Cohousing Communities: What's So UU About Them?
From a Presentation at the General Assembly of the Unitarian Universalist Association, June 2003.

by Joani Blank


Last Tuesday morning, I was awakened at the ungodly hour of 6:30 by my toy poodle Bapu licking my face to let me know that he wanted to go out. As I walked with him toward the garden, I was greeted by my neighbor Mark, who was bringing the morning paper up from the garden gate to leave at the doorsteps of the six households in my community who subscribe to it. I had just waved hello to Sarah who was seated at the breakfast table in her house, and said hi to Neil who had opened his door for his two cats to take the morning air. Returning from the garden, Bapu and I went back to sleep for half an hour before I got ready to go to the gym. On my way out through the common house I passed Susan, Roberto and Sasha and a couple of other neighbors clearing out the kids room in preparation for their weekly yoga class. Wow. It’s only 7:15 am and I’ve already said good morning to eight of my neighbors.

Since I work at home, I’m one of the people who gets to sign for everyone’s UPS and FedEx deliveries, let in the elevator inspector or the cable guy, and play with Talia, a toddler, for an hour from time to time while her mom runs an errand or needs some uninterrupted time to finish up a sermon (Talia’s mom’s a UU minister). In the past, I’ve been called by neighbors away at work during the day to ask if I’d look for a phone number on a scrap of paper they’ve left on their desk, close windows against an unexpected rain, or move a batch of their laundry from the washer to the dryer.

That Tuesday when I discover that I’m out of milk for my afternoon tea, I’m lucky enough to find some in the common house refrigerator. On a table in the common dining room today are several bunches of celery, a batch of chard, and a small head of cabbage with a sign that says. “Fresh from our garden. Enjoy.” On my way out to do a bit of grocery shopping in the afternoon, I check with Margaret who’s been quite ill lately and unable to get out as much as she’d like to see if she need anything at the market and sure enough she does.

Tuesday’s a common dinner night and fortunately I’ve remembered to sign up. About 20 of us are eating common dinner that night. John and Cheryl have prepared a wonderful vegetarian repast topped off with one of John’s spectacular desserts. As all our cooking teams do, these two folks will have done every bit of the meal preparation for that night (menu planning, shopping, cooking, serving, and cleaning up). The rest of us get to relax, eat and chat with the neighbors during the dinner hour. I cooked just last week, so I can enjoy up to three meals a week for the next 5 weeks, that’s 14 more common dinners, before it’s my turn to cook again.

The garden committee is meeting tonight after dinner, while on the spur of the moment Nick lets us know that the original Matrix DVD will be shown on the new large screen monitor at his place at 8:00. Someone volunteers to bring popcorn for those watching the movie. But I have some desk work to complete before retiring, so I head for home, stopping on my way to commiserate a bit with Madeline, who has been having a very hard time with her teenage daughter (it wasn’t that long ago that my own daughter was a teenager), and congratulating Jim on his son’s graduation from college. A little down the walkway, Dana asks me to hold a plant while she prepares it for repotting, then invites me in for my opinion about the best second color to paint the small bathroom she and her partner just installed. As I open the door to my house, Bapu bounds out to grab a few last playful moments with Judy and Kate, who are chatting in the walkway, before he comes back in to chow down on his doggie dinner.

I have enjoyed living in cohousing for more than 12 years. And as of last April 2004, I have had the privilege of visiting a total of 49 other cohousing communities (some albeit very briefly). I also serve on the Board of the Cohousing Association of the US, a national non-profit supporting the development and sustenance of cohousing communities in this country.

If you understand why the elevator speech in answer to the question “what is cohousing” is just about as challenging as the elevator speech answer to the question “What is a Unitarian-Universalist?” So I think I’ll let you deduce a brief definition of cohousing, should you ever need one, from what you see and hear this morning. I also invite you deduce, if you haven’t already started to do so, exactly what is so UU about cohousing.

