had to be cut down to make room for the homes. Porch railings, stairs and eave supports were milled on-site from the 150 cedars that were cut down.

Along the six-year road to completion, a core group of six to fifteen pioneers had to form a corporation and endure a gruelling series of public meetings to justify zoning variances. They also had to convince the surrounding Roberts Creek community they weren’t real estate profiteers or the leading edge of a wave of suburban gentry.

“It was a torturous process at times,” says Gary Kent, an instructor at Inside Passage, a fine woodworking school based in Roberts Creek. Natives of the Sunshine Coast for close to 30 years, Mr. Kent and his partner Stacia Leech were the originators of the RCC project. “Roberts Creek sees itself as countercultural, back to the land, and co-housing is seen as urban and middle class. There’s a tendency to want to close the gates. But eventually there was a terrifically positive feeling toward the project.”

Mr. Kent and Ms. Leech learned about co-housing from Alan Carpenter of Windsong, a community in Langley. With the help of Ronaye Matthews of Cohousing Development Consulting, the core members — the “burning souls,” as Mr. Kent says — slowly gathered community support, a financially feasible development plan and a critical mass of committed investors.

“It’s been a long exercise in determination, perseverance, sticking to one’s ideals, and the ability to sit through endless meetings — all day, every Saturday, for two years,” said one member with a mixture of pride and disbelief.

And now, says Mr. Kent, the real work is beginning. “We thought once we had everything built, the hard work was behind us. But the real big job is sustaining the community, so it doesn’t fall back into that abyss of just a bunch of houses and folks not communicating. It takes work.”

The central neighbourhood lane is mandated as car-free, and on this weekend afternoon is alive with people wielding shovels, rakes and wheelbarrows, as well as kids returning from the Sunday hockey game in the lower cul-de-sac. While the presence of neighbours is delightful, says Mr. Kent, it can be challenging. “The balance of individual and community is always in your face here. We used to live on a property by ourselves, so it was a challenge to adjust, looking out our front window seeing people all the time. It’s not for everyone, it’s quite cheek by jowl.”

Dave and Kate Barratt moved to RCC from their home in New York. After a year and a half, they’ve moved out and put their co-housing home on the market. “I work full time and I travel a lot,” says Ms. Barratt, “so when I got back I’d want to relax. But we’re so close to each other, you see people all the time and you’re never really alone — I just didn’t feel I could relax. There was no private place for me to be.”

Interpersonal issues were also a major challenge. “There are a lot of people who bring their unhappy childhoods and emotional stuff to the community meetings. I liked working together with people, and being able to walk out of your house and have ready-made friends. But I guess the emotional healing people wanted to happen, I just wasn’t there for it.”

In addition to unwanted emotional intensity, for Mr. Barratt the small-footprint houses were a downside. “We moved from a larger house and had to downsize. Nothing we owned fit in the house, and we felt very crammed and temporary in the space. It didn’t feel right for us from the time we moved in.”

Mr. Kent guides me up a path along Clack Creek, part of the mature second-growth cedar forest that has been preserved in trust. Considering the idea of privacy, he confides that he takes this path to the common woodworking shop at the back of the property when he doesn’t want to see anyone. “If I walk up the main street, it can take me two hours to get to the shop,” he says with a laugh. “People come out of their houses and we end up talking or I end up helping them with some electrical or plumbing problem.”

Ms. Leech agrees that living in co-housing is not always a picnic, but is confident the work will pay off. “People are dealing with the major stress of moving and coming into an alien community. It really skews the first couple of years. But we’re beginning to see the potential now that those ripples are settling out. The rewards are as intense as the challenges. That’s what keeps me here, and keeps me in community.”

As my friends and I grow older, we’re setting our sights on communal living


Special to The Globe and Mail

Published Tuesday, Oct. 04, 2016 2:46PM EDT

Last updated Tuesday, Oct. 04, 2016 2:46PM EDT

Facts & Arguments is a daily personal piece submitted by readers. Have a story to tell? See our guidelines

    A few years ago, four friends began a conversation: Here we are in our 50s and 60s, still active and (relatively) youthful, but all moving toward the day when we can no longer cling to our cherished independence. Retirement homes seem unappealing, nursing homes a last resort. Why not live together and support each other?

    It was casual at first, a bit of a joke. But we kept coming back to it. Finally, a few months ago, we went off for a weekend together to come up with a plan.

    We began with our reasons for wanting to consider this seemingly offbeat idea. What attracts us to living together?

    First, community. André Picard, among others, has written about the extensive research showing that community is vital to health. Being connected – to family, friends, neighbours, a community group, a running club, a mosque – can add years to your life, studies have found.

Second, a smaller carbon footprint. A smaller home envelope to heat and cool and a shared kitchen with fewer appliances than separate houses mean fewer greenhouse gases.

While affordability is not the key driver of our plan, we do expect living together to be more economical than our current, independent living arrangements.

Gradually, a rough plan came into focus. The house should have a front porch, one of us said (zeroing in on essentials!). It has to be downtown, we all agreed – downtown, walkable and close to transit.

Over the course of our weekend retreat, the conversation took some radical turns. Initially, we had imagined a series of neighbouring condos or other self-contained units, but as we talked further, we found ourselves more drawn to a truly shared space.

We realized, for example, that we want to eat dinner together more often than not. Most of us like to cook, and we all love to eat. So a big common kitchen is essential. We like to discuss stuff – just about any stuff – so we need places for conversation.

We have children and grandchildren, and love to entertain, so a guest suite is an obvious need. A media room. A wine cellar! As the common areas became more central to our discussion, the private areas became smaller. We now imagine each unit (person or couple) having private space of about 600 square feet, designed to suit individual preferences. Naturally, everything will be designed to accommodate “aging in place.”

At the end of the weekend, we had a three-page “proposal.” Confidently, we sent off a series of e-mails to friends who we thought might be interested.


Gradually, we realized that our months of casual conversation and our weekend of focused discussion had led us to ideas that might seem rather startling to anyone hearing them for the first time. It was almost as if we had suddenly interrupted a polite afternoon tea by suggesting group sex.

Our friends didn’t know how to react. “Lovely to hear from you,” one reply read, avoiding any mention of our proposal. “Hope to see you soon.”

Okay, maybe we should have eased into it more.

Others picked up on the architecture but not so much on the community. “Really interesting idea. We might consider it when we can’t manage the stairs any more.”

Okay, maybe we could have explained that part better. It’s not about the stairs.

Barring the unforeseen, each of us has decades of healthy living ahead of us. We don’t yet need any physical accommodations to our living space. So, why now? Why not wait until the stairs are too much for us? Simply put, it takes time to grow old together; it takes time to form community.

We have seen parents and older friends reluctantly accept the move into a retirement house full of strangers when they felt there was no other choice. But hanging on until there’s no choice can become a trap.

I recently heard about an elderly couple still living independently while coping with disabilities. He’s blind, she’s beginning to show signs of dementia. Together, they are fine: She can see where they are, he can remember why they’re there. But their independence is precarious. If either one were incapacitated, neither could function alone.

We are choosing to form community now, while we can still run up a flight of stairs, so that later, when our steps are more tentative, we will have friends within reach.

Of course, we also have our share of the baby-boomer attitude that says, if you don’t like the choices on offer, demand something else. Not happy with retirement homes? Fine, we’ll reinvent them for ourselves.

However, this is not truly new, it’s a modern variation of the extended family that was common a few generations ago. It’s a bit countercultural, in the face of the North American ideal of independence. We’re okay with that. We have come to see interdependence as more desirable.

So, we’re continuing to explore the idea and have created a Facebook page,, in the hope of expanding the conversation – and, perhaps, the community.

Douglas Tindal lives in Toronto


A look at co-ownership


This was taken from Vicki Borenstein’s website in 2017

“Virtually identical to condominium ownership in most respects, co-ownership offers you all of the advantages of a traditional real estate  acquisition except one: price!

Imagine owning a one bedroom apartment at Yonge & Bloor, Yonge & Eglinton, Spadina Village, The Annex or prestige Forest Hill for UNDER $250,000.  Well with co-ownership you can.

Co-ownership is one of the great real estate secrets in the Toronto real estate market place. A market that has seen borderline absurd increases in property prices during the past 20 years.  

