Two Acre Wood
The first was Two Acre Wood, a 14 unit place in Sebastopol, on two acres of land, built in 1999. Only three units have changed hands since the beginning, and the many children who grew up there have now moved out or are off at college. There is one new family with children, but most members are now getting older. Sebastopol has a population of 7500 people, and is in the midst of the Sonoma wine-growing region. We met with Marty Roberts, who is an original member.
The common house was centrally located, next to the parking lot and in the centre of the long skinny lot and the individual units. Just inside the front door was a bulletin board, and just beyond that was a nice (but small) gathering place/library/meeting room with a fireplace and comfy furniture. There was a large central room, with folding tables and stackable chairs stored in the corner, allowing multiple uses for the room – dining, yoga classes, concerts, etc. The guest room had a sofabed and also functioned as the kids play room during common dinners (not really relevant anymore as most of the kids are grown) and as another meeting room.
It was the only room with a door, but was quite small and basic and didn’t have a private bathroom – there was a public bathroom down the hall. The kitchen was fair-sized and well-equipped, and looked well-used. There was a laundry room with a storage area. The rooms were filled with donated, hand me down furniture, and consisted of basic but nice spaces. This might be one effect of a small community with a restricted budget. This was a place with limited multiple purpose rooms, but it seems well designed, and the place is used – there are 4 yoga classes a week, they just had a concert in the dining room (which features a piano), someone was using the common kitchen to preserve lemons while we were there.
Common dinner is held about twice a week – the schedule is essentially just when people feel like it, but that happens fairly often. Two cooks sign up, from either the same or different households. They post the date and menu, and people sign up and indicate if they want leftovers. Each time, the cooks calculate the cost, and money is drawn down from the money you have in your dinner fund. You are charged half price for leftovers.
The cost per meal also includes 40 cents for staples. There are 3 cleaning teams, each consisting of ⅓ of the community members (about 10 people in each, including kids). The three teams rotate doing cleanup after dinner, and those from that day’s designated team who attend that particular dinner are all on the hook. In that way, there are usually at least 3 or 4 people for cleanup every time.
Marty told us that 14 units wasn’t ideal – the group wanted 25 units, but couldn’t find a property that could work for that number. With the first piece of land they found, the person who purchased it with the understanding that they would hold it until the approvals came through wanted to make a significant profit when transferring it to the community, and the deal fell through. The second property deal was also with a potential resident, but he backed out when there were objections from his parents.
It took them 5 years to find the current site and get approval and get it built. The land they finally found was only 2 acres, and they were told that only 14 units would be allowed. The proposal barely passed council; a tie was only broken when they were able to get expert opinions to the effect that a sympathetic neighbor who was a council member was not in a conflict of interest and could vote. The group then had to decide between a couple of families and turn one of them down because there weren’t enough houses. This was a very tough thing to do, and the group had to decide who fit best.
Two Acre Wood was a lovely but hilly property with lots of steps to get to the houses. There are four standard models of different sizes. Marty showed us her one-bedroom unit which was unremarkable in interior design but seemed a reasonable size and had a small private backyard area that was fenced off for her pets. Between the houses and outside the common house there were public sitting areas and lots of fruit trees and flower gardens. There was a communal vegetable garden off the parking lot and a herb garden outside the common kitchen.
The rule was that pets must be on a leash or in a fenced private back yard. One member was preserving lemons in the common kitchen, and Marty was unhappy because the lemons belong to the group. We weren’t sure what Marty thought the options were for not losing them all to rot instead, because there was a huge number of them. But it does make clear the many possible issues with common fruit and vegetable gardens – who, for instance, gets to eat the first asparagus, or the raspberries?
Two Acre Wood had nice landscaping, and homes, and was designed by Michael Black, (a cohousing architect who lived there for a while but later moved to Yulupa) but the long and narrow lot makes it less sociable. The top section of the lot had the woods, a dog run, a treehouse and an open deck, but it is a long way from the houses, and is not much used (by the adults anyway).
We met another resident, Holly, who told us she really liked the loft feature in her home (perhaps a good idea for grandchildren visits?). Holly told us that she wishes she was in a community of like-minded artists. Both she and Marty agreed that their group was too small, and the members were too different, with very diverse interests, and as a result, they weren’t all that cohesive and they tended to do most of their socializing outside the group. It was clear that in this size of community, everyone knows each other very well, but that in this case, they weren’t always all that fond of each other. Still, the frequent common dinners, the shared gardens, the many common house activities suggest an effective cohousing dynamic.
So the conclusion may be that a community this small is a viable option, and has some advantages and some disadvantages, but that it is especially important that the members are compatible and enjoy each other’s company.
