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Living within the community

Marketplace Staff Aug 3, 2007

Living within the community

Marketplace Staff Aug 3, 2007

TESS VIGELAND: So if you’re facing a problem with your mortgage, here’s one possible solution: Move into something called co-housing. It’s a type of community living dreamed up in Denmark.

The concept is still fairly new here — just 100 completed projects. But it’s growing about 20 percent a year. From WGBH in Boston, Marketplace’s Helen Palmer reports.

ARIANE CHARBOULIER: This our communal herb garden, saving a trivial amount of money but an enormous amount of labor. That there’s a community herb garden. Here’s our garden. Oh, with even some ripe tomatoes, Care for one?

HELEN PALMER: Ariane Cherboulier lives in Cornerstone co-housing in Cambridge, Mass. We talked about co-housing in the community house she shares with her 70 neighbors, like Debbie Gelber.

DEBBIE GELBER: People will have a separate fancy dining room that they use a few times a year – we have a community dining room that you can sign up for and have your own family party here and not have room in your house that you’ve paid for that you never use.

So far, some 5,000 Americans live like this and another 5,000 are building or planning co-housing developments.

Ariane Cherboulier says co-housing units are smaller than typical houses or apartments, because the community house also has a guest room, a kids’ play room, an exercise room, a workshop, even laundry space.

CHERBOULIER: All the town-houses are hooked up for washers and driers and we chose not to get one, because we don’t need one here. We can walk over to another building and use the washer and drier.

And her neighbor Debbie Gelber says there are other savings:

GELBER: We have one lawn mower for 32 units. Imagine if every 32 houses in this country shared a lawn mower, what that would do for carbon emissions for instance.

Neshama Abraham of the Co-Housing Association says this way of living does a lot for the environment and the residents.

NESHAMA ABRAHAM: The energy bills can be up to 50 percent less in a co-housing community because the homes are built to be so energy efficient, :07

But co-housing’s not cheap to buy. Ken Thompson was one of the original founders of Cornerstone in Cambridge.

KEN THOMPSON: The rule of thumb generally in co-housing is that the price of a unit is likely to be the market rate for a house with that number of bedrooms plus one – because of all the extra common space you’re buying into at the same time.

Indeed, a three-bed townhouse currently for sale there has an asking price of $579,000 — in line with the high real estate costs in North Cambridge. But like most co-housing developments, Cornerstone subsidizes some units to keep them affordable for moderate income households.

At Boston’s Jamaica Plain co-housing, they were serving the weekly community dinner:

JENNY ROHDEMEIER: It’s a make your own vegetarian sushi. Build your own. That’s where all the ingredients are Maria has prepared.

Jenny Rohdemeier loves living here. Her one-bedroom unit’s the first home she’s owned. She sits outside overlooking the central lawn. She says she could only afford the mortgage because the community’s affordability fund loaned her 10 percent of the cost.

Technically, I own 90 percent of my unit. And when I sell, I have to return the original loan, which was $34,000, and then 10 percent of any appreciation if there is any.

Mayors in some urban centers including Boston see co-housing as a possible model to keep teachers and other public service workers in cities with high real estate values.

Of course, co-housing has its challenges. Judith Adler of Cornerstone:

JUDITH ADLER: We make decisions by consensusm and that requires a lot of time and process. And that can be a frustration for some people who don’t want to discuss things ad nauseam for some people.

And Adler says everyone has chores — committees — maintenance, landscaping, and the like. And though people DO have their own private space, most people know your business in a small community. But most co-housers think the rewards outweigh the problems.

Seventy-eight-year-old Betsy Germinata moved into Cornerstone five years ago with her husband, Dante:

BETSY GERMINATA: From my perspective, because Dante died three years ago, I wouldn’t have . . . excuse me . . . I wouldn’t have wanted to be any place else because of the support.

Now elder co-housing is emerging as an alternative for retirees, so baby boomers are likely to make this movement grow even faster.

In Boston, I’m Helen Palmer for Marketplace Money.

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