Building a new old-fashioned lifestyle

  • Article by: SUSAN E. PETERSON , Star Tribune Staff Writer
  • Updated: June 18, 2004 - 11:00 PM

From left, Karen VanAukem, Cameron McRostie, Ari O’Sullivan and his mom, Denise Tennen, shared a meal and lively conversation in the community dining room.

Photo: Richard Tsong - Taatarii, Star Tribune

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For the past 11 years, Nell Robie has lived alone -- sort of. She also lives with about 30 other members of the Monterey Cohousing Community in a beautifully converted former nursing home and a row of adjacent townhouses.

Robie, an energetic 77-year-old who looks at least a decade younger, was a founding member of the thriving St. Louis Park project in cooperative living, the only such project operating in Minnesota. It now includes 15 households -- singles and marrieds, with and without kids -- who live in seven townhouses and eight units in the main building. Robie has a cozy two-room apartment in the main building, as well as an extra room down the hall that she bought to house her painting studio.

Cohousing isn't like living in a commune, or in one giant family, Robie and other members emphasize. Although chores and some living spaces are shared, privacy and household autonomy are preserved.

"We connect with each other without being oppressive," said Monika Stumpf, a townhouse resident since 1996 and the community's chief gardener. "We think of ourselves not as a family but as good neighbors," Robie added.

Cohousing, which got its start in Denmark in the mid-1960s as a way to combat the growing isolation of modern urban life, has spread worldwide, although it is most prevalent in northern Europe. There are about 95 cohousing communities operating or under construction in the United States, and more than 60 others in various stages of formation.

The concept has been most popular on the coasts -- California, Washington state, Massachusetts, along with Colorado, have the most projects -- while the Midwest has been slower to adopt cohousing. No one is sure why that is, but some speculate that Midwestern people generally are less isolated from their neighbors, while others think it's simply a matter of trends taking hold first on the coasts and trickling inland.

While no two cohousing communities are organized exactly the same way, in most cases members own their own units and part of the common areas. At Monterey, the main-house units are structured as co-ops, with individual ownership of the apartments and common ownership of the land and "public" areas such as the large living room, a recently remodeled three-season porch, separate playrooms for younger kids and teens, a laundry room, an office, a well-equipped communal kitchen and a dining room.

The townhouses are organized as condominiums, with members owning their units and a small amount of land under them, as well as a share of the 2½-acre grounds and the common areas of the main building. The townhouses are connected to the main building -- and each other -- by a handy tunnel, so residents don't have to bundle up in mid-January to come to dinner or walk the treadmill in the exercise room.

For communal dinners, members buy meal tickets for $3 each, and depending on who's cooking that night, they can dine on a multicourse Japanese dinner or simple but tasty hamburgers and beans -- a big hit with the community's nine children.

Purchase prices for the residences have covered a wide range, depending on size and how long ago they were bought. Rick Gavrock, one of the founders, paid $23,000 in 1993 for a two-room-plus-bath apartment, while the townhouses ranged from about $70,000 to $165,000 when they were completed in 1996.

Karmit Bulman, who moved into one of the townhouses four years ago with her husband, Charles, and their three kids, said they paid about $170,000 for their home. "I think we got a steal," she said.

In addition to their mortgage payments, Monterey members pay a monthly association fee determined by unit size, ranging from about $100 to $360. That covers maintenance, insurance and taxes on common space and reserves for big expenses.

Maintenance expenses are relatively low because much of the upkeep is done by members. Volunteers sign up for duties such as gardening, cleaning common areas, cooking and meal cleanup and managing the community's finances. About the only service that's hired through an outside contractor is snowplowing.

"We've been so fortunate over the years -- if we need an electrician, somehow an electrician comes along," Robie said. "Our new members bring in different backgrounds and expertise."

Community decisions are made by consensus -- the group had a five-hour meeting recently to decide on paint colors for sprucing up some of the common areas -- and there's a built-in conflict resolution process to address the inevitable disputes that arise.

If members can't settle things among themselves, they typically ask another member to act as a facilitator, and for particularly thorny problems they bring in a professional arbitrator.

"The really important things don't get to be as big as the little things," Robie said. "A major issue was clotheslines. There are people who love drying their wash in the fresh air, and some were doing it in a conspicuous public spot. There were a lot of hurt feelings," she said, until an arbitrator helped work out a solution: they hid the clotheslines behind an attractive trellis and thick, beautiful rose bushes.

Although a few people have left the community during its 11-year history, including some who decided that they weren't a good fit for cohousing, turnover has been minimal, the members said. When there is a rare vacancy, prospective members are encouraged to participate in communal dinners and other activities for several months to see if cohousing is right for them, and vice versa.

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