Our second visit was to Yulupa, in the suburbs of the city of Santa Rosa (population 175,000) where Marie Piazza gave us a tour. Yulupa has 29 units on 1.7 acres, which she feels is the right size. She felt that Two Acre Wood too small. Marie didn’t join until after construction had begun, so she had only a vague sense of the struggle to get approval, but apparently the unusual design and dramatic colour did meet some resistance. Michael Black, the cohousing architect who had also built Two Acre, was the driving force behind the creation of Yulupa and was one of the original residents.
In the beginning there were some key individuals (like Michael and his wife) who made the group cohesive, and all members were more engaged, having been through the building /bonding process together. There were lots of dinners (3/week), events, and socializing. When these key people died or moved, the energy went out of the group. Dinners are rare, there are less spontaneous gatherings or other events, and less accountability among the new arrivals, less commitment and belief in cohousing as a concept.
Everyone has assigned chores, but often these are not done, and there is no one who is responsible for enforcing these obligations, and no way to actually make people do them. Is this a disadvantage of a condominium structure? Or would it be true with any organizational structure? Can you assess financial penalties, and have that written into the rules? How do you motivate everyone to contribute, and deal with feelings of resentment and unfairness? Getting cohousing to work isn’t just a challenge at the start but is ongoing, and can be strongly affected by personnel changes.
The dining room at Yulupa was also multiple purpose, with stackable chairs and tables. The guest room was well used, but originally shared a bathroom with the exercise room and guests objected, so it was changed to a private guest bath with no bathroom for the exercise room.
Dinners are not as often anymore but there are some, basically when someone feels like it. It is supposed to be something everyone does on a regular schedule, but again, there is no enforcement. There is a charge of $5 per person for dinners you attend, but the cooks can spend whatever they want and get reimbursed for all expenses. You top up your $90 dinner account when it gets low. $10 of that goes to staples.
Leftovers cost $1. Beer or wine costs $1/glass. Guests are charged to the host’s account. This seems like a good system – we can set the price to be just higher than the average meal and not worry about a few extravagant ones. An alternative idea would be to take the cost of all common meals out of everyone’s monthly fees to encourage attendance (perhaps with exemptions when you are out of town). They also do a potluck once a month following the general meeting.
There were lots of kids here, and Marie felt that their energy was the best part of cohousing. The common house was well used; we saw a number of people there during our visit. Rather than having everything in a single all-purpose common house, Yulupa’s exercise room, guest room, storage areas (cleverly located behind the carports), workshop, bike storage, and garden shed were spread throughout the complex.
The only things that were actually in the common house were the library /meeting room (with a great two sided fireplace), dining, kitchen, kids room, bathroom, mail and notices area, and laundry. This might be more inconvenient, but may perhaps leads to more interaction as you walk past various dwellings. But it may also work better in this warm climate than in ours. Garden plots were available for individual use, not for common use.
Marie’s one bedroom apartment at 850 sqft seemed surprisingly spacious. Tall ceilings with skylights and slots cut into the tall walls made it feel bigger. The priorities were interesting – there was a quite big bedroom and bathroom, with more modest kitchen and living/dining area, and the office was incredibly tiny. This helped make it seem large in a small footprint. The living room looks into the courtyard, and Marie says she loves sitting and working on her couch and watching people go by.
The courtyard was great, central and beautiful, with people meeting and chatting. The fountains, group seating, and landscaping were all very nice, surrounded by striking, dramatic (colourful!) buildings. The downstairs units had covered patios. Upstairs, there were balconies lined with flowerpots and patio furniture along the inside (courtyard) and outside walls (with a great little sunset viewing deck in back).
The units came in multiple sizes from studio to many bedrooms. Some were two storey townhouses, while the rest were upstairs or downstairs apartments. There was no elevator. People moved within the complex when their needs change – if they need to be downstairs, for instance, or want something smaller (or larger). One woman owns two and rents out the small one for now.
Yulupa sounds like a place that was a real cohousing success when it first began. It is a beautiful place, with great common spaces and nice homes. The layout of the place and the great central courtyard seemed particularly conducive to both interaction and real enjoyment of the common elements. It still has a feeling of community, and a sense that everyone knows each other quite well. They have a system for events, committees and chores, but the system is only as good as its participants.
They are now struggling with many newer arrivals having different levels of commitment and enthusiasm for the cohousing concept, and some sense of resentment and inequity, as well as less camaraderie. Hopefully this is relatively minor compared to the advantages everyone feels to living in this place, but speaks to the importance of trying to ensure that all members are involved in the activities and decision-making process, that there is a mechanism for conflict resolution, and some way to make people accountable for their responsibilities to the group.