 Prices that have put well-located, spacious apartments in beautifully appointed buildings out of reach for most middle-income individuals and families wanting to live in Toronto.

Co-ownership is the answer.

There are about 50 Toronto prime location co-ownership buildings which are listed below. Many of them are small buildings with virually no owner turnover but half of them have regular availability. Many are sold exclusivley and are not offered on MLS or

And as one of the few real estate agents in Toronto specializing in this extraordinary niche market, I am in the best possible position to help you find that affordable Toronto central apartment of your dreams.

The City of Toronto prohibits the conversion of apartment buildings to condos in order to protect the number of affordable and mid-range rental units in the city. Many developers have got around the issue by converting rental buildings to co-ownership. Legally, there’s a difference but owners wouldn’t see any difference in the day-to-day operation which is primarily the same as a condo.

The board of directors, building management, common expenses, maintenance fees, yearly financial audits, individual mortgages and the right to sell, lease or mortgage units without consent of other residents, are the same. One slight difference is that condominium owners receive individual tax bills. Co-owners pay their share of property taxes as part of their monthly maintenance fees.

While this can make co-ownership monthly maintenance fees appear higher than those of a condominium, the difference is largely illusory.

An important difference is that traditional bank financing is impossible to get for co-ownerships. This has nothing to do with their soundness as an investment. But since only about 50 buildings in Toronto are co-ownerships, they represent too small a sector for the big banks to cover.  

Co-ownerships do not qualify for CHMC high ratio mortgage insurance. The theory is that CHMC being a government backed insurance underwriter don’t want to encourage the practice of taking rental units out of the residential home market.

The good news is that several reputable trust companies and credit unions will provide  mortgages for co-ownerships, and at interest rates often better than those offered by the banks. DUCA, Equitable, Alterna, Italian Credit Union and the Toronto Star Credit Union have the biggest share of the co-ownership mortgage market in Toronto. The Italian Credit Union, The Toronto Star Credit Union and T.D. Canada Trust also offer financing to selected unique properties.

Do not confuse Co-ownership with Co-op!

Martin Rumack, is a Toronto lawyer with years of experience in co-ownerships. He teaches a course on the topic for Toronto real estate agents. He explains the differences between condo ownership, co-operative ownership and co-ownership: 

With Condos, you purchase a unit in a building and gain a percentage interest in the common areas.You receive a deed to the unit you have purchased. With Co-ops, you purchase shares of a private corporation that owns and manages the building. You also receive a leasehold occupancy interest in a specific unit and the exclusive right to use it. You do not receive a deed; you receive shares in the corporation.

With Co-ownership you purchase an undivided percentage of the building that is registered on title (your name is on the legal ownership document), along with the exclusive right to occupy  a specific unit and you receive a deed setting out the percentage interest you have acquired.

With condos and co-ownerships (but not co-ops), you can mortgage your interest in the property without getting consent from the board of directors. Co-ownership is a hybrid between co-op and condo,” Mr. Rumack says. Buyers don’t have to be concerned as long as they do their due diligence and review disclosure documents carefully with a lawyer knowledgeable about co-ownerships.




1840 Bathurst Street

2400 Bathurst Street

2550 Bathurst Street

2603 Bathust Street

1901 Bayview Ave.

21 Benlamond Avenue

580 Christie Street

160 Donway West

358,360,362,370 Dundas Street East

1011-1045 Dundas Street East, Mississauga

660 Eglinton Aveune West

707 Eglinton Aveune West

717 Eglinton Aveune West

30 Elm Avenue

28 Glen Manor Road

1521 Glenfern

30 Gloucester Street

335 Lonsdale Avenue

291 Ontario Street

480 Oriolle Parkway

71 Jonesville Crescent

1377 Lakeshore Drive, Burlington

355 Lonsdale Avenue

60 Montclair Ave.

323 Queen Street East

35 Raglan Avenue

516 Riverside Drive

170 Roehampton Avenue

23-25 Scarborough Beach Blvd.

35-37 Scarborough Beach Blvd.

22 Shallmar Blvd. (converted to condo)

58 Sherwood Avenue

1275 Silver Spear Road

148 Soudan Ave.

720 Spadina Ave.

114 Vaughan Rd.

78 Warren Road

46 & 50 Wineva Aveue

5949 Yonge Street


Understanding condominiums and co-ownerships

Prepared By:

Martin K.I. Rumack – Barrister & Solicitor

2 St. Clair Avenue East, Suite 202

Toronto, Ontario, M4T 2T5

(416) 961-3441 Fax (416) 961-1045

Condominiums and co-ownerships are legal structures that define both the exclusive rights and the shared rights of individuals who purchase portions of buildings registered under these structures.

The following are important features of condominiums and co-ownerships for the purchaser:




  • Purchaser obtains ownership of individual unit (deed)
  • Purchaser obtains ownership of individual unit (deed)
  • Purchaser gains a percentage interest in the common areas of the building.
  • Purchaser gains exclusive right to occupy a specific unit through a registered Co-ownership Agreement and the provisions of the The Co-ownership Agreement
  • Purchaser gains a percentage interest in the common areas of the building.
  • Purchaser obtains ownership of a percentage interest in the common areas of the building.
  • Purchaser becomes a member of the Condominium Corporation which:

(a) manages the affairs of the building according to the Condominium Act, and more particularly the Declaration and the By-laws;

(b) represents the interests of the owners

  • Purchaser becomes a member of the Co-ownership Corporation which:

(a) manages the affairs of the building according to the Co-ownership Agreement, and more particularly the corporation by-laws and or private contracts;

b) represents the interests of the owners

  • Purchaser can individually finance his/her own unit
  • Purchaser can individually finance his/her own unit
  • Purchaser is assessed for percentage share (based on the size of unit in comparison to the whole building) of common expenses
  • Purchaser is assessed for percentage share (based on the size of unit in comparison to the whole building) of common expenses
  • Condominium Act requires a reserve monetary fund to be established for maintenance of building
  • Co-ownership agreement requires a reserve monetary fund to be established for maintenance of building
  • Purchaser can participate in management decisions by sitting on the Board of Directors and voting at Annual General Meeting
  • Purchaser can participate in management decisions by sitting on the Board of Directors and voting at Annual General Meeting
  • Purchaser is subject to the Declaration, rules and bylaws of the Condominium Corporation
  • Purchaser is subject to the Co-ownership Agreement rules and by-laws and other contractual documentation of the Co-ownership Corporation
  • Purchaser does not need consent of the other owners or the Condominium Corporation to sell, rent or mortgage his/her unit
  • Purchaser does not need consent of the other co-owners or Co-ownership Corporation to sell, rent or mortgage his/her unit. (Only a few Co-ownerships require a financial approval.)
  • Sale of unit is subject to receipt of an estoppels certificate which identifies any outstanding or pending payments, assessments or legal actions, re: the unit or Corporation
  • Sale of unit is subject to receipt of an estoppels certificate which identifies any outstanding or pending payments, assessments or legal actions, re: the unit or Corporation
  • Condominium Corporation has yearly audited financial reports issued to all owners and is managed by a professional Management Company.
  • Co-ownership has yearly audited financial reports issued to all owners and is managed by a professional Management Company




Vicki Borenstein, Broker of Record

Direct Line: 416-566-7795

Vicki Borenstein Real Estate Inc.,

2 Bloor Street West, Suite 700, Toronto, On. M4W3R1



Peterborough cohousing meeting

On December 27th, T. Alex, Becky, Mathew, Marc and Kris attended a meeting of the Peterborough Cohousing Incubator group.  This group was formed a few years ago by people who live in the Peterborough area and are interested in cohousing.  The group has, until now, had no clear agenda or schedule, and merely aimed to connect like-minded people.  

One of the founders is Scott Donovan, an architect who has been involved with cohousing projects at his previous firm in the States and has been educating on and encouraging the idea of cohousing since his return to Canada in 2014.  There were a series of meetings between 2014 and 2016, but nothing came of it, and things have been pretty quiet on the Peterborough cohousing front for about a year.  Scott organized this gathering to discuss moving forward with an actual project.

