Condo owners share a lot

Cohousing development brings together families who want a strong sense of community

December 30, 2001

BY MARTY HAIR
FREE PRESS STAFF WRITER

For the 19 years that he lived in his Ann Arbor condo, Ed Herstein drove to work, drove home, parked his car in his attached garage and rarely saw his neighbors.

“There were few opportunities to meet other people,” Herstein says.

That changed when he moved to a new condo with an association that puts an emphasis on community and participation. These days, Herstein volunteers on several condo committees, eats in a communal dining room four times a week and is greeted by name as he takes a neighbor’s dog for a noontime stroll.

“Here, I know everybody,” says Herstein, 58, a retired technology consultant for a regional educational service agency. “It’s extremely pleasing to know that if I ever need to borrow a cup of milk, I can go to one of 40 households and never get turned down.”

Herstein’s one-bedroom condo is among the 40 units at Sunward CoHousing in Scio Township, just west of Ann Arbor. The neo-colonial townhouses, covered in clapboard-like siding in yellow, pale gray or blue with white trim, are clustered along walking lanes and back up to common areas. Each has a small front yard and porch to promote easy visiting.

The one-, two- and three-bedroom units are 750 to 1,600 square feet and sell for $125,000 to nearly $300,000, with monthly association fees of $75 to $135. About six units have been resold since the development opened in 1998 and prices have kept pace with or risen a bit higher than the local market, according to Nick Meima, 49, a Sunward founder and resident.

Cohousing originated in Denmark about 35 years ago and arrived in the United States in the 1980s. There are now more than 60 cohousing developments and another 100 planned, says Meima, a partner in the Cohousing Development Co., which assists others who want to start similar projects.

Sunward, Meima says, is Michigan’s first cohousing community. Great Oak and Honey Creek, both scheduled to begin construction in 2002, will be built on adjacent land, sharing access to a natural area and connected with walking trails. Another cohousing community, Meadowood, is planned for Lansing.

In cohousing, the residents collaborate to plan a pedestrian-friendly, neighborly community. Although each unit is complete and separate, members have access to a common building, where optional communal meals and other facilities like meeting rooms are available. Members manage the development once it is built.

One aspect that attracts considerable interest is the prospect of living among people of diverse ages who have chosen to be part of a close-knit community.

“As a parent, it’s an extraordinary place,” says George Albercook, 36, who lives at Sunward with his wife, Caren, and their 3-year-old son, Zander.

At Sunward, condos are clustered, so much of the site remains undeveloped. There is a prairie with native plants, a walking trail through 10 acres of woods, and a wetland and pond that help filter and manage storm water.

About half of the 92 residents are between the ages of 26 and 59, with a quarter younger and the rest older than 60. Most have college degrees. Owners include married couples, some with children; single people; same-sex and unmarried heterosexual couples. Residents include whites, Asians and African Americans.

While they represent many professions, religions and political views and interests, “a hard-core conservative is not someone I typically find in cohousing,” Meima says.

The community building is between the parking lot and the condos. Inside, members pick up their mail and newspapers and can watch television, eat dinner, do laundry and use exercise machines or woodworking tools. They may also reserve the guest bedroom for occasional visitors.

The association requires adult members to work about four hours a month on projects that benefit the whole, such as shoveling snow, doing yard work, serving on committees, cooking the group meals or cleaning up afterward.

“If you eat, you cook or you clean,” says Meima. The cost of the food is divided among those who share it, usually $3 to $4 per dinner. Vegetarian options are always on the menu. Careful planning

Cohousing projects promote the use of sustainable materials. According to J.D. Lindeberg, a partner in Cohousing Development Co. who lives with his family at Sunward, linoleum is the choice for the community building floor because it is made of natural materials. The exterior siding is a concrete-wood fiber composite, and each unit is equipped for solar panels. Walls are extra thick to improve insulation.

The landscape is maintained without herbicides or pesticides and Sunward has its own recycling program. It limits cars to the parking lot near the entrance, and residents use pushcarts to carry their groceries to their homes, about the equivalent of half a city block.

Although it remains a niche housing market, cohousing is likely to become more popular in the next decade as more people seek alternatives to traditional housing, predicts Robert Marans, professor of architecture and urban planning at the University of Michigan.

“People are looking for places that offer a strong sense of community, concern about the environment, some shared responsibilities, and are willing to give up a bit of privacy in order to have this,” Marans says.

Advocates say cohousing attracts people with lifestyles other than the traditional two-parent-family-with-children that comprised the target market for single-family, detached houses built after World War II.

Meima says that’s how he felt when, in the late 1980s, he read a book about cohousing and “instantly recognized that’s what I wanted. . . . I had the sense that life could be better if I had a more connected lifestyle.” He started talking to people about cohousing and found others in Ann Arbor who thought it would be worth a try.

The group held meetings at a bookstore and eventually signed on as codevelopers. They found the 20-acre parcel with an old gravel and sand pit, a small farm and woods. Members made down payments to buy the property on land contract, got a construction loan from a bank and found a builder. The last unit was sold a month after building began.

Because members manage cohousing developments, there are plenty of committees and frequent — sometimes tedious — meetings. “People who don’t like meetings would get frustrated” in a cohousing development, Herstein says. But residents say this way of making decisions is fair: “When you include everybody, you invariably make better decisions than if they’re not involved,” Albercook says. A close-knit group

Albercook and his family moved to Sunward from a duplex where they knew few neighbors. Here, son Zander is free to venture outside on the traffic-free walkways, finding playmates among the other members’ children.

“The world is a safe, interesting place to him,” says Albercook, a consulting research scientist. Caren Albercook is a doctor in family practice.

In addition to communal meals, Sunward residents meet at social functions. One resident recently posted a notice inviting everyone to an open house to see her newly decorated living room. There are community events like the May Day festivities, featuring “schlepping cart” races, where residents push the wagons they use to transport goods from cars to condos.

When people go out of town, neighbors volunteer to feed their pets. When residents return from hospital stays, neighbors bring in their meals. In some ways, it’s like an idealized version of life in a small town — except that all these residents have elected to be part of it. And can it be too close, like some small towns?

“It’s hard to live here and not have people have a pretty good idea of what’s going on in your life,” Herstein admits. But, he says, the level of support and respect for individual lifestyle choices shared by residents are far more important.

When it comes time to sell, Sunward residents select their own buyers and negotiate their own prices. Prospective buyers receive a copy of the binding cohouse bylaws as well as a book of agreements so they know what kind of community they’re buying into.

With that kind of preparation, it is rare — though not unheard of — that someone moves into cohousing with unrealistic expectations and subsequently decides to leave. More frequently, people lean about cohousing from friends who are already residents, so they’re familiar with the concept before joining. In that way, condos have sold to like-minded people without being advertised.

“When someone moves out of cohousing, the next household moving in agrees” to the community commitments, Meima says. “That’s one of the critical aspects to sustaining a community.”

Contact MARTY HAIR at 313-222-2005 or hair@freepress.com.