Can cohousing solve Twin Cities’ economic inequality?

By John Horchner,
Commentary

Friendships are more important than we thought and being in places that champion friendships, especially between rich and poor, offer the best pathway out of poverty, a recently released study reported.

Not just Facebook friends, although 21 billion Facebook connections were analyzed to reach this conclusion, which was published in the journal Nature in August (also see socialcapital.org by Opportunity Insights c/o Harvard University).

On a local level, the data from this study shows that the share of friendships that can lift people out of poverty for those in St. Anthony Park and Como neighborhoods, for example, are nearly twice as great as those living in poorer parts of St. Paul.

Armed with this information, could we use “intentional communities” to solve the income inequality problem that persists in the Twin Cities?

The idea for intentional communities was born long ago but put into practice in earnest in Denmark in the 1980s after the first developments in the 1960s and 1970s that were created mainly by working parents.

The idea is to build a community before the structures are complete, to lay down the rules and attract enough members. Generally, it is a slow, frustrating process. While people think intentional communities will be up and running in a year, it can take several years.

Kathryn McCamant and her ex-husband Charles Durrett are credited with coining the term “cohousing” after visiting Denmark in 1984-85 and introducing the cohousing model commercially to North America and writing a book on the subject.

I reached McCamant by email and asked her why someone would want to invest in a cohousing community. Her response: “This is certainly not a ‘get rich quick’ investment. The big, long-term payoff for buyers is lower day-to-day costs of living because of their ability to collaborate with their neighbors, and because these communities emphasize energy efficiency that reduce heating and cooling costs.

While researching this article, I came across an announcement for the annual picnic for the Twin Cities Cohousing Network (TCCN) in July. Intrigued, I registered.

 It was held at Picnic Shelter No. 50 at Como Park which is south of the parking lots for the amusement park. By the time I arrived with my still warm potato salad, there was quite a crowd, about 40 people.

I introduced myself to another attendee, Russ Yttri, We chatted a bit. Later, on the phone, Russ told me, “… being a single guy in my 50s I have my future to look forward to … loneliness is very negative for your health.” He called cohousing “preventative medicine.”

At the picnic, I found a central table and sat down next to a middle-aged woman who was by herself. I learned that like me she was also a first timer in the cohousing scene. Her friends told her she was crazy to “… want to live with a bunch of strangers.” She said she still liked the idea.

We were joined by a dark-haired woman in her 30s who sat down across from us. I asked why she was there. She said she was in cohousing in Madison, Wisconsin, and liked the connection, the cooking and didn’t mind the chores.

After the meal, Paul Wehrwein and Becca Brackett from TCCN introduced the organization as a nonprofit made up of volunteers. We went around the group to hear from everyone else.

There were a lot of groups in process.

Russ is a member of Cedar Cohousing that is looking to start something in the cities. There was Brian from Prospect Park. There was the multi-generational group from White Bear Lake. There was a virtual sustainability group and another one where someone threw out the idea that it could be based on a cohousing community called Dancing Rabbit, which is off-the-grid in Missouri. There was a group of a few families that spent summers camping together that are moving onto the next step and exploring cohousing.

“We got no structure, no money, no land … yet!” said the campers. Wehrwein, the volunteer with TCCN, is involved in starting a senior cohousing community for the 50+ bracket.

Obviously, the Twin Cities does not lack for new cohousing ideas. However, so far, there is only one cohousing community operating; it’s in St Louis Park.

This was the point that Garrett Peterson made when it was his turn to talk. He was part of a cohousing group when he lived in Madison but was deciding on whether there was a quicker path to cohousing in the Twin Cities. I went over and got his card. It said he’s a change agent involved in real estate.

When we spoke, Peterson told me, “Next to the communities that actually exist, many more are in the forming process … It’s like I can’t find what I’m looking for, so I’m going to start it myself. That puts you in the role of real estate developer.”

Garrett thinks the process could use some help. Maybe turn it over to a professional real estate developer who could set it up like a condominium development and then “… infuse it with the spirit of cohousing.”

When I spoke to Russ after the picnic, he agreed. “I did not realize it would take so much time and energy,” he said and added: “I want out of the real estate game.”

So, there are some challenges, but there’s also a huge opportunity if cohousing communities could help solve the persistent economic inequality problem we have in the Twin Cities. The initial idea may not be to get ahead or improve our own lot in life.

However, just like often happens because of friendships, that could be its most satisfying consequence.

John Horchner is a professional writer and lives in St. Anthony Park.

1 Response

  1. A shout out of thanks from a Twin Cities Cohousing Network director to John Horchner for writing about his attendance att Twin Cities Cohousing Network’s summer picnic! I appreciated how he lifted up the local interest in creating new cohousing communities, and the challenges of getting a project off the ground.

    Separate from other types of intentional communities (e.g.; a number of people co-living in a single family home), cohousing communities generally consist of 20-40 owner-occupied housing units. Residents frequently seek to build smaller than usual private homes to afford more extensive common spaces desired by the community. A cohousing community is small enough for everyone to remain connected and large enough to distribute the tasks of maintaining the community’s buildings, grounds, and social activities.

    Because cohousing communities are usually self-managed, they also provides opportunities for residents to participate in direct democratic governance of the day-to-day management of their community. Through their participation in co-designing and co-developing their community, cohousers generally seek to minimize their ecological footprint, increase social interaction among residents, provide orientation and training for cooperative participation within the community, and promote engagement with the larger community in which they are located.

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