The meeting consists of about 26 people who gather at Alan and Linda Slavin’s place. The evening begins with a delicious potluck dinner and casual conversation before everyone is gathered together in a (sort of) circle.

Scott Donovan gives us a bit of background.  He tells us that there was a group in Peterborough in around 2014 thinking about an intentional eco-village.  He got involved and they were meeting monthly, but mostly just learning, nothing specific.  There was a core group of six or eight people for a while but then it dissipated.

Scott has come back to Canada from the US where he worked on cohousing projects, and has hosted educational events downtown about the topic.  The Peterborough Cohousing Incubator group has a Facebook page of about 100 members with an email database of about the same size, but there hasn’t been anything specific to move it forward.

Scott then tells us that Alan and Linda came to him with an idea and he suggested to them that they add a cohousing perspective to it. Alan says they’ve lived in their house for over 40 years, and are looking to move before they are forced to do so.  They want it to be a 10-minute walk to downtown, in a net-zero building if possible, with enough grounds that there could be gardens, a common house and individual living units.

Linda wants to include people who can’t afford to buy their own place.  She suggested that maybe people could contribute to a fund and that would subsidize places for others, and maybe the community could also have some rental units as well. If you have rent subsidy, etc. you can often get government grants. Scott points out that if you want to be close to downtown, the cost can be higher.

The Mount Community Centre on Monaghan was suggested as a possible location.

They have a number of existing buildings on a 10 acre site that used to be run by the Sisters of St. Joseph.  There’s an old convent that’s been turned into a community centre and there’s a new convent; the chapel has been decommissioned and turned into a community hall.  The non-profit organization that runs The Mount has similar goals to what Alan and Linda envision, and there might be a possibility they would let a cohousing group build on their property.  Rosemary says she believes the Mount would be a perfect spot; it has lots of land and they have shared principles.

Linda says a group in Toronto builds co-ops and finances them in such a way that single moms with kids can afford it. The group talks about the benefits of co-op vs. condo.  It is generally easier to get traditional financing for a condo than a co-op, but a co-op offers more control over who can join. Elaine, who lived for many years in WindSong Cohousing in BC, said that was a condo/strata model.  

WindSong had everyone join committees, and encouraged people to come to meetings, and people basically self-selected – only those who really wanted a cohousing community tended to move in. They had some renters, who also participated fully.  There were also a few people who didn’t participate, but they eventually moved out. It was multigenerational, and she and Larry liked that.

Barbara says that the Armour Heights public school is slated to be decommissioned.  The building itself may not be appropriate, but it is a large property in an intimate neighbourhood; next to it is a park, the river is right there, it is walking distance to downtown. Alan says the province is really pushing the idea of densification, so rezoning it for residential use might be easier now. Mark says that Peterborough is redoing its official plan, and also planning for an aging community, so now might be a good time to get involved in that.  

Ruth asks about those in the group who don’t currently own a home and can’t get a down payment, how would they get access? Alan says some might be rental units, Linda suggested maybe subsidization for a certain number of units, and Marc notes that the co-op model can allow for someone to buy in without having to get a mortgage. Linda says some co-ops in Toronto are financed via bonds. Vivien says The Mount did a bond issue to finance it but it was just a donation, you didn’t get ownership of anything. Elaine says that a certain proportion of the units at Windsong had to be sold below market value, something government often requires as a condition of zoning or finance.

A question comes up about caregiving. Elaine says that Windsong planned for physical accessibility but not medical care necessarily, and then someone got breast cancer and people burned out. Alan says the cohousing books suggest having a unit that can be used by family or by caregivers. Kris mentions the Danish seniors cohousing community in a town with a nursing school where the students got free housing in return for helping.

Lou says there seem to be two fundamental groups, one rural and one urban. He’s been a member of half a dozen groups and it seems like if you have a vision of something then people can decide whether they’re in or out; so what is the next step? Alan says the Danish model is to talk about what you want to do first and find out who is on board and then move to a proposal and so on.

Lou says that Denmark is a different country, he says successful projects seem to start with small group with vision and the resources to move something forward and then that attracts people, while groups that started larger would gradually lose people until there was a smaller group who could pursue a specific vision. However, the general consensus is that everyone wants to keep the discussion going with the entire group at this time.

Scott says there needs to be a commitment of time from people, and there needs to be regular meetings.  He can do virtual meetings at his office and the group can begin to talk with an eye to crafting a vision statement and a shared statement of principles.  Scott will contact everyone with the next meeting date, which will be sometime in mid-January.

Financial survey

Financial questions related to cohousing depend a lot on what model we choose to implement: In a co-op model, everyone buys shares in the entity that actually owns the property and/or holds the mortgage, and in a condo model, everyone owns their own individual unit and contributes to maintenance costs via fees etc.

The financial structure of each of these is different, so the financial burden on individual owners/members is also different. In a co-op, the group entity gets a mortgage, so the demand on an individual is relatively small — but co-op financing can be more expensive, because not as many financial institutions do it. Therefore the up-front financial commitment might be larger than some other models.

In a condo structure, each person or couple would have to come up with their own financing, but banks are more familiar with it so interest fees are likely to be lower. That means the down payment is likely to be smaller and future payments are likely to be smaller as well, which would make it easier for some people to handle.  It is also easier to sell a condo unit, since buyers are also more familiar with condos than co-ops.

The other important consideration is degree of control individuals and the collective have.  In a condo structure, because each unit is independently owned, the Condo Board has authority to spend the pooled maintenance funds and set day-to-day rules, they have no influence over new buyers. In a Co-Op, the Board has broader powers than the Condo Board, including the right to veto potential purchasers.

Although it’s still early in the process, most of us seem to be leaning towards the Co-op model because it suits the kind of community we want to create — i.e., it would make it easier to ensure that people joining were buying into the philosophy behind the community, etc. But more research probably needs to be done on what the concrete financial implications are of each model.

Here are some questions that might be helpful in order to determine which of these structures makes sense for the most people:

1) How big an up-front investment could you make in a cohousing project?

  • Less than $100,000
  • More than $100,000
  • More than $200,000
  • More than $300,000

2) How big an investment could you make over the life of the entire project?

  • Less than $200,000
  • More than $200,000
  • More than $300,000
  • More than $400,000

3) Would it be easier for you to finance a project by putting money down at the beginning, or financing the construction via a mortgage or loan backed by other assets?

  • I’d rather put money down up front, even if it’s a large amount
  • I’d prefer to finance the project over time because the payments might be lower

4) When it comes to ownership, would you rather own a share in a larger entity (to which you would likely have to sell your stake if you chose to leave) or own a property outright, one that you could finance or sell in whatever way you wish?

  • I would rather own a share in a co-operative, even if it meant my ability to sell might be restricted in some way
  • I’d prefer to own my own property and control its financing and sale

5) Assuming you have the ability to finance the initial investment in a Co-op up-front (via cash, leverage on another property or leverage on investments), what is more important – the ability to control more of how the community is run and who gets to join, or to maximize your flexibility and financial return when you sell?  

  • I’d rather have the control over how it is run and who can join
  • I’d rather maximize my financial investment

Cohousing research notes

Potentially applicable Ontario property codes:

307:  “Community lifestyle (not a mobile home park); Typically, a gated community. The site is typically under single ownership. Typically, people own the structure.”

340: “Multi-residential, with 7 or more self-contained units (excludes row-housing)”

373:  “Cooperative housing – equity – Equity Co-op corporations are owned by shareholders. The owners of shares do not receive title to a unit in the building, but acquire the exclusive use of a unit and are able to participate in the building’s management.”

375: “Co-ownership – percentage interest/share in the co-operative housing.”

Ontario booklet on tools for affordable housing, including backyard “garden suites” — says CMHC provides funding for various kinds of affordable housing projects and the province is interested in helping increase the amount of such housing through incentives, partnerships

Ontario Co-op Act:

The landlord-tenant act doesn’t apply to co-ops — the provincial Co-op Act does — lays out rules for membership requirements, ability to eject members under certain rules etc. Must have by-laws, one member and one vote, annual general meeting etc.

Legal site on co-ops:

“The Financial Services Commission of Ontario (FSCO) is the government office that registers organizations conducting business as a co-operative. In most cases, if the co-op is planning to sell shares to more than 35 people, or if the sale of additional shares increases the number of shareholders in the co-op to more than 35, the co-op must file an offering statement.”

