The past few years revealed not only the devastating impact of an aggressive virus, but also its inevitable byproduct: loneliness. Social isolation was already a worldwide public health problem, but two years of forced separation from family and support systems due to the pandemic exacerbated mental and physical health challenges for many.
As we slowly regroup and redefine what community looks like, a growing number of like-minded Minnesotans already have one possible solution. Paul Wehrwein, of St. Paul, is a volunteer with the Twin Cities Cohousing Network, (TCCN), a nonprofit educating the public about the benefits of cohousing. He shares more about the concept, and busts a few myths, below.
Q: Let's start with a definition of cohousing and how it differs from, say, an apartment complex or condo unit.
A: Cohousing is neighborhood created with intention, where people know and look after each other. Built in is respect for individual privacy, with stand-alone homes (or, sometimes, apartments) offering the added bonus of common facilities and common meals on a fairly frequent basis. The idea comes from a desire to return to the "village" concept exemplified in Denmark in the early 1960s. With traditional housing complexes, a developer builds and then finds people to live there. Cohousing flips this around, starting with a small group of people with shared values who start looking for land and then seek professionals to assist and guide them to create their village.
Q: So it's an antidote to social isolation?
A: Cohousing doesn't presume to solve the problem of social isolation, but it makes it a little less relevant. For example, chats or visits can happen more on a whim. If you don't own a lawnmower, you can borrow one. Someone can pick up your prescription for you. People can share garden space.
Q: Conversely, I imagine some people are turned off because they worry about too much togetherness. What do you tell them?
A: Introverts can do very well in cohousing. The interactions can be informal, allowing neighbors to interact to the degree that they want. For example, people can get together to cook in the communal kitchen and eat in the shared dining space twice a week, or once every two weeks. It's whatever people want.
Q: Related to that, residents can also find meaningful ways to contribute to the community. Might you say more about that?
A: One of the hallmarks of cohousing is collaboration and distributed decisionmaking. You may have some folks geared toward taking care of the grounds and gardens, another circle of people all about managing the common house, another focused on administration or the meal program.
Q: But we're dealing with humans here. What happens when differences arise?
A: As a member of the community, there is give and take. You may not get your pet project or policy through and may have to hold your nose about another that does. But it's OK because you're served by an effective process that gives everyone a voice. But yes, you're bowing to the needs of the group more than in your average neighborhood. It was once described to me, tongue-in-cheek, as "being married to 27 other people." Still, there's so much joy and stimulation and comfort and security.
Q: Is cohousing more expensive than buying a regular home?
A: Cohousing isn't inherently different that way. Some communities really aim for affordability, others have different goals.
Q: Where are cohousing communities most commonly found in the U.S.?
A: There are a ton in the Northwest, in California, and in parts of the East Coast. There are four communities in Madison, Wisconsin, and I'm planning to go on a tour of all four. Boulder, Colorado, is a hotbed. People can go to cohousing.org to find out where communities are located state by state.
Q: And, hey, let's not leave out Minnesota.
A: Yes! The multi-generational Monterrey Cohousing Community in St. Louis Park, established in 1992, is a great example. Five additional cohousing communities are in various stages of development, including one I'm a part of for people 50 and older, with occupancy a handful of years away.
Q: You live in a single-family house in St. Paul. When did you begin to think about cohousing as an option for yourself?
A: About 20 years ago, I found a book at the library about cohousing. The authors — American architects — wrote about discovering a particular Danish neighborhood that seemed particularly alive. Lo and behold, this was a cohousing community. They brought the concept to the United States and it has kind of rippled from there. For some time, I've thought, wouldn't it be cool to share more aspects of life with other people? To own my own home surrounded by some shared spaces and work on projects together and support each other but still have a private life? Wouldn't that just make a better life? One of the authors of that book was in town about four years ago. That really kicked off my involvement. It's meaningful to have common goals we're all striving toward. I would rather wear out than rust out.
Q: How do people get more information about TCCN?
A: Go to tccoho.org.