With cohousing, neighborliness comes with the house

Advocate Nick Meima has been instrumental in bringing concept to Ann Arbor area

News Staff Reporter But when he became a homeowner in a nice Ann Arbor neighborhood where he had everything he’d always wanted, something didn’t feel right.

“It was all me, me, me,” said Meima, 52, former director of Glacier Hills Retirement Community. “There was no us-ness. And us-ness was what I really wanted.”

Meima’s life changed the day in 1989 he was invited to jury a student project on senior housing at the University of Michigan College of Architecture. On a coffee table in the library he saw a book titled “Cohousing: A Contemporary Approach to Housing Ourselves,” by Kathryn McCamant and Charles Durrett.

Five minutes later, he knew he’d found what he didn’t even know he was looking for. He found a new way to live.

Eventually, Meima became the driving force behind Sunward, the first cohousing neighborhood in the Ann Arbor area. A second community, Great Oak, was built. And now a third, Touchstone, is under construction, making this the first time in the United States three cohousing units have been built next to each other.

“I’m passionate about the sense of community that cohousing offers that a lot of people really want to have and don’t know how to create it,” said Meima, now a partner in the Cohousing Development Co. in Scio Township.

Software developer Ken Winter was at the first meeting in 1994, and remembers all the subsequent meetings in church basements leading up to the building of Sunward. Without Meima, it would never have happened, he said.

“It really did start in his soul,” said Winter, who became one of the first tenants at Sunward eight years ago. “He was the indispensable person keeping it all together.”

Meima, too, has been living at Sunward since 1998, in a comfortable three-story townhouse overlooking woods and a pond.

On a sunny day last week, Meima gave a reporter a tour of the three cohousing communities. Located in Scio Township, the communities are set back from Jackson Road on rolling land that could be out in the country if they weren’t eight minutes from downtown Ann Arbor.

Cohousing communities are based on a condominium ownership model, but are planned, designed and managed by residents who want a close-knit community. Townhouses are close together, and instead of each building facing a road, units are connected by walkways accented by flowers, ferns and shrubs. No herbicides or pesticides are allowed.

Children played happily on the playgrounds, while others did crafts on a table in the common house, which includes a dining room and kitchen for optional shared meals, exercise facilities, meeting spaces, a guest room, TV room, rented home offices, and meeting rooms.

Such a house makes life feel larger, said Meima, noting: “It’s a 7,000-square-foot extension on your house.”

The work is shared, with residents signing up for tasks ranging from gardening to bookkeeping, cleaning or cooking.

Communal dinners are optional, with each house given a monthly bill for the number of dinners eaten.

Doug Siewert and his wife moved into Sunward when it opened, and moved into a large house there after the birth of their son.

He calls Meima “the godfather of cohousing.”

“This is the first place I’ve lived that ever felt like home,” said Siewert, who was responsible for cooking dinner that night in the spacious kitchen of the common house. “Especially having a child, it’s a wonderful place to be. … The whole setup of cars on the outside and people on the inside makes sense to me.”

Residents are spiritually, politically, and economically diverse, Meima said. But they have one thing in common: They’re committed to being part of a close-knit neighborhood.

“Neighborhood comes first, house comes second,” he said.

Meima grew up in New Jersey. After earning bachelor’s degrees in psychology and sociology, he went to graduate school at the University of Southern California, where in 1974, he was one of the first 18 people in the country to receive a master’s degree in gerontology. He moved to Ann Arbor in 1977 to become director of Glacier Hills, a job he held until 1991. He then created a home health agency which he sold in 2000, a year before he started the Cohousing Development Co. He also continues to do consulting for various senior housing programs such as assisted-living retirement communities.

While working in an age-segregated environment, Meima realized he preferred an environment that included a mix of ages, so that young people could benefit from their elders’ wisdom.

Cohousing offers a mix of ages, as well as relief from the isolation so many people feel in traditional neighborhoods, he said.

He recalled an elderly woman a couple of years ago slipped on the ice while using her walker, fell down, and broke her hip. When she screamed, a neighbor ran out, then called 911 and got her a blanket. Within a minute, there were several neighbors out. Within a few minutes, someone had taken responsibility for her dog, someone offered to take her to the hospital, and someone else offered to drive that person home from the hospital.

“The flip side is when you have something to celebrate, you have a lot of people to celebrate it with you,” he said.

Despite the many opportunities for contact, privacy is not a problem, said Meima.

“Your house is your house,” he said. “Nobody comes in unless you invite them. If you’re in a hurry to get to work, you don’t have to talk to anybody on the way to your car. You can pick your moments when you want to interact and you can pick your moments when you don’t.”

Meima says he could never go back to a traditional neighborhood.

“The social distance between me and the neighbors was overwhelming,” he said of the old neighborhood. “There, you bought a house. I bought a house. We didn’t buy neighborliness. Here, you do. It’s a healthy way to live. And more interesting.”

Jo Mathis can be reached at jmathis@annarbornews.com or (734) 994-6849.