Who are the people in your neighborhood? With co-housing, you’ll always know.
A flier in a North Portland New Seasons grocery store changed the life trajectory of Karen Stahr and her 8-year-old son Altay.
As a solo parent living in her own Portland home with no family close by, Stahr had been feeling overwhelmed and isolated.
“I reached a breaking point trying to set up playdates with other kids,” Stahr says. “I just thought, ‘We’ve got to come up with a different model.’”
Then, in 2013, Stahr saw a flier in New Seasons about Cully Grove, a new multi-generational cohousing community planned for a bustling neighborhood in Northeast Portland. The proposed development described itself as “an old-fashioned neighborhood built in a new-fashioned way.” She was intrigued.
“Parenting can be exhausting when you don’t get breaks, but (in cohousing) there are always children to play with and people to watch them.”
— Noelle Studer-Spevak
Stahr wasn’t the first to be hooked by the idea of living in a cohousing community This blend of private homes, shared spaces and common goals has its roots in Denmark in the 1960s, but arrived in the United States in the 1980s.
Today, intentional communities have sprouted all over the country, from Ann Arbor, Mich., to Berkeley, Calif. In Portland alone, there are nine cohousing communities in various stages of development, making it a small, butgrowing lifestyle.
“For me, it was an intuitive choice,” says Stahr (pronounced Star), of her decision to move her small family into the newly formed Cully Grove.
Stahr had considered sharing her home with another single parent or moving closer to family in Seattle, but neither option felt right. Instead, Stahr attended informal meetings lead by Cully Grove planners to get a feel for the people who might one day be her neighbors. She wanted her son to develop strong bonds with more adults, and to make more friends herself. A few potluck dinners later, Stahr was ready to take the leap.
Good neighbors, no fences
“I was nervous about who the other (Cully Grove) families were going to be, but I had to have faith that whoever would sign on for this would have some shared values with me,” she says.Her gamble paid off. The small community of 16 families nestled closely on nearly two acres at NE 48th and Going Street has gelled nicely. There is a vegetable garden with plots for each home and a small fruit tree orchard. The modest homes are built close together to maximize outdoor space, and there is a shared common house where the community eats together several times a month. Parking lots are located around the periphery of the property to ensure more foot traffic along the meandering paths of the community, and children take turns jumping on a shared trampoline.
“For me, it’s been a radical shift in comfort. Now we have so much shared outdoor space,” Stahr says. “If (Altay) falls down, if he breaks an elbow on the trampoline, there is a cushion of other people to help him. It feels like a real extension of myself to have all these other households watching.”
That’s the point of cohousing, says Eli Spevak, a co-developer of several cohousing communities in the Portland area including Peninsula Park Commons and Cully Grove, where he lives with his wife, Noelle, and their two young children.
“It started out as a way of living in community. I wanted to keep up informal friendships, but also be in my own house,” says Spevak who was entrenched in the cohousing movement long before his children came along. “Once you have kids, the benefits really jump. We can hand off the baby monitor to a neighbor and have a date night.”
For Spevak’s wife, Noelle, the advantages for her children are palpable. “It’s a real gift to the kids,” she says.
Forming easy friendships
“Parenting can be exhausting when you don’t get breaks, but (in cohousing) there are always children to play with and people to watch them,” Noelle says.
Advocates for cohousing with kids say relationships develop easily over shared activities like meal preparation or gardening.
Residents can open their front door and a social life — for both parents and kids — is at hand.
“I totally miss the organic play dates that just happened,” says Sara Sherwood, a parent who used to live in another local cohousing community, Columbia Ecovillage, with her husband Tobias and their two children, ages 4 and 6. “Now it takes about three emails and five texts to arrange an interaction.”
The couple decided to move out when they had a second child and outgrew their 900 square foot condominium. Today, they are living in a traditional single-family home, but they’ve put their name on a wait list for Cully Grove.
Sherwood admits living in a traditional home has some advantages, too.
“I don’t have to always think, are the scooters put away? Are the kids shoes out of everyone’s path?” she said. “(When you live in cohousing) there’s an extra awareness that all of our actions impact the whole community. You have to be considerate.”
Parenting in the spotlight
For Karen Stahr, realizing that her parenting style is on full display with the entire community is something she’s had to come to terms with. “You’re definitely on show,” she said. “But I’m comfortable with myself and my parenting style, and I don’t feel judged.”
Before moving in to Cully Grove, Stahr says she had conversations with several members of the community about discipline as it related to her young son. And she also had to have a heart-to-heart with Altay about respecting the adults in the community, too.
Sherwood agrees that not everyone has the same parenting styles and working it out is a process that involves dialogue and trial and error.
“Eventually you learn the details of which families want what kinds of supervision, and we discover the things we have in common,” she says.
Can’t we all just get along
Built into the infrastructure of most cohousing communities is the idea that conflicts will arise and most can be solved through communication and education.
“The next frontier for us is to form a book club about parenting and positive disciplining,” says Noelle Spevak. “It will help (Cully Grove) get a fresh perspective and help us note where we are.”
And the Spevaks hope that as the children of Cully Grove grow into teenagers and young adults, they’ll draw on lessons they’ve learned about cooperation, creativity and conflict resolution.
“It felt really safe,” says Sherwood of her time living in a cohousing community. “It’s good to have people around who know your kids and are invested in them.”
Thinking of moving into a cohousing community?
Make sure you’ve got what it takes to thrive in a place where your neighbors have your back, but might also be in your business. Here are some tips:
- Assess how sociable you are by nature and how much you’ll want to be as you age. You can always live in a cohousing community and participate minimally in the group activities, but what’s the point?
- How willing are you to share your possessions? Be truthful with yourself about your comfort level at borrowing a rake or loaning out your bicycle. Sharing resources is a big part of the cohousing ethos.
- Take the time to vet a community you are interested in joining. Go to the potluck dinners, participate in the work parties, and make sure the personalities and philosophies mix well with yours.
- Ask questions about the community decision-making style, and make sure you understand how it works for you. Forms of community decision-making are as varied as the communities themselves. Some make decisions using consensus, while others rely on majority rules.
- Assess how willing all members of your family are to a drastic lifestyle change, and remember that, for many, a move into cohousing includes scaling back possessions, as well as squeezing into a smaller square footage.
Helyn Trickey Bradley and her husband are raising three daughters in Portland. In between parenting duties, she finds time to freelance for O, The Oprah Magazine and CNN.com.