Co-Housing Communities Are Trending -- For Good Reason

by Lindsay Wolf
Originally Published: 
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My two kids are the great little loves of my life. I’m obsessed with them and often spend my evening hours staring at their adorable faces on my phone long after they’ve fallen asleep. They are magical little balls of wonder, and I just can’t imagine my life without them in it.

And they also drive me up a wall every single day.

The plain fact is, I’ve spent more hours alone with my children than anyone should have to. For the first few years of new motherhood, I was stuck in a city with barely any friends and no family for thousands of miles. My husband worked long hours, while I spent my days juggling mom duties and working from home. My lifestyle was cripplingly lonely, maddening as all hell, and nearly broke me for good. And did I mention I did all of this while living in a tiny ass apartment?

What I would have given for a little more community to lighten my load during those tough times.

While life with my kids has often seemed stressful beyond belief, I am certain that having a village would have made everything feel infinitely more manageable. Which is why I’m totally on board with a relatively new movement on the rise that you may or may not have heard of.

Co-housing communities are an intentional grouping of private homes structured within a shared space. Some houses are attached, while others are single family homes, and all have the traditional amenities of home-owning life. What makes these communal living spaces so special is that they typically feature a common social space, where families take turns making meals for the whole group and host special events. Oftentimes, there are community amenities that can’t be beat, like a gym or a communal dining room, and with plenty of outdoor space for kids to play.

Sharing and connection is always encouraged, but never forced. Many of the members in the community socialize regularly and help each other out, while some keep to themselves. And as you would expect, those with children immediately inherit some kick-ass support in the form of an incredible parenting village.

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Not surprisingly, co-housing communities are trending. And I’ve gotta say, they sound pretty damn awesome. Massachusetts father-of-two Ben Brock Johnson knows firsthand the benefits of living this way, and he’s been singing co-housing’s praises for some time now.

Let’s just say, he’s definitely got me listening.

Johnson never expected to fall in love with communal home life. But when his parents moved into a co-housing community and one of the homes nearby went on the market, he decided to give it a go. He was hoping to find something affordable and maybe even unearth a potential way to lower his family’s carbon footprint.

What he got in return was life changing.

“Where we live, privately owned homes are connected by walkways and parking is on the outside of our larger property,” the dad explains in a commentary essay for 90.9 WBUR. “A common house holds a gym, sauna, library, bike room, mail room, guest rooms, a professional-grade kitchen, and a dining room that can host all 85 residents for large community meals cooked twice a week by community members.”

When Johnson invites guests over, they marvel at the sheer magnitude of his shared living space. “Our 32 units and 24 acres of property, including an orchard, gardens, a chicken coop, bee hives and more, are mostly maintained by members and associate members, most of whom do about six-and-a-half hours of community work each month,” he writes.

I don’t know about you, but all of this community building sounds way cooler than any summer camp I attended as a kid. And I loved summer camp.

As for improving their environmental impact, there is a huge case to be made for the way Johnson’s family lives now. They grow and produce much of their own food, drive a lot less than they used to, and utilize a whole bunch of solar power. But at the end of the day, the social connection and support they receive far outweigh lowering their carbon footprint.

As new parents, the Johnsons have been overwhelmingly supported by the other families in the community with children who love to help watch and play with their two-year-old twins. “It’s difficult to overstate just how important this is for my wife and me as full-time working parents,” Johnson explains. “Sometimes, when we’re exhausted at the end of the day, we hear a knock at the door – on the other side is the friendly face of a kid who wants to hang out with our toddlers.”

And the most enviable part is what this very special situation offers them as individuals. “My wife and I also have more free time and more potential friends than we would otherwise,” he shares.

Apparently, teamwork really does make the dream work.

Johnson certainly has some compelling arguments for co-housing that have even me considering the idea of jumping on board someday. And he’s aware enough to joke about how silly the premise can seem at first. The truth is, a lot of people wrongly think these communities are really just cults filled with some wacky Kool-Aid-lovin’ members. And the father openly admits that he too initially felt a similar way about it.

But while he thought his parents’ ideas about community were strange at first, he came to realize that what’s even stranger is being taught by modern society to stay disconnected from those around us.

“At a time when many of us are searching for a way to be better humans, better Americans, and better neighbors, co-housing is the closest thing I’ve found to an answer,” he writes.

While living an arm’s distance away from other people may not be everyone’s cup of tea, I find community building like this to be a necessary model for parents right now. Because, let’s face it. Many of us today are drowning in responsibility, exhaustion, and isolation. Especially as moms, we pressured to perform highly, raise A+ kids, and keep everything Instagram-worthy. And co-housing seems to offer an inviting option for those of us who are open to it, where we can feel the safety nets of other families all around.

When the overwhelm of non-village mom life got to be too much to handle, my husband and I packed everything up on the West Coast and moved east for a year. We found a cost-effective duplex that feels like a cute, little house, and it’s a ten-minute drive away from my spouse’s parents. His extended family is scattered all over the areas nearby, so we have the benefit of feeling supported basically anytime we need. Our neighbors are also two sets of families with kids who love to play with my son and daughter. Every afternoon, we see the girls who live on either side of us and feel the warm and fuzzies about getting to share in our day-to-day experiences with them.

It might not be exactly what Ben Brock Johnson has discovered, but it sure feels like it’s in the ballpark. And now that I’m aware of what co-housing is all about, I’m going to enjoy my new little village for everything it’s begun to offer me.

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