“Since the units are not owned by the individual tenant-shareholders, mortgage financing is initially secured for the building as a whole, and is often referred to as a “blanket mortgage.” In this situation, the corporation is usually the mortgagor. Each tenant-shareholder contributes toward the blanket mortgage, and if one tenant-shareholder is in default, the others must increase their payments to meet the deficiency or risk a foreclosure.”

“If an individual wants to sell his or her shares in a co-operative, it is much different from a condominium owner selling his or her unit. In a co-operative the new purchaser will have to be approved by the board of directors of the corporation before acquiring shares in the corporation. With the sale of a condominium, the unit owner is generally free to sell his or her unit to a prospective purchaser without consulting fellow owners or the corporation.”

“An alternative to co-operatives and condominiums is co-ownerships. Instead of shares in a corporation that owns the building, purchasers buy a percentage of the building’s real property, or “title”, becoming an “owner in common” with every other purchaser. This also comes with the right to occupy a specific unit. Like the co-operative, the co-ownership involves only one mortgage and one tax bill for the entire property, with each person being responsible for his or her proportionate share of the costs.”

Co-operative Housing Federation:

Story on “inclusionary zoning”

“On December 6, 2016, the Ontario legislature passed the Promoting Affordable Housing Act, 2016, expanding the powers of Ontario municipalities to implement “inclusionary zoning,” a requirement for developers to build affordable units when constructing new housing.”

Co-housing study and guide to issues:

In 1993 study, “All groups expressed interest in some form of equity co-ownership because they recognized its necessity for securing financing. For the same reason, no group was considering co-operative housing, other than full equity.”

Community land trusts are typically non-profit organizations that are set up and maintained to act as stewards of land they own on behalf of the community. A land trust can ensure the long-term use of land; protect the common investment in perpetuity; and promote resident control and ownership of housing.”

“A co-housing group could set up a land trust that would own a parcel of land, leasing plots to individual group members. Individual members could maintain ownership of “improvements” they make to the property, such as housing and other buildings; while the land trust could maintain ownership of common improvements used by all members of the group, such as a daycare facility or dining hall. A community land trust may provide access to land that might not otherwise be available to a co-housing group.”

“The land trust may also be able to make land available at a reduced rate, thereby increasing the affordability of the housing built on it. In addition, the land trust organization can develop policies to control resale and resident turnover, as well as land-use planning and modification, to ensure that the goals of the cohousing group are met.”

Says two big issues for some municipalities are density (if they want to protect rural land) and rules around how much land must exist around a house that uses a well or septic system; some had trouble because they wanted too many homes to share a single system or well. In Halton they managed to work it out by maintaining the required acreage over the whole property as opposed to individually.

Peterborough County official plan:

“To ensure opportunities for a range of housing options and support services for seniors and people with special needs throughout Peterborough County; to ensure adequate land is designated by local municipalities to accommodate anticipated growth for future residential development over a ten year period.”

A Dream for Co-Housing in Peterborough, 2015 — Linda Viscardis, whose daughter is disabled, and architect Scott Donovan


“Ownership is freehold and each co-owner is registered on title/deed as a Tenant in Common. Our homes are private and controlled by the co-owners of the property. You can live in a co-owned home because you own an undivided interest in the property or in some cases we may have a suite to rent depending on the home and the situation.”

“All co-owners have a freehold interest. That interest is registered on the title/deed and together they share the home and all the operating expenses of the home. Each percentage interest is individually mortgage-able and sell-able. So the security of knowing that you can sell your interest is as simple as calling your real estate agent.”

“Co-ownership refers to the agreement that governs the home it is like a condo agreement. The co-ownership agreement in a co-housing shared home governs the rules and regulations of the home and how to get in safely, stay in, and get your investment back out when you want or need to leave the shared home.”

“Cohousing refers to the creation of a community, one property, 20-50 single residential dwelling units sharing common roads, walkways, parking, park areas, and common buildings. The ownership component is usually a condo management company.”

Port Perry – re: Zoning:

“The OHRC provided guidance to the Township of Scugog about human rights principles relating to housing, as they considered amendments to their Zoning Bylaw relating to co-owned housing geared toward older Ontarians and people with disabilities. Following input from the community and the OHRC, the Township’s decision was to not create a special category, but treat the housing the same as any other residential housing. Mayor Mercier and Council in Port Perry reversed their original intent to pass a bylaw that controlled and regulated the use of shared housing.”

Rare Birds — co-housing in Kamloops (6 people, one house)

We looked at all the models for ownership and title, and we ended up with an equity co-op. We created the entity and by-laws first. We’re all one-sixth owners. Everyone has one share which is one-sixth the value of construction. We will assess later whether to peg the share value to the market value of the house, but we haven’t figured out the method to do that yet. We’re overbuilt for a single family home, so going by “best use,” you would probably have to evaluate us as a care home. You surrender your share back to co-op if you leave and we have 12 months to pay shareholder.

Canada Mortgage and Housing Corp.: Equity Co-ops

The shared equity strategy includes equity co-operatives, which are associations of shareholders or members incorporated under the relevant provincial legislation. A co-operative holds title to the land and building(s). Through their equity participation, the members own shares in the co-operative, which entitles them to occupy a unit. Equity co-operatives combine various aspects of co-operative and individual ownership. The term covers a variety of options, but generally they include these main characteristics:

  • members provide development capital,
  • they share ownership of the project,
  • they usually manage the project themselves,
  • they control who can join the co-operative, and
  • they operate on non-profit principles.

Like other shared equity projects, most equity co-operatives built recently allow the members to take out a more significant part of the increased value but limit the share to an amount that reflects the original affordability of the unit. For example, if the units were initially valued at 85 per cent of the market value for comparable units, then the members are often allowed to sell their shares for 85 per cent of the enhanced market value. This gives members the opportunity to benefit from property appreciation, while allowing the co-operative to maintain a comparable level of affordability.

One of the main barriers to the wider use of equity co-operatives is the financing of the units on an individual basis. Because most provinces do not have legislation that allows for the individual units to be titled, co-operative members are generally unable to raise conventional financing toward securing their own unit. Although members own shares in the co-operative that holds title to the property, those shares cannot be used as a security for a mortgage.

This barrier may be overcome if members pay cash for their units or if the equity co-operative arranges a blanket mortgage and charges individual members for their share of the mortgage. Some provinces have dealt with this problem through legislation that permits the units to be individually titled through strata titles, which identifies a residential unit in three dimensions and is similar to titles used in condominium ownership.

Co-op Canada Association submission to the CMHC:

In equity co‐ops, members purchase shares that are equal to the value of the home they will occupy. This value can vary, from a full, market‐driven price (as with the high‐end co‐ops of New York City) to an amount that is related to the development cost, in what are called limited equity housing co‐ ops. In these co‐ops there are restrictions on the resale price when members want to sell.  The price may be limited to a percentage of appraised market value; or it may be based on the original share purchase price to which an inflation factor is added. Both measures are designed to preserve a measure of affordability to successive owners.   When the members leave an equity co‐op, they do not put their home on the open real‐estate market.   They sell their shares back to the co‐operative, whether for full market value or on a limited equity basis, and the co‐operative finds new members to purchase the shares.

Co-op history in Canada:

CMHC used to finance co-ops in the 1960s and 1970s, providing 100% of the financing at fixed rates, provided 10% to 20% of the units were set aside for low-income housing. But the government stopped financing co-ops in the 1990s.

Vicki Borenstein, real estate lawyer:

The good news is that several reputable trust companies and credit unions will provide mortgages for co-ownerships, and at interest rates often better than those offered by the banks. DUCA, Equitable, Alterna, Italian Credit Union and the Toronto Star Credit Union have the biggest share of the co-ownership mortgage market in Toronto.

