Building a new old-fashioned lifestyle

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

All adult members of the community are board members, and new residents of the co-op units in the main house must be approved by a unanimous vote. Although there are no restrictions on who can buy the townhouses, new residents must be approved by the community before they can join the board.

One of the community's biggest problems was with one of the townhouses, which had a prospective owner back out before completion in 1996 and ended up being occupied mostly by renters until earlier this year.

The renters weren't interested in being part of the community, and didn't interact much with the members, Stumpf said. "We need the participation of the whole group," she said. "It's very uncomfortable to have somebody in your midst who doesn't participate."

Nonetheless, that doesn't mean that all the members have to be raging extroverts who thrive on group activities.

"My husband and I are the most introverted," said Julie Rasmussen, one of the early members, who said they can always sign up for solitary chores - cooking dinner alone, for instance, or tackling a solo cleanup project. "I find it much more satisfying to not always be meeting someone new," she said, as they would in a traditional neighborhood with more frequent turnover of neighbors.

Robie said in the early years, when the project was being developed, the townhouses were being built and major renovations to the main house were underway, "our whole lives were involved with this place. ... Now we don't necessarily see as much of each other as when we were in constant crisis mode, and that's healthy."

One big attraction for many of the members is the multigenerational aspect of the community. When Joan and Kevin Cahill were looking to downsize from their Bloomington home, "We looked at a couple senior places, but everybody was old," Joan said. "We've got lots of nieces and nephews, but they're in places like California and Milwaukee. ... We can get our kid fix here."

Her husband, Kevin, likes sports, and he attends many of the teenagers' soccer games or takes them to Twins games.

"We do it because we love it," Kevin Cahill said. "The young people give this place energy -- they give me energy."

The younger community members said there's usually a row of Monterey residents at school plays and concerts, and that it's fun having lots of surrogate grandparents and aunts and uncles around.

Laura Powers and Elana Bulman, both 14, said they also like having lots of space for sleep-overs and parties with their friends. "It's so easy, because Elana is accessible," Laura said. "Yeah, in the winter we can go through the tunnel," Elana added.

Bessie Bulman, 8, the youngest member of the community, said she wishes there were more kids her age to play with, but that she likes having lots of people around. "Joan and Kevin are like grandparents," she said. "All my friends are jealous."

Susan E. Peterson is at sepeterson@startribune.com.

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