I’ll start with the six defining characteristics of a cohousing community. If nothing else, these at least should help you start to understand what cohousing is not.

1. PARTICIPATORY PROCESS. Future residents participate in the design of the community so that it meets their needs. Although some cohousing communities are initiated or driven by a housing developer, a well-designed, pedestrian-oriented community without resident participation in the planning may be "cohousing-inspired," but it is not a cohousing community.

2. NEIGHBORHOOD DESIGN. The physical layout and orientation of the buildings (the site plan) support a sense of community. The private residences are typically clustered on the site leaving more shared open space, the dwellings almost always face each other across one or more pedestrian “streets” or courtyards, and cars are parked on the periphery. The intent is for the design to be one important factor in creating a strong sense of community.

3. COMMON FACILITIES. In cohousing, common facilities are designed for daily use, are an integral part of the community, and are always supplemental to the private residences. The common house typically includes a common kitchen, dining area, sitting area, children's playroom and laundry, and perhaps also has a workshop, a library, an exercise room, a teen room, a crafts room and/or one or two guest rooms. Except in the case of very compact urban sites, cohousing communities usually have playground equipment, lawns, and flower and vegetable gardens, and occasionally they have a few acres of woods or fields or wetlands or an orchard

4. RESIDENT MANAGEMENT. Cohousing communities are managed by their residents, with regular—usually monthly—meetings, where the whole group, supported by a number of committees, develops policy and does problem solving for the community. Residents also do most of the work required to maintain the property, each community creating a work-share arrangement unique to itself, but more and more, learning, from cohousing communities that have been down that road before, what works and what doesn’t.

5. NON-HIERARCHICAL STRUCTURE AND DECISION-MAKING. Many groups start with one or two "burning souls," but as new people join the group, each person takes on one or more roles consistent with his or her skills, abilities and interests, and leadership broadens. Most cohousing groups make all of their decisions by consensus, and although many groups have a policy for voting if consensus cannot be reached after a number of attempts, it is very rarely or never necessary to resort to voting.

6. NO SHARED COMMUNITY ECONOMY. As a group, the community does not engage in any income-generating activity. Occasionally, a cohousing community will employ one of its own members to do a specific (usually time-limited) task, but more typically the task will simply be considered to be that member's contribution to the shared responsibilities.

So now to the question posed by the title of this presentation. What’s So UU about Cohousing? I’ve long noticed that UUs seem to be over-represented in cohousing groups-in-formation and in completed communities (in my community we are 5 households out of 20, or 25%), so a few months ago I raised this question on the Cohousing listserve, and the discussion that ensued supported my observation, including the fact that in a number of places, the “burning souls” who had started the community were UUs.

Also, cohousing professionals consulting with new cohousing groups frequently recommend that the group promote their project to the local community of UUs if there is a church or fellowship in the area. Since most cohousing groups welcome any household or person who is sufficiently attracted to the project to make the necessary commitments—that is, there is no “screening”—we must have the notion that UUs are the sort of people who will be drawn to cohousing, in other words, that cohousers and UUs share certain values.

I’ve identified several values that are shared by UUs and most cohousers in four of our seven principles.

“The inherent worth and dignity of every person” Cohousers agree to treat one another with respect and dignity in our formal meetings, and for the most part, this mutual respect carries over into our daily interactions with one another. Our non-hierarchical structure encourages people to explore and bring their gifts to the community. And our commitment to consensus process, when we practice it conscientiously assures that everyone feels that his or her perspective has been heard and understood.

“Justice, equity and compassion in human relations.” Cohousing communities are committed to fairness and equity in a number of respects. For example, we try to divide the work of maintaining and managing the community fairly, but our desire to make sure that everyone participates more or less equally is tempered by compassion for those who can’t (or just plain won’t) do their share. Since cohousing communities are multigenerational, and to some extent culturally diverse, those who join a cohousing group are often challenged to treat folks quite different from themselves as equals. In my community, for example, we have all learned a great deal about the challenges and the rights of persons with disabilities, as two of our neighbors are wheelchair riders.