Different forms of ownership:

Tenants-in-common: If you take title to property as a TIC, you and your co-owner(s) will want to draft a written agreement covering each owner’s rights and responsibilities. For a multi-unit property, the TIC agreement gives each owner rights to and responsibility for one unit, which creates a feeling of separate ownership. Owners of TICs usually finance their property with a single mortgage secured by the whole property. This arrangement creates some hurdles, however: All owners must qualify together for the loan, for example, and all owners are at risk if one gets behind on the mortgage. It is for this reason that TIC agreements typically go into great detail on how co-owners divvy up financial obligations.  Although the single-mortgage approach is still used for sharing a single-family home, a few lenders now offer fractional mortgages for TIC properties that are easier to divide into separate units. For a fractional mortgage, each owner signs a separate promissory note and deed of trust. Each must qualify for the loan separately and can select different loan terms. Each fractional mortgage is secured only by that owner’s interest in the property.

Ownership by an Entity: In some cohousing communities, residents own shares or a membership in a corporation or LLC, which, in turn, owns the entire property, including the individual units.  Under many states’ legal definitions, this arrangement for holding title may be considered a “housing cooperative” or “stock cooperative.”

The use of the word “cooperative” here does not necessarily imply or require that a cooperative corporation be the entity of choice, nor that the entity operate “on a cooperative basis” under Subchapter T of the Internal Revenue Code, nor that the cooperative be managed democratically, nor that the cooperative follow the Rochedale Principles for cooperatives. The moral to the story is: the word “cooperative” has way too many meanings, and it’s no wonder that it’s hard to get a straight answer about what a cooperative is.

Typically, a resident buys into a community by purchasing shares and signing a “proprietary lease” that entitles the resident to occupy a particular residential unit. Unlike typical leases, a proprietary lease generally has no fixed term. It lasts as long as the resident is an owner in the entity and doesn’t violate important lease terms. The entity typically holds a single blanket mortgage on the property, and resident shareholders sometimes take out loans to finance their purchase of shares in the entity. In addition, residents pay regular fees to cover property taxes, management expenses, mortgage payments on the building, and so on.

Life Lease as an ownership model

The phrase “life lease” means that once an initial lump sum is paid out as a deposit, there is very little change in rates, and the purchaser occupies the home for life, with subsequent monthly payments covering management fees, maintenance and other operating expenses. In essence, this is distinct from term leases, such as one year agreements, etc.

— The majority of life-lease communities are developed and owned by non-profit organizations, charitable groups, service clubs or religious institutions.

— When a resident leaves or passes away, the lease usually can be sold to someone on the sponsor’s waiting list or on the open market, or transferred back to the development’s sponsoring organization. Some life-lease agreements permit the interest to be passed to the resident’s family through their will. The estate can then decide whether to sell this interest or retain it for their retirement.

— Most Ontario projects operate under a “market value” life-lease model that means the seller will earn equity when they transfer their interest, similar to selling a private home.

— Other life-lease models, such as fixed value or declining value, vary depending on the terms of the initial lump-sum payment and the resident’s entitlement to the increased equity at the end of the lease; lower initial purchase costs sometimes linked with a lower percentage share of the equity when lease is transferred or sold.

— The sponsoring organization typically applies a percentage administration fee on sale and transfers, typically ranging from three to 10 per cent.

— Minimum 25 per cent deposit usually required at start of construction for most projects; money is needed to build the development, so the deposit is not held in trust, as it would be for a condominium

CMHC paper on Life Lease benefits and risks (2007):

There are five basic forms of this model:

Zero-balance — The resident pays an amount upfront designed to prepay rent for his/her expected remaining life. No residual value is repaid to the occupant or their estate at the time of departure or death. Consequently, the purchase price for an interest in this type of life lease is least expensive relative to other forms.

Declining Balance — The resident pays an amount up front based on life expectancy. The estate is paid a residual value which declines each year to zero at the end of specific
period of time. This type of life lease is slightly more expensive than the zero-balance form.

No Gain — The amount redeemed at the time of sale remains the same as that paid at the time of initial occupancy in nominal terms, though declining in real terms, as there is no provision for annual inflationary increases to be taken into account. This is in essence a zero-interest loan to the sponsor for the time of occupancy of the unit.

Price Index — Redemption value increases based on annual price index factor being applied to the purchase price, for instance, the Consumer Price Index (CPI). This has certain
risks for the sponsor if real estate values are increasing more slowly than general inflation.

Market Value — The life lease interest is redeemed at whatever price the market will bear at the time of sale. Purchasers pay an amount similar to that for a comparable
condominium unit.

Except in Manitoba, the tenure status of residents is a grey area, particularly for market value life leases. The sponsor holds title to the building and is responsible for ensuring it is well-maintained and holds its value. Life lease holders have the right to occupy their unit. However, the life lease holder is also greatly concerned with ensuring the building is well-managed, that there is continuing demand and a waiting list for units and that, ideally, the market value of the life lease interest increases over time (or at least does not diminish). In most complexes, however, the sponsor is the only entity that has any real control over how the building is managed. In most case studies, residents are informed about operating budgets and management decisions but have no input into how these are determined.

CMHC on Shared Equity Models (2016):

Full literature review of shared equity models in Canada and US

In Canada, there are three shared equity models used for seniors housing: life leases, community land trusts, and co-housing.

Life Leases: Life lease housing is generally developed and operated by non-profit organizations and may be more affordable than condominiums in the same area. Seniors pay a lump sum to purchase a ‘life interest’ in a housing project and pay a monthly residency fee. The resident does not own the title to a specific property but can ‘sell’ their interest if they leave, or upon death. Life lease seniors housing may offer additional services such as laundry, housekeeping, meals, help with personal care, and transportation. One of the main advantages is the ability to attract ‘resident’ equity as a source of financing for life lease housing developments which reduces the need for governments to provide capital financing assistance.

Community Land Trusts: A non-profit corporation is established to acquire and hold land, securing affordable access to land and housing. Organizations that sponsor non-profit housing, particularly co-operative housing organizations, develop and manage the housing. Long-term ownership of land is vested in the land trust; the buildings on the site are owned by the sponsor organization. Residents may rent or cooperatively own their units. Housing built on land trusts is expected to be more affordable in the short-term since the capital cost of land is not included. Community land trusts also “lock in affordability” for the longer term because land appreciation does not affect future development or unit resale values.

Co-housing: Co-housing is privately-owned, self-contained housing centered around shared facilities (e.g. kitchen, dining room, or other common rooms) where meals and activities are shared regularly. Co-housing is financed by the purchasers, who participate in the design/development process, and in the management/decision-making once the project is completed. While senior residents provide “co-care” for each other, there may not be on-site services like those provided in seniors’ life lease developments. Since there is currently no separate legislative framework for co-housing, these developments have adopted condominium registration. Owners have title to their unit which they can sell at market value, and they own a shared interest in common facilities. Currently there is no mechanism to limit equity or to ensure on-going affordability, so co-housing does not meet all the criteria for shared equity models.

Life Lease Resource Guide:

Life lease housing is usually developed and operated by nonprofit or charitable organizations. These organizations are called “sponsors.” Some life lease units are houses; others are suites inside an apartment-style building. Life leases are usually priced a bit less than similarly sized condominiums in the area. Like condominium owners, life lease holders continue to pay monthly fees for maintenance and property taxes in addition to the purchase price.

NOTE: When a person buys a life lease, they sign an agreement with the sponsor. The agreement does not give the buyer property. Instead, it gives the buyer the right to occupy the unit until they sell the life lease or pass away. This right is subject to certain terms that are spelled out in the agreement.

In Ontario, almost all projects are what are called “Market Value” leases. This means that if you sell the life lease interest for more than you originally paid for it, you (or your estate) make a profit; if you sell the interest for less, then you (or your estate) would incur a loss. In all other models, the potential for profit or loss is typically taken on by the sponsor. Here, lease holders know when they buy the life lease how much money will be returned to them when they leave. Sponsors specify either an exact amount, or they specify the formula that will be used to calculate the amount.

Applying for a plan of condominium

On February 17th, Kris talked to Amanda Warren ( of Trent Lakes planning department about what is required to move forward.  Her answers apply to any property in Peterborough County that isn’t currently zoned for residential development, and should presumably be the same elsewhere in Ontario. She said that Ontario governments, at the provincial and municipal level, are just beginning to talk about cohousing and creating planning rules that apply specifically to cohousing developments, but that this is still in the very early stages.  

