Cohousing: A housing alternative getting more interest

Proponents say it builds community, but it’s not for everyone

Three people sit in a living room.
Carol Tellett (center) sits inside her townhome with her dog, Charlie, as she talks with Brian PaStarr (left) and Ken Fox on Dec. 20, 2019. Tellett has been part of the Monterey Cohousing Community for 24 years.
Christine T. Nguyen | MPR News

Updated 10:56 a.m.

At the Monterey Cohousing Community, residents share meals and a lot more — they share lives.

On a recent night, it was Jane Fischer’s turn to play head cook for a group dinner. She cooked up Cuban chicken, yellow split beans and rice and fried sweet plantains, for about 15 people.

Fischer moved to Monterey from Wisconsin more than a decade ago when her son was 13 and she was a single mother.

“One of the main things is I wanted there to be more parent figures for my son and have basically an extended family,” she said of her move to the St. Louis Park cohousing community. “And it did work out that way.”

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Fischer treasures the connections she's developed with the people at Monterey, where residents own private apartments or town homes but share many spaces, tasks, responsibilities and experiences. That's what cohousing is about.

“It's a really good way to live, to know people so intimately,” she said. “We make decisions together. We fight. We have fun.”

Two people cooking in a kitchen
From left, Jane Fischer cooks with help from Denise Tennen on Dec. 19, 2019, in the main building of the Monterey Cohousing Community. Residents rotate cooking for the community's shared meal, which takes place twice a week.
Christine T. Nguyen | MPR News

There are about 170 cohousing communities across the country. About 140 are in planning stages. Minnesota has two in operation: Monterey and a rural cooperative in Rushford. There are four perhaps in the pipeline in Minnesota, including Bassett Creek.

The Monterey Cohousing Community started in 1992. Carol Tellett joined early on and raised two children there. She said she loved it but that cohousing isn't for people whose priority is privacy.

“You have to learn how to get along with a whole lot of different people and accept each other's ideas and work with them,” she said. “It wouldn't be for everyone. But if you want to really get to know your neighbors very well, it's a good way to live.”

Monterey consists of eight apartments in a nearly century-old three-story Edwardian mansion that once served as a nursing home. Seven town homes are connected by a tunnel to the main building, on a 2.25-acre wooded site.

Shared amenities include two guest rooms, a woodworking shop, library, formal living room, vegetable gardens and a kids' playroom.

Carol Johnson and her husband plan to join Monterey. Johnson has long been a renter. Now, the St. Louis Park resident is ready for home ownership.

“But maybe not be in the traditional house with all the maintenance and things you have to figure out on your own,” she said. “Now you have a whole community of people with expertise and experience you can draw from.”

Chris Baker of Minneapolis plans to move in with his 4- and 6-year-old daughters.

"I'm interested in living in a community where I know people," he said.

Baker wants his children to know more people, too.

"It's really nice having other adults who are interested in your children,” he said. “As they get older, having other adults around is beneficial."

Monterey is like a condominium association but with a big difference for the some two dozen residents.

With cohousing, residents buy community shares that give them the right to live in their desired spaces. They also pay monthly fees to cover maintenance, as well as costs that are may be shared, such as utilities and taxes.

Cohousing may or may not be a less expensive way for people to live, said George Abert an architect and cohousing development consultant.

"Some people are confused," he said. "They think this is 'affordable' (low-income) housing. It's not 'affordable,' but it is more affordable because you're sharing resources. You are downsizing the individual unit that you're living in. But you also have extensive common facilities. And collectively, these things add to the cost."

But community — not cost — is the main appeal of cohousing

“This is what you call an intentional community,” said Ken Fox, president of the community association.

“People who move here are looking for community. If someone was just saying, 'I want a condominium in St. Louis Park. I don't care who my neighbors are.' That's not who we're looking for,” said Fox. “We're looking for someone who wants to know their neighbors, who wants to have relationships with people around them.”

Fox said governance is based on "modified" consensus.

"It used to be that everybody would have to agree on something,” he said. “If one person blocked, you'd have to redo whatever the proposal was. [Cohousing] can only work really in a small group where people know each other and care about each other. If there's animosity or rivalries, it makes it really tough."

A card on a bulletin board says "I dare to create community."
A card on a bulletin board at the Monterey Cohousing Community says "I dare to create community."
Christine T. Nguyen | MPR News

Now, it takes two people to block something. Fox said that’s a fairly high bar given the inclination of residents now to defer to committees charged with making decisions on maintenance and other matters.

Cohousing started in Denmark and began showing up in the United States in the 1960s. At this time, the housing model is most common in western states: California, Colorado, Oregon and Washington.

Karin Hoskin, executive director of the Cohousing Association of the U.S., believes cohousing will catch on as more people consider how to better tackle a wide variety of housing and social issues — from how to provide supportive care for senior citizens to living in a more efficient and environmentally responsible manner.

“People that learn about cohousing think that some version of it is a way that they'd be interested in living,” she said. “But there's a lot of people that just simply don't know that it exists, whether it's a person wanting to live in it or a developer creating it.

Hoskin said that few developers are building cohousing projects and then seeking residents. Most developers are not interested now in building something for a few dozen households. They want much bigger projects. So, cohousing proponents most always have to push projects forward themselves.

It’s hard to get a cohousing project rolling, though.

Lynn Englund, vice president of the Twin Cities Cohousing Network, has been part of a group trying to start a new community. But some people want to live along the light rail line in St. Paul, while others insist on living near the light rail line between downtown Minneapolis and the airport.

Even if the cohousing crew reaches a consensus about a location, there's the matter of land and construction costs.

“Land prices have skyrocketed,” Englund said. “And it's very daunting for a small group of people to think about buying a million-dollar parcel of land to try to build a $10 million cohousing project.”

But at the Monterey Cohousing Community, there are openings for new residents. Three of eight planned additional units are not yet spoken for. Prospective residents are invited to an open house next month.