“…use of the democratic process…” Frankly, I’ve always had a bit of difficulty with the phrasing of this principle because I believe that there is more than one democratic process (if only the word “the” were omitted, I’d be happier). Neither “voting” nor “Robert’s Rules of Order” appears in any dictionary definition of the word “democratic.” And although both of these are crucial to the practice of democratic process in our congregations and here at General Assembly, neither has any place in cohousing.

However, cohousers are committed to another equally, if not more, democratic process called consensus. found two definitions of the word “democratic” that apply to consensus process at least as well, if not better, than some other so-called democratic processes. One is “of or pertaining to the people in general,” the other is “believing in or practicing social equality.” By these definitions, consensus process is about as democratic as group governance gets. Learning consensus decision-making can be difficult, even painful, at first for those who are new to it, but eventually most cohousers can’t imagine our communities governing themselves any other way. Indeed, for a few people, active engagement in consensus process almost rises to the level of a spiritual practice.

Finally, we have before us the seventh principle, you know the one about the “interdependent web of existence of which we are a part.” For starters, one reason people are initially attracted to cohousing is because they want to start living out the awareness they already have about the interdependence of us humans with each other. But well beyond that, it is safe to say that most cohousers, whether or not they are UUs, have a high level of environmental consciousness.

We cluster our homes, leaving more natural open space, and we preserve energy by having more attached housing. We drive our cars a good deal less because so many of our social and other needs are met right where we live. We own one lawn mower instead of 20, and two sets of socket wrenches instead of ten. Beyond recycling and composting, which virtually all of us do, some communities are conscientious about preparing healthy, even organic common meals, using non-toxic finishes and cleaning products and practicing integrated pest management.

Also, virtually all of us aspire to using green building techniques to the greatest extent that we can afford them--hydronic heating, blown cellulose insulation, Hardiplank, so-called advanced framing of our buildings (which uses up to one third less wood than standard framing), geothermal heating and cooling, straw bale construction, solar heating and integrated photovoltaic roofs, to name a few.

At our opening plenary Thursday night, Kathy Huff (whom our Oakland, CA congregation had the good sense to call as one of our ministers just a year ago), reminded us that the communitarianism (if it can be called that) of some of our founding fathers was based in radical individualism. In modern times our commitment to individual spiritual freedom, to freedom of religious belief, remains strong. Unfortunately however, most Americans (and I daresay many UUs) desire and support community only as long as, and to the extent that it serves them as individuals.

When I heard Kathy say this, I couldn't help but think how true this is for so many folks considering cohousing. Yes, we all are genuinely seeking more of a sense of community in our lives. On the other hand, many of us are oh so reluctant to let go of ingrained notions of what we as individuals need or want in the place we choose to live.

Countless times I've heard:

"How can I be sure I'll like everyone in the community? I'd only want to do this with people who are already friends or at least those who are like minded."
"We just can't manage without three bathrooms in our home."
"I can't even cook for myself. No way could I cook for 30 or 40 people."
"I really don't want to live in that neighborhood!"
"I'll only consider joining if there are no kids (or lots of kids) in the group."

Speaking now for myself, I want something more from the place I've chosen to live and from the group of neighbors who end up living with me. I want us as a group to be committed to something larger than ourselves, both individually and collectively.

After living in cohousing for more than 11 years, I think I'm beginning to understand what that "something larger" is for me. Although it is hard to put into words, it hangs in the air of every cohousing community I've ever visited. It is the sense that the people living there care about each other, care about the wider neighborhood and the world around them, and care about the planet. It's kind of like your favorite UU congregation—with any luck the one you belong to now—with the big difference that at noon on Sunday, you don't have to say " see you next week" as you walk out the door, because you live there, you are already at home.

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