A provincial committee has been formed to study the topic, but realistically (especially given the election coming up next year) it will be at least 2 years before there is any progress.  She recommended that we proceed with the current planning options.  However, it is encouraging that Ontario has at least recognized cohousing as a concept and municipal councils may be receptive to the idea.

Given the current options, Amanda suggested that a plan of condominium is probably the way to go.  This involves hiring a planning consultant. There are a number in Peterborough, (including EcoVue, which did a recent Trent Lakes project), as well as many in Toronto that have done work in this area before.  It probably makes sense to hire someone who is familiar with the issues in the area, although we may want to hire a cohousing consultant first, and then have them work with a local planning consultant.  

Marc also suggested that we investigate whether structuring the project as a retirement home business in which we are all part-owners would be a better way to go.

The planning consultant would then conduct (or hire specialists to conduct) the environmental and engineering impact assessments.  The engineering assessment will examine things like whether there is a need to improve roads, do we need storm water management (for nearby ponds and ditches) and they will do a hydrological assessment to determine if there is enough water for the number of units we are proposing.  I assume that a property that is on city services would have less requirements of this sort.  

The environmental assessment looks at the possible negative impact on wetlands or woodlots, and species at risk.  According to the township’s GIS database, the Farm is in a large area that contains species at risk (possibly turtles or birds, at a guess), and we would need to evaluate potential harm (this was the only red flag that Amanda found).  We would also need a setback from the pond, and we have to be a certain distance from the gravel pit (but for a simple extractive pit, Amanda thought that was only 150 metres).  They would also do an archaeological survey, to determine if there was any chance that there is cultural significance to the property

Once all of that is completed and the results are favourable, the planning consultant would write a Plan Justification Report.  This includes ensuring that our plans fit the Official Plans of both the county and the township, and presents a justification for why this development is worthwhile.  It is expected that most development occurs in what are called settlement areas – eg. Buckhorn, Lakefield, Peterborough, etc.  If something is built outside of these areas, it must be shown that there is some intrinsic value to the location.  

These are usually framed as resource-based developments – they are on the waterfront, or next to a golf course, or some other desirable common resources.  At the Farm, we don’t have waterfront, but we could make an argument for access to walking trails, a swimming pond, view of the lake, etc.  Still, we may not exactly fit the mold.  However, a smaller scale development (12-20 units) would be looked on more favourably than a larger development in a rural area.  

The decision would be up to the county and township councils.  The fact that we are dealing with the senior housing problem could perhaps be persuasive.  However, this process can take quite a long time – it could be 5 to 10 years before we get final approval.  All of the assessments have to be done, and then it has to be approved by both councils, and neighbours have to be given a chance to have a say.  This definitely suggests that we should start moving soon.  

Once we hire a planning consultant, we should contact Amanda, and set up a pre-planning meeting with the county and township planning departments, where they will go over all of the necessary steps.  Costs will include the fees for all of the consultants and their reports, as well as a minimum of $5600 for the plan of condominium application.  The application form is here:

There could be another option.  In a follow-up email, Amanda added: “As discussed, the style of development you suggested made me lean towards the Plan of Condominium, but there is certainly always the option of rezoning to a special exception zone to allow multiple dwellings and renting them out as well. The rezoning route would not allow the shared ownership idea but it might be a more simple way of getting what you need.”  

She explained that we could have the property rezoned as tourist-commercial, and it could then be built as a senior retirement community, with separate dwellings that are owned by a single entity and rented out.  That entity could presumably be organized as a co-ownership or a co-op.  This method could be significantly faster and cheaper; we would probably still need to do environmental impact studies, but perhaps less of the other required assessments, or with less detail.  We would also have less issue with building outside of a settlement area, as most of the tourist businesses in this area are out in the country.

For a discussion of the differences between condominium, co-ownership and co-op structures, see:

Wolf Creek Lodge


Our photos

I (Kris) toured Wolf Creek in California while in the area for a family gathering. It turns out that my sister Carol knows the person who replied to my email, Bob Miller, from a church they both attended in Grass Valley.  He was away, but we were met by Magdalene, a 93 year old German woman, and Mike, who gave us a tour.

Wolf Creek is not specifically restricted to seniors, but is geared to that demographic, and has no kid-friendly elements.  Age of current residents ranges from about 60 to 93. There are 30 units in total.

Grass Valley is a small city (13,000 people) in the Sierra foothills, about 60 miles from Sacramento.  It has lots of parks and hiking trails, and is very close to major recreational attractions like Lake Tahoe – some residents still also own Tahoe area cabins.  Wolf Creek is right next to small strip mall on one side, and on the other side, you can walk down a set of stairs to the creek. There are lots of arts, restaurants and activities in Grass Valley, and people spontaneously get together to attend events.

The did have difficulty when one woman developed Alzheimer’s, but otherwise feel that they have done co-care very well.

We didn’t get any real origin story – Chuck and Katie, the US cohousing gurus (who now live in Nevada City, just 4 miles away) were involved from the start, and presumably were instrumental in getting people together and moving things along.  The site was supposed to include a senior community and an intergenerational one, as well as a few individual homes that would have some connection to the groups, but then the housing crisis of 2008 happened.  Less people could commit, and only the one, merged group went forward.  

Many (including Mike and his wife) were not local to the area; they had been looking at a number of options up and down the west coast and even out east, and liked this one best.  Many came from the Bay area, but also further afield.  This area would naturally draw people who want to leave Sacramento or the Bay area but not go too far – might this be similar for sites a few hours from Toronto?

Common meals are quite frequent, about 4-5 times a week.  Most people just naturally participate; everyone is expected to do something once a month. There is a calendar and you pick a date and come up with a team of 2-4 people and a menu, which can be the same every time (Mike and his wife do grilled Ahi Tuna every month, and everyone loves it).  Some people just do prep, clean or shop instead of cooking.  Each team buys the ingredients and gets a credit for the amount spent, and that credit is reduced when they attend the other dinners.  Perhaps because it is so frequent, they have no issue with lack of participation, although there are some people who rarely attend.

The building is three storeys, with open, wide, fully covered interior-facing walkways connecting all the units, in two angled wings surrounding the patio, with the common house occupying the central portion of the building on the ground floor.   Along this walkway, everyone has individual, personalized sitting areas, in a recessed area off their kitchen. There are three sets of stairs – one at each end and one in the middle, as well as an elevator up from the common house in the middle.

Most units are 2 bedroom, one bath, with the second bedroom being quite small.  They have an open concept kitchen, dining area and living area.  You walk through from the bathroom to the walk-in closet to the master bedroom.  Off the living room, there is a small private back balcony (but road noise from the mall makes at least some of these unappealing). Some are 2 bed 2 bath, especially the corner units.  Some are one bedroom (which we didn’t see) but Mike and Magdalene felt that these are too small, especially for a couple.  A few on the third floor are odd sizes.

The common house is nicely appointed.  Once again though, there are folding tables; Mike didn’t want these but one member was insistent, and now he agrees – it gives the room much more flexibility.  The tables seem of good quality, and fold up into a neat, easy to store package with handles for carrying.  They try to make them nicer at dinner prep – they tried tablecloths but that required too much washing; so now they use placemats, and people bring their own cloth napkins (stored in their mail cubbies between meals).  

Decorating can definitely make them more appealing.  The folding chairs are black, fairly comfortable, and good quality – good for about 2 hours of sitting, Mike said.  The overall appeal of the dining area is definitely enhanced by the wood floor, trim, counters, cupboards and ceiling framework, as well as the wall murals.  Without the institutional surroundings, the tables did seem more tolerable.

There are barstools at the kitchen peninsula, which allows the early guests to hang out with the cooks.  There is also a great side wall bench seating area and a coffee nook.  Open top shelves, countertop appliances and pull-out drawers without doors allow cooks to see where everything is.  Once again, the kitchen is equipped with a fast sanitizer rather than dishwasher – what is the advantage?  Speed?  They had a handy list of all of the supplies that are regularly stocked in the kitchen and guest rooms.

They have a nice lounge area, with a 2-way fireplace shared with the main (dining) room, a nice outdoor patio with seating, umbrellas, BBQs (available for personal use or used for the common dinners), and Petanque court.  Across the patio from the main building is an outdoor (fenced-in) hot tub and covered garages.  There is also underground parking and outside designated spots, presumably for varying costs.  

