Cohousing has benefits

Hosting out-of-town guests for short visits isn’t a drag for Ronaye Matthew. There’s a guest room in her little community on Albert Street in Burnaby, and all she has to do is make a booking. Not every neighbourhood has this kind of communal space, but it’s just one of the many shared amenities in Matthew’s community of 22 houses.

Clustered around a courtyard, the residences have a common workshop, office, reading room, children’s playroom, and laundry area, as well as a kitchen where meals are prepared when families want to eat together. The houses are individually owned by residents.

It’s called Cranberry Commons Cohousing, and it’s one of only seven such neighbourhoods in the province. It’s the closest thing to what one might call a traditional village.

“What that does is it allows us to have smaller homes, which contributes to affordability, but it also allows us to be more environmentally responsible,” Matthew told the Georgia Straight of the concept of cohousing. “So things like a workshop and guest rooms and meeting spaces we can share together, rather than having to have it in our single-family homes.”

When reached by phone, Matthew, a consultant for cohousing developments, had just gotten off the line with someone in Saskatoon with whom she’s working on a similar project.

There’s another cohousing project in the works in Victoria. Members of Fernwood Urban Village secured the land needed for 32 housing units in February of this year. Proponents have applied for a development permit from the City of Victoria, and they hope to break ground in the spring of 2011. Their pocket neighbourhood will have the usual shared amenities, plus one extra: a foot-soaking room modelled after an ashiyu, or Japanese public foot bath.

“Because of the social structure, we can share more things than people who don’t know each other,” Matthew said of those who live in cohousing communities.

Matthew explained that one of the biggest challenges for groups wanting to create a cohousing community is finding large enough parcels of land for these developments.

“There had been many groups in Vancouver who had formed and tried to find land and have fallen apart because they’ve gotten frustrated and haven’t been able to get land,” she said.

Unlike conventional developers, who have huge resources for land banking, ordinary people often cannot respond quickly when lots become available.

“The most optimum size of a cohousing community is 20 to 30 households,” Matthew said. “You need to have a piece of land that will support that kind of density. Typically, you can’t just buy one single-family house and build a cohousing community in it because there isn’t enough land in it. You very often need to do a land assembly, where you buy several properties together.”

With respect to this challenge, Matthew said city governments can encourage the establishment of cohousing neighbourhoods by giving priority to interested parties when city land is being put up for sale.

Another way local governments can help is by supporting proponents during the rezoning process.

Matthew cited the example of Quayside Village in North Vancouver. She recalled that the city allowed the construction of 19 houses on what used to be three single-family lots.

According to the Canadian Cohousing Network, this type of neighbourhood started in Denmark in the late 1960s as an alternative to traditional housing models. “They called their solution bofoellesskaber—literally translated as ”˜living communities’,” states the group’s Web site. “Today, 10 percent of all new housing construction in Denmark uses this model and the concept has been spreading to other parts of the world.”

The site notes that 127 cohousing communities have been completed in North America since 1991. Another 118 neighbourhoods are in various stages of development.

Cohousing units in Canada are owned through strata titles. But unlike conventional condo developments, planning of the projects is a collective undertaking. After construction, individual units are bought at cost. Owners can sell their houses on the market later if they wish.

Cohousing neighbourhoods are different from housing cooperatives. The co-op itself owns the housing units, and members buy shares so they can live in these accommodations.

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