More On “Cohousing”

“Cohousing” is becoming a bit of the flavor of the month these days. <<link>>

A few years ago, Claire Thompson wrote about “Cohousing: The Secret to Sustainable Urban Living?”[1]  As she says, people really like this “village” living, and it certainly sounds great. (It sounds to me like a retirement village for people who aren’t retired—which is hardly a terrible idea.)

But, Thompson says, cohousing isn’t any cheaper than any other housing, which means that it is out of the reach of many people, especially in urban areas. It’s cool but may be occupied only by the wealthy. This is not really the envisioned diversity of a “village”.

I’d say that it’s not only diversity that suffers, the entire concept of “people helping each other” seems idiotic if you have to be a millionaire to live there. Millionaires helping other millionaires cook dinner and baby sit? I don’t think so.

Thompson reports that one aspect of the cost is the planning and organization of the space. It’s hard enough for one family to build a house, getting a bunch of people to work together is even more difficult. And, again, only wealthy people have the luxury to spend the time and money on such an exercise.

To mitigate high costs, some cohousing includes rental units which are more affordable. Many are concerned that renter’s may lack commitment to the long term community. (I suspect that those fears are misplaced, if not flat out prejudice.)

Another idea is to implement key aspects of the social system without necessarily building or buying dedicated housing. With digital social media, it is perfectly possible to overlay sharing and mutual help on any neighborhood. Indeed, many aspects of “the sharing economy” will work really well if you are working with people in walking distance.

These are all great ideas. The main thing I really worry about is self-sorting and the frictions of gentrification (“gentrifrictions”?). To the degree that these communities select for people who “get it”, there is risk that the “village” will be filled with “people like me”—not a formula for neighborly relations. And if this cluster is also paying premium prices, it will push out poorer people—not a formula for sustainable cities.

However, cohousing did not invent gentrification, nor is it the source of self-sorting. With the right sort of leadership and attention to real community building, cohousing is certainly worth working toward.

  1. Claire Thompson, “Cohousing: The Secret to Sustainable Urban Living?”. Grist.July 11 2012,


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