They have a multi-purpose room with printer, etc; mostly for team meetings (and sewing). There is also a separate small office; both rooms are behind doors.  The laundry room, surprisingly, has almost no conflict despite having only 2 washers and 2 dryers – people tend to pick a time that works for them and stick with that.  They also have stick-on buttons with instructions on whether laundry can be moved to the dryer or basket, to speed the process along.  Some units have hook-ups but almost no one has individual laundry facilities.  But it is definitely not a social gathering spot – perhaps because there isn’t any comfortable hanging out area in the room.

There are 2 guest rooms and also a guest suite, which is good for families with kids, but can also become a caregiver suite if needed.  The main floor guest room shares a bathroom with the common area, but it is accessed from inside the room, and the doors can be locked to prevent access from outside when occupied.  The other guest rooms are on the second floor, and the hallway between them has been turned into an art gallery to display works either by residents or purchased art on loan from them.  

All are handicap accessible, as are the units.  Much of the furniture in the common house came from individual homes – there was a team who made the decisions, and you submitted photos of what you wanted to donate, and the team approved or rejected your donation and decided where to put things.  What we saw was very nice, tasteful, matching and in good shape.

Current cost is around $350-400k.  Only a few units have been put on the market, and there is a waiting list to get in.

It felt like a community that worked – everyone knew each other well, and they had seen very little turnover. These people liked doing things together, and had lots of common meals, and seemed to have a work participation system that functioned well.  The common house and individual units were attractive and well laid-out, and the size and shape of the building seemed to work well.

Sunward, Great Oak and Touchstone

Sunward, Great Oak and Touchstone


Our photos

Sunward website

Great Oak website

Touchstone website


On May 21st, 2017, Marc, Kris, Barb and Lori went on a tour of the three cohousing communities in Ann Arbor. Robin, Paul and Genevieve were very helpful, answering all of our questions and showing us the common house and individual units in all three places. Robin, who has lived in Touchstone for a number of years,  was our official guide.  Paul is one of the original Sunward members, and Genevieve has recently moved to Sunward from Touchstone, having previously lived at Nyland cohousing in Boulder Colorado.

Sunward was completed in 1998, on 20 acres of land right at the edge of the city, with 40 units, 95 people, and a 7500 sqft common house.  The property was already zoned multi-residential, so they avoided all the rezoning hassles; they were fortunate that the property was incorrectly listed by the realtor as industrial mall when it was zoned multi-residential; they felt they would have been competing with developers if it had been correctly listed. The land was, in fact, right next to an area of industrial malls, and surrounded on the other sides by farmland and woods.  They reserved 10 acres as untouched woods, and put the homes and other amenities (storage, parking, gardens, playing fields) on the other 10 acres.  

By the time Sunward was completed, there was an extensive waiting list, which inspired a couple of members to form a development company, buy the adjoining land and develop the next two communities in conjunction with the new residents. Great Oak was built in 2003, on 7 acres, with 37 units.  Touchstone followed in 2005, on 6 acres; there are currently 34 units, although they are debating adding either 8 or 12 more units in order to spread the costs of the common facilities over a larger group.  

They were quite affected by the housing crisis.  A number of homes weren’t sold, and the developers put them on the market as rental units instead.  The common house wasn’t built until last year; instead they were absorbed for many years into the Great Oak community, given space for meetings and access to the common house there.

The communities look quite similar, and are very close physically, especially Great Oak and Touchstone, which are right up against each other.  Apparently Sunward is stick-built and the others are modular, but they have a very similar style.  The pedestrian walkways are narrow in Sunward, wider in Great Oak and wider still in Touchstone – apparently an increasing demand by the fire department for easier access.  

The larger walkways at Touchstone allow for more amenities like benches and basketball hoops, but also present a landscaping challenge – they have planters on wheels that can be moved out of the roadway (though I have to wonder who would drag the planters out of the way when the firetrucks are roaring in).   All of the parking for all three communities is at the periphery, and no vehicles are allowed into the area where the houses are – there are carts available for carrying things.  

The residents are also quite tight-knit – not just with their own group, but across all three.  Everyone there seemed to legitimately know and have a relationship with everyone else there – quite remarkable, given over 100 households, many of which are families with kids.

It was interesting to get Genevieve’s perspective on the differences between the cohousing communities she has lived in.  She felt that Nyland was too big – even though it turns out that the number of houses at Nyland is only two more than Sunward’s.  However, Nyland was very spread out, on 43 acres, with very large, completely detached houses, and I definitely agreed that it didn’t have the same feeling of community.  But that seems likely to be more a function of design and interpersonal dynamics than number of houses.  

I was, in fact, quite surprised at how tight-knit all of the Ann Arbor communities felt, given that they were all at or above the maximum recommended number of houses.  It may well be helped by the fact that these houses are semi-detached row houses, clustered close together, all within easy reach of the common house.  The front porch layouts are such that people can actually talk to their neighbours or the people strolling by.  And the generally lovely landscaping presumably encourages people to use those front porches.

Each household was in charge of landscaping their “front yard”; this resulted in some beautiful, elaborate gardens, some well-maintained lawns, and some rather wild and out of control yards.  It was interesting that the unkempt yards were far more prevalent at Sunward than at Touchstone, where everything seemed incredibly well-groomed.  Some difference in personalities, ages, or peer-pressure?  

Regardless, I suspect that we want to take this out of the individual household’s hands, and have a landscaping committee that is in charge of all of the grounds, including directly in front of the residences.  This will probably be partly our own labour, but partly hired out.  And I would think that anyone who wants to go nuts in front of their front windows should be free to do so.  But aging seniors are far more likely to end up with those wild and untamed looks, and not everyone will want to deal with landscaping.  We should leave it to those who enjoy it, or pay someone to do it.

Another difference Genevieve mentioned was that in Nyland a fair number of people were renting out a portion of their large houses to families while continuing to live there.  This did have the effect of significantly increasing the actual number of households living there.  Genevieve also told us that she was one of those renters, and that renters were treated very differently than owners at Nyland, and not made to feel like fully participating members of the group.  

She was also a renter at Touchstone and Sunward, and said the experience was completely different – everyone was seen as equal partners here.  Renters don’t vote on financial decisions, but otherwise are full participants.  It was an interesting distinction, and one that we should keep in mind if we do decide to include rental units.  Having all residents fully engaged in making the system work seems critical to success.

Robin made the point that membership recruitment, of owners or renters, was crucial to the success of the community.  You need to make sure that everyone moving in understands and embraces the cohousing concept, and is a good fit with the other residents.  Prospects are encouraged to go on tours, attend dinners, attend meetings (which is crucial to grasping the good and bad aspects of consensus decision-making), stay in the guest room, help out on work days, read over the community documents.  

She and the other people on the membership committee work hard to educate prospective residents.  Paul said that this is why a vision statement is essential, that it should be established early in the process, and that it needs to encompass those concepts that will bring in the people who will fit in best with the group.  Being serious about this with renters as well makes sense, and ideally the community, and not just an individual landlord, gets involved with vetting renters.  And having rental units, either until such time as a buyer is found or as a permanent feature, allows people to try before they buy.

Everyone here is expected to do 4-10 hours of work per month, and can choose what work they want to contribute.  If it rains and you’re on watering duty, you luck out; if snowfall is especially heavy, you do more work.  If the group has trouble getting volunteers for a particular job (snow shovelling, for instance) they hire outside workers, rather than force reluctant individuals to take on that role.  Snowbirds still contribute from abroad, doing things like email management.  

You don’t cook common dinners unless you want to cook, and common meal preparation and cleanup is considered part of the the general work system.  This approach seemed like an interesting contrast to Yulupa, where they were struggling with compliance on chores and a lack of interest in volunteering to cook common meals, and I wonder how work assignments were chosen there. 

At one point Great Oak shared meals 5 nights a week, which they believe is the most of any cohousing group in the States. That has decreased a bit since then, but they still have a number of meals each week. The other two run less often; at Sunward it is only 1 or maybe 2 a week.  Recently the three communities have started a system of cross-community meals, where anyone from any of the three projects can sign up for a meal at any of the others.  

