Pensioners: cohabitation is developing. Is it good for you ?

For Shelly Parks, cohabitation and the importance she places on close community ties was attractive for professional and personal reasons. A former marketing pro for large retirement communities, Parks felt like something was missing. “We crave connectivity, but our culture doesn’t do a great job of enabling it,” she says. “Cohabitation gave me the answer I was looking for.”

Often confused with other types of living arrangements, such as cohousing or even commons, cohousing combines private homes with shared common spaces, often in a village-like setting. Cohabitation can be multi-generational or exclusively for retirees, but unlike other communities, facilitating social interaction is a big part of the cohabitation model. Residents are generally expected to share the common needs of the community – so-called “workdays” to beautify gardens or serve on a committee, for example – with decisions managed as a group, by consensus or consent. Five years ago, Parks quit his corporate job and founded a cohabitation consulting firm. Now she and her husband will move into Skagit Commons, a cohousing community in Anacortes, Wash.

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Many people have made a similar choice by adopting the cohabitation lifestyle. In the United States today, there are 172 established communities, according to the most recent figures available from the United States Cohousing Association. Another 105 communities are forming and 20 are under construction. Trish Becker-Hafnor, executive director, adds that the actual numbers may be higher as data is still being analyzed to chart growth.

The housing concept has also experienced growing pains, as well as occasional financial failures. One example is Rocky Corner, a 30-unit, 33-acre cohousing community in Bethany, Connecticut. The first cohabitation experience in the state, Rocky Corner collapsed into foreclosure earlier this year after a decade of planning, leaving some senior investors with lost money and homeless. The problems were largely blamed on unforeseen costs and bureaucratic delays that piled up debt and extended the project schedule. Since the infrastructure is complete and 22 houses have been built, the community hopes that development will continue at some point.

Yet investing in a new cohousing project inherently carries a higher and different level of risk than buying a new home from a homebuilder or condominium developer, as buyers must commit more money up front to help develop these communities. These risks are particularly important today due to the impact of high inflation on all real estate developments and construction costs.

Although an unusual case because the failure occurred so close to completion, Rocky Corner highlights the greatest risks that all cohousing communities face, which can be described as the four Ms: market conditions, members, money and management. “Most cohousing projects that waste money and time have failed in the early feasibility stage, primarily because people have unrealistic expectations,” says Jim Leach, cohousing pioneer and founder of the development company residential and mixed-use Wonderland Hill Development Co. in Boulder, Colorado. Leach helped develop the nation’s first cohousing community and many others over his five-decade career.

For example, when a project establishes a final construction budget based on finished plans and specifications and all planning approvals are in place, it typically needs to have buyers committed to 70% to 90% of the homes to secure the construction financing, notes Leach. “In today’s world of financial underwriting,” he says, “committed buyers will likely need to put 20% or more of their home price into the project before the final construction loan is approved.”

People who are attracted to cohousing often want to be part of “creating the dream,” so to speak,” says Leach, who lives at Silver Sage Village Senior Cohousing in Boulder, Colorado, a cohousing community that he and his business have planned and planned. developed from 2003 to 2007. “But if you really want to reduce the financial risk, the best thing to do is to buy from a community that is already established or nearing completion.”

Community engagement is a key part of any cohousing business, and it’s more than the number of qualified member buyers, Leach says. A cohousing development requires strong community decision-making, team spirit and social ties from the start.

In fact, successful co-housing communities usually started with a few so-called “burning souls,” proponents say. Jim Mendell is one of them. For 27 years, he and his family lived in a Vermont home with lots of outdoor amenities but little contact with neighbors. “Once we became empty nesters,” he says, “we wanted to have that sense of community where we know our neighbors could be a part of our daily lives.” He and his wife, Meg Kamens, began exploring cohabitation and attended a few national conferences to learn more about it.

A visit to nearby Bristol, Vermont, where a large historic property near downtown was for sale, became the launch pad for a vision of cohabitation. Other buildings on adjoining land were also for sale. “We found partners and were able to mortgage the properties,” Mendell says. “We then spread the word locally, meeting in Bristol and surrounding towns.” Other families joined, and the result was a plan for a 14-unit community and the historic common house. With financing for the construction from a local bank, “we were on the right track,” he says. “Within a year, we had sold all the units and were able to repay the loan.” Bristol Village Cohousing was born in 2017 and five years later has 31 residents aged 11 to 80+.

The community is committed to sustainability, he says, so there are gardens and orchards, as well as 100% solar power. Shared tools include an electric lawn mower and snow blower, and residents have monthly community meals, chore days, and social events.

Mendell appreciates Bristol Village’s built-in network of support and camaraderie. “We have a great group of families who have fun working and playing together,” he says. “I love living together. It’s truly a throwback to the days when kids could feel free to play outside, knock on anyone’s door and expect to be welcome. K Susan J. Wells

The co-housing lifestyle has its pros and cons, but retirees interested in these communities should take the time to understand and consider them in the following ways.

Know what cohabitation is. “Cohousing tends to elicit a love/hate response when people first hear about it,” says cohousing consultant Shelly Parks. “Does it appeal to you or not.” The Cohousing Association of the United States can give you a good introduction to how cohousing works on their website (

Explore fully before acting. Cohousing communities differ widely in terms of size, location, property types, number of owners, cost, and expected shared commitment. So go beyond site visits to familiarize yourself with everything. At Skagit Commons in Anacortes, Wash., for example, interested potential new members are invited to become “Explorers,” which, for a $100 fee, immerses them in the community for 30 to 90 days, Parks says. “In that time frame, you get answers to all questions by being observers in everything – from getting to know residents to attending business meetings.”

Examine the financial and legal structure. Examine the documents and regulations if you can and ask questions. Does income cover expenses? Are there sufficient capital reserves? Who are the community’s financial partners? What surprises arose and how did the community deal with them? Do they operate like a homeowners association, and if so, how are HOA fees broken down?

Evaluate the project designers, architectural experts and construction team involved. It’s essential to have a clear idea of ​​the knowledge, experience and financial capability of developers and builders, says cohousing pioneer Jim Leach. The varied skills of founders and residents are also useful to know.

Evaluate member recruitment and sales momentum early on. Pre-sale levels and sustained interest, even when properties change hands, are the key commitments that will ensure success.

Understand how the community is managed. Jim Mendell, a cohabitation resident in Vermont, finds the style of autonomous sociocracy of this type of community effective. “In this decentralized system, I can trust others to make decisions that work for me,” he says, “and I don’t have to be involved in every detail.”

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