Trend watch: Cohousing makes its way to Cleveland

About two or three years ago, Cleveland Heights resident Mary Kelsey and some friends began talking about the concept of cohousing—creating a community of homes that are clustered around shared spaces like a common house and outdoor areas, according to the Cohousing Association of the United States.

In fact, the notion of cohousing communities is growing in the U.S., says Kelsey. “Cohousing began in the 70s in Denmark, and most senior housing these days is communal in Denmark,” she explains. “In Europe, there are hundreds of these [cohousing communities], as well as in Asia and South America. It’s not a new idea, but it’s new to some.”

Kelsey says there are fewer than 200 cohousing communities across the United States, with “quite a few” in progress, including Northeast Ohio.

Heights Cohousing has been gaining momentum in the past year, and the group of five members are looking to recruit 10 to 20 total households—of all ages— to create a cohousing community. The group bases its design on the book Creating Cohousing: Building Sustainable Communities by Kathryn McCamant and Charles Durrett, with the aim of creating a diverse community of residents who will share community management decisions, as well as social interests.

Unlike gated or exclusive community developments, cohousing communities tend to be humble, Kelsey explains. “Cohousing homes are usually smaller than most single-family homes you might find in a gated community,” she explains. “That’s because the common house is designed to serve some functions that a single-family home might need, [like] gatherings of all kinds, wood shop, craft room, kids’ play areas. So, while many people, but not all, who build in the community do design their own homes, they often do so on a smaller and greener footprint.”

Additionally, the residents decide as a cohesive group what they want in their neighborhood. “We create the community and we manage all aspects of it,” says Kelsey. “We’re not going to put anything to someone else’s hands to do. We won’t hire a developer, but we’ll hire a development consultant.”

Kelsey says everyone has a role to play to make a cohousing community work. She says while some people join for social interaction, others join a community to share knowledge and resources. “My interest is in having a neighborhood where we can have interdisciplinary [tasks],” she says. “Some people are looking for friends. Everybody’s got to be invested to some extent.”

The social aspect is a big part of the community. “Households are in some way clustered,” Kelsey explains, “so that when you leave your house and go to your car, you pass each other’s house.” A common house, where residents meet, make decisions, and often share meals is usually a central anchor point in the community. “We will decide how to use the common house,” she says. “Some people in the community are not particularly social, some people are very social.”

But Kelsey stresses that the members also value privacy. Backyards to the homes are private areas. “Everyone’s concerned about privacy in the design,” she says. However, she also emphasizes that individual privacy does not translate into the community cutting itself off from the rest of the city or world.

Furthermore, creating a cohousing community does not mean sharing finances, Kelsey says. “We do not share incomes,” she says. Rather, it’s about sharing the work the comes with owning a home and maintaining a safe, appealing neighborhood.

“We are absolutely not a commune, and we’re also not a co-op,” says Kelsey. “With cohousing in general, we do not set ourselves apart from the community. In fact, cohousing groups tend to improve the neighborhoods where they are built, as members are usually active and civic minded, and neighbors see new possibilities for connecting with each other.”

The group hasn’t found a site yet, but Kelsey, who grew up in Beachwood and lives in Cleveland Heights, says that they would ideally like to find something in the Heights area—Shaker, Cleveland, University.

The problem is, they need at least four acres to build their community. “So that does narrow the possibilities for what we have in mind,” says Kelsey. Places like Severance Town Center, and even an elementary school, have been discussed, but she says the group doesn’t want to wait around for possible property sale negotiations.

Kelsey says the group is not set on building the cohousing community in the Heights, but the number-one priority is walkability. “Those us us who have lived in Cleveland Heights and have had the experience of walking everywhere don’t want to give that up,” she explains. “When we say ‘walkable,’ we say a half-mile or less to whatever amenities we have in mind.”

She also says Cleveland Heights planning director Richard Wong supports Heights Cohousing’s efforts. Kelsey says the group’s next steps are to recruit additional members (there is a one-time, non-refundable joiner’s fee), hire legal and financial consultants, and, of course, find a location.

Heights Cohousing held a social event on Monday, Jan. 22 at the Wine Spot to inform people of their plans and progress and holds regular monthly socials. For more information, contact Heights Cohousing or go to the group’s Facebook page.

Read more articles by Karin Connelly Rice.

Karin Connelly Rice enjoys telling people's stories, whether it's a promising startup or a life's passion. Over the past 20 years she has reported on the local business community for publications such as Inside Business and Cleveland Magazine. She was editor of the Rocky River/Lakewood edition of In the Neighborhood and was a reporter and photographer for the Amherst News-Times. At Fresh Water she enjoys telling the stories of Clevelanders who are shaping and embracing the business and research climate in Cleveland.
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