On average, the number at a common dinner is around 30 or 40, with a limit of around 65, just in case everyone signs up at once – since there are 111 households total.  Still, given the high frequency of meals, they are fairly well-attended, and are definitely seen as a huge feature of cohousing – Robin says she now often signs up for two meals on the same night, eats one on site, and takes the other as leftovers for another day.  They did say that we should think very seriously about our meal routine – once something is established, it is hard to change.

Decision-making in general is certainly one of the major challenges in cohousing, especially with such large groups.  It takes many meetings, many hours of discussion, and even then sometimes no conclusion is reached.  Touchstone is currently discussing building more houses on site.  They have a choice of building 8 homes and leaving some greenspace, or building 12 homes instead.  They couldn’t agree.  They tried role-playing, taking each other’s perspectives, all the tricks in the facilitator’s book, and still they couldn’t agree.  So they aren’t doing either for now.  

Sunward has just shifted from full consensus to a ⅔ majority (based on the votes of everyone who shows up to the general meeting, or their proxy votes), because they found it very frustrating that one or two individuals would show up at the final meeting, after extensive committee work and long discussions, and vote against everyone else.  (Paul was somewhat uncertain about whether the majority was of households or of adult members.)  

They were able to change the voting procedure because their charter allowed for that option (you would think that would need consensus, but apparently they had a work-around).  The person who was doing a lot of the blocking has since moved out, and the residents are happy with the new system.   The other two communities still use consensus, and all of them have an annual consensus training course.   They recommend a book by Tim Hartnett on consensus:

Consensus-Oriented Decision-Making:The CODM Model for Facilitating Groups to Widespread Agreement

Committees all have a charter and a budget (some at $50, others at $500); they can make certain decisions and spend up to their budget without general consultation, and beyond that it goes to the general meeting.

We did a walking tour of all three communities.  The Sunward common house had a pretty standard industrial kitchen – two ovens, sterilizer, big centre butcher block, lots of storage, high ceilings with lots of light, ceiling fan, open to the main room, but with only a single induction cooktop, which seemed minimal, but they assured us was lots.  The main room also had nice high ceilings and lots of windows, but had a very school/cafeteria feel – orange and yellow walls, shiny red concrete floor.  

The tables were OK – sturdy wood, on wheels, which is convenient, but again just felt so cafeteria.  I would rather avoid that fate, and without small children, we should be able to come up with nicer but still flexible and functional solutions.  The main floor had a nice fireplace/sitting room and a mailbox/bulletin board area.  All of these communities are multi-generational, with a real focus on children, and it showed in the large and well-equipped play rooms, as well as the outdoor play areas, climbing equipment, playing fields, etc.  Downstairs, there was a large games room with lots to appeal to adults, but again painted in primary colours with a concrete floor.

The TV room was better, with couches and carpeting, and there was a nice big workshop, exercise room, craft room and laundry room.  The guest room, though, was rather dismal, with a red concrete floor, two basic single beds shoved against the wall, and an institutional bathroom outside the door.  The Sunward common house was two storey, and they discovered that the downstairs rooms were not as well used, and that the whole serendipity thing – running into people and striking up a conversation – didn’t work for those rooms.  The later two communities put everything on a single floor.

The home we toured in Sunward is for sale for $289,000.  It was four bedrooms, with a big open concept two storey living room.  Many people convert some of that space into a loft.  All of the multi-storey homes has at least one bedroom and a bathroom on the ground floor; the front steps could easily be replaced with a ramp for accessibility.  

sThis unit was one of the few that backed onto the garage area, rather than greenspace.  Most of them did have privacy out their back windows.  Many had also fenced in their backyards, but otherwise you did share the backyard space with your immediate neighbours.

The woods between Sunward and Great Oak were a nice feature, with lots of walking trails.  The architect had done a great job of utilizing the natural features of the site (an old gravel pit) by building some houses above the main ground level and building the ones opposite into the slope, which allowed less blockage of views and sunlight, and meant that the front doors of all of the complex was accessible from level ground.

All of them had lots of outdoor features like gardens, trellised seating areas, picnic benches, outdoor common house patios with BBQs, as well as decorative elements and kid play spaces.  Sunward had only a few garages and carports, with most people parking in an open lot; the later two had added more garages.  You could choose to buy a garage or not, separate from the cost of your home.  

The other two common houses had similar features as Sunward’s, but on a single floor.  The main room still had a rather institutional, cafeteria style feel.  At Great Oak they had opted for gas cooktops.  The music/yoga room had a nice hardwood floor and dramatic decorations.  The fireplace room seemed more elegant, but the guest room was another depressing place with an institutional bathroom outside.  The exercise room was smaller, but this group had chosen to add a hot tub outside.  

The common houses were kept locked, and so were most of the nicer rooms within the common houses, in order to keep the kids out.  Apparently they had also had some trouble with neighbourhood kids and random strangers using the common houses.  Dinners were held around 6pm and the common houses were locked and closed up between 10 and 11pm; we vowed that even if we got old, we weren’t ever going to be that old.

Great Oak had a huge woodworking shop that they shared with Touchstone.  You had to trek through the woods or down the road to get from Sunward to Great Oak, but the other two developments were pretty closely connected.  Touchstone, unlike the others, had some smaller stacked apartments.  You could get either a downstairs unit with basement, or an upstairs unit with attic.  Basement and attic could be finished or unfinished.  

Upstairs and downstairs units shared a front porch, with the front door for the upstairs apartment opening directly onto a straight, wide interior stairway. This makes sense given that this stairway was lined up with the ones that went up and down to the attic and basement, and is different than our thought about a single enclosed staircase that accessed all of the upstairs apartments via connected balconies.  

This might, in fact, be a more weather-friendly access option.  Balconies (or doors to nowhere) were options on the back (private) sides.  These apartments were in the same buildings as larger two storey homes, but we could easily go with a 4 up – 4 down configuration where the building exteriors would look pretty much like the ones in Touchstone.

Robin showed us her upstairs apartment, with her really nice finished attic bedroom and ensuite. Not really practical for seniors.  But the main floor of the apartment, with kitchen, living area, 2 bedrooms and a bath, was quite adequate living space, and you could give up the attic if you had mobility issues. Though of course getting up the stairs to the main floor is the first challenge, which could be solved with a lift chair.   Her apartment was also nicely finished with hardwood floors, skylights, nice kitchen.   

Robin has a great view out of her windows, but is quite unhappy about the fact that the farmer who owns the land is trying to build a housing development there.  The cohousing communities put a lot of time and effort into going to council meetings and arguing against development in the area (which did strike me as rather ironic).  

On one side they are now looking at a new University of Michigan campus, still being built, which has led to traffic and construction detour hassles, and they are concerned about losing their dark skies, but it turns out that the township has little power over what the University does.  The development on the nearby farmer’s fields does look like it will move forward, and seems especially likely given the housing demand created by the new campus.  The idyllic setting that they have enjoyed for the last 20 years is now being encroached upon by the expanding city.

The Touchstone common house was smaller than the others.  It was also less garishly painted, with a gleaming stainless steel kitchen.  The rooms were nicely finished, and the guest room and bathroom were a bit more welcoming.  The dining room was still pretty much a cafeteria, though it looked better without the orange walls.

There seemed to be no question that these cohousing communities had, indeed, built real communities.  The common houses were full, all three of them, with kids playing, adults working or relaxing, people doing things together or on their own, but making good use of this shared space.  Great Oak had a work day while we were there, followed by a well-attended and boisterous ice cream social.  People were out gardening, working in the woodworking shop, walking their dogs.  Everyone we met was friendly, happy to engage and answer questions, including the guy who randomly invited us in to see his house.

While the common houses were clearly successful in terms of valuable features that were well-used and appreciated by the community, their aesthetics were less than ideal.  I attributed some of that to being multi-generational, with the added wear and tear and chaos that kids bring.  But the institutional primary paint colours and the dreary guest rooms could have been avoided.  

Marc was hoping for some insights into how to modify cohousing designs for cold weather snowy climates.  I’m not sure we achieved that, as we were surprised by the lack of garages, and the interlocking brick walkways.