Thursday, October 08, 2009

Alternative Housing: Intentional Communities

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I’ve talked in the past about alternative types of housing, but the alternatives have always referred to structural and environmental issues. What about other types of alternative housing? What about housing that encourages people to live in a more communal spirit?

Throughout human history, groups of people with common bonds have lived together in a community, either a shared physical location or, in the case of nomadic tribes, a shared pattern of roaming. When civilization moved beyond the tribal stage, religious beliefs were the common bonds that held together villages and most small towns. When we moved into the era of multiple types of groups living in larger urban areas, ethnic bonds usually prevailed. Sometimes this offered the comfort and familiarity of a community; sometimes it resulted in impoverished ghettos. Larger societies also have class or caste systems that create communities. Some are blatant, like those in India or England; some are more subtle, like Japan or Israel. Here in “the land of the free, home of the brave,” we have a massive mix of groups, many still astonishingly segregated, and a class system in which higher echelons can be cracked, to a substantial degree, with enough financial success.

So where do modern “intentional communities” fit in? There are still religious and cultural forms like ashrams and kibbutzes, and, in the U.S., communities like the Amish, or Native Americans who live on tribal lands. But there are also other types of intentional communities, communes and cohousing, which are based on shared philosophies or on simple economic need.

In addition to shared philosophy, communes have a shared economy, i.e., the communal structure generates at least some income for the members. Aging Boomers who were politically active liberals probably remember The Farm, Steven Gaskin’s “noble experiment” and a classic commune. An English professor at San Francisco State, Gaskin witnessed the explosion, then implosion, of the Haight-Ashbury district during the late 1960s. His response was to buy land in Tennessee and, along with a few hundred followers, set up an intentional community that was held together by the philosophical beliefs of anti-materialism, vegetarianism and self-sufficiency. The Farm still exists, in spite of bumps along the way, and now includes charitable service as part of its philosophy.

According to the website, "The cohousing idea originated in Denmark, and was promoted in the U.S. by architects Kathryn McCamant and Charles Durrett in the early 1980s. . . [Cohousing brings] together the value of private homes with the benefits of more sustainable living. . . The common house is the social center of a community, with a large dining room and kitchen, lounge, recreational facilities, children’s spaces, and frequently a guest room, workshop and laundry room. Communities usually serve optional group meals in the common house at least two or three times a week."
Click here for the six defining characteristics of cohousing. One is that the cohousing community is not a source of income for its members, making this arrangement distinct from a commune.
Check out EcoVillage in Ithaca, New York; Milagro Co-housing in Tucson, Arizona; and Prairie Onion Cohousing, right in the city of Chicago for examples of cohousing.

Finances may be pushing a lot of people who have never considered it before into alternative living arrangements. Multi-generational families are sharing homes again after the latest stock market and housing meltdowns. Finances are also often an issue for older people who are alone and either have limited resources or want to spend their later years in a more collegial setting than what passes for "neighborhood" in many larger cities. Boomers Go Back to the Commune in Retirement, an informative article from, discusses this trend. It's particularly significant for older women, who usually outlive their husbands. A Smart Money magazine article states, "The 2006 Census found that 7.4 million women aged 65 and older live alone, compared with 2.7 million men. . . Even scarier: In 2005, the Census found that 12% of women age 65 and older were living in poverty, a sizable chunk more than the 7% of men in the same group."

But I liked the story of one resourceful Asheville, NC, woman: "[I]nstead of joining an existing [intentional] community, the self-described maverick set up her own, buying two houses in a three-house enclave. Now, she lives in one house, rents her second property to two other single women, and has a friend living next door. 'It's like being married to four different people,' says Kilkenny, who helped organize the 'Women Living in Community' conference in Asheville in July. 'You drive into your driveway and there's someone there. It's huge for me. I can walk out on my porch and say 'Morning, Bobbie, want a cup of coffee?' There's camaraderie.'"

We can talk about all kinds of ways to live more lightly on the Earth, we can debate all kinds of strategies to get through difficult financial times, and we can lament the lack of community that so many of us feel. The simplest solutions for most of us are to live in smaller spaces, keep our living costs affordable and get to know our neighbors. I've got the first two solutions covered, but I just met my "new" next door neighbor last week. She's lived in her townhouse for a little over a year. What can I say? LA's a tough town.

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© 2009 Cynthia Friedlob
Image: Jackie at

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