May 14, 2012

Retirement Cohousing: Could It be For You?

In an earlier post I mentioned a retirement housing option that is growing in popularity: cohousing. While I knew of its existence I had no idea of the interest in this subject. Comments on that post and private e-mails tell me that cohousing is catching on among all sorts of folks who want a combination of private living space with shared areas like courtyards and a common house which contains a kitchen, a large dining room, club rooms, plus recreational and laundry facilities.

Cohousing is a rather new concept in the U.S. but building rapidly. At last count 38 states have some form of cohousing community either open and operating or under construction. I was surprised to learn that are four such developments already in Arizona, with a fifth forming in the Phoenix area.

There are different types of cohousing communities: some for mixed ages, others for families with young children. Some are designed for strictly for seniors. There are organizations that provide all the information and details you would need if something like this interests you.

Since I know virtually nothing about the pros and cons, or the good and bad of cohousing, I'll let this post be a resource for you. Here are a series of links to sites that will tell you more about this housing choice:

*Cohousing Organization

*Senior Cohousing

*Milagro Cohousing Development in Tucson, AZ

*Cohousing Is Not Just for Boomer Hippies

*Seniors At Home In Cohousing

*Elder Cohousing: A New Choice For Retirement - or Sooner

Last month I received a report on the future of housing for seniors developed by The Center for Housing Policy, which is the research affiliate of the National Housing Conference (NHC). The report confirms what we probably all suspected: the need for housing for seniors will far outstrip the availability within the next 30-40 years, making the development of alternative housing, like cohousing, all that more important. 

Here are some of the more important findings:

*As the U.S. population ages, the share of the population with severe housing cost burdens will likely rise. Older adults are more likely than younger adults to spend more than half their income on housing. In fact, one in four households 85+ spend at least half their income on housing.

*As the overall population ages, the numbers of the most vulnerable will grow as well — people with a disability, women living alone (who account for 40 percent of 65+ women) and minorities. Meanwhile, the Great Recession has eaten into the reserves of many older households, reducing home equity and retirement accounts.

*Even some older homeowners without mortgages face serious housing challenges. While 65+ homeowners are more likely than younger households to have paid off their mortgages, many of these homeowners nevertheless have high housing cost burdens. The incomes of older adults tend to decline with age—as reflected in rising poverty rates. But property taxes, maintenance, and utility costs all tend to rise over time for both older homeowners and renters (as reflected in higher rents). Accumulated savings can help, but these too diminish with age.

*An older population with health issues will drive demand for modified housing and housing with supportive services. Both men and women are living longer, and as a result, more older adults will be living with disabilities. About one quarter of older households aged 65-74 and nearly two thirds of households with a member 85+ include someone with a disability.

*The demand for renovations and retrofits to accommodate disabilities and for moves to housing with supportive services will likely rise. Currently, about one in five 85+ adults are in community housing or a long-term care facility—more than 10 times the share of adults aged 65 to 74. The supply of these types of housing is unlikely to keep pace with burgeoning demand. Many suburban communities, home to half of older adults, continue to limit multifamily or group housing.

*Equally important are policies to expand housing choices for older adults. By adopting more flexible zoning policies, communities can help foster a diverse range of housing types including accessory dwelling units (i.e., granny flats), high-density rental developments, assisted living residences, continuing care retirement communities, and congregate housing. Subsidies will be needed to help ensure that older adults with low and moderate incomes have access to affordable choices. The report also recommends experimenting with more cohousing efforts that promote “active neighboring” and/or allow professional caregivers to live among residents.

As the United Voice for Housing, the nonprofit National Housing Conference (NHC) has been dedicated to helping ensure safe, decent and affordable housing for all in America since 1931. For more information visit their web site:

Knowing all this, is cohousing something you might consider? It seems like an interesting way to hold expenses down while still enjoying an active social environment.

If you or someone you know lives in a cohousing situation, your feedback would be very much appreciated. Tell us about what prompted your decision to move to this type of community. What do you enjoy the most, and what are the problems in this type of arrangement? What if you don't like some of your dining mates?
Housing is a critical issue. The more information we have, the better.


  1. I have also begun to see more articles around the topic, Bob. It is an interesting area, not only for co-housing in the form shown in the articles, but also for co-habitation in general. My wife and I went an alternative route and bought a much larger home. Odds are my wife will go before me and I can handle the house for a number of years, but I dread if the reverse happened. The option would be for her to take in someone who is unable, for whatever reason, to stay in their existing home. It is very doable under our current situation but something I would not want to burden her with.

    Personally the form of co-housing that is popularized in the articles is not for Deb nor I. Just a personal preference but I can certainly understand why people like it. But the builders are charging way too much for the houses even after taking infrastructure costs into accounts, which I believe has been happening in general with all types of senior housing. It will certainly limit the ability of many to take advantage of it, forcing others to look at alternatives. I don't look at any of this as a catastrophic problem (why is it that everything nowadays has to be a "sky is falling" scenario?) It is just a natural outgrowth of the baby boom, an economy in flux, and a nation that is changing in many, many ways. As Americans we will figure it out, as we always do, and alternative forms of housing will be one way to address the issue.

    1. I did notice how expensive the newer developments are. The builders are going the high-end luxury route...I assume they have research to back that up. I would have assumed some folks would consider cohousing as a method of saving money. Well, as you note, it will sort itself out.

      Like you and Deb, it is not a route Betty and I would take. We are basically rather private people and group dining or meetings isn't really our style.

  2. Bob, as a single person, this is something thst would interest me. Unfortunately, as it has been stated, I have found it too expensive. If I owned a large home, I would be willing to rent out rooms to others like me with this concept in mind with a lower rent agreement. Thank you for the resources which I will read again.

    1. Good morning, Ann. It is likely that as cohousing begins to spread there will be developments that cater to various types of people & income levels. At the moment only the well-to-do seem to be the marketing target. But, like everything else, if there is money to be made, someone will target another group and cut back on the granite counter tops!

      Another option is one you have mentioned: sharing a larger home. Roommates have been a part of living together forever. But, actually living a more shared existence instead of just someone who pays for a room may have real possibilities.

      If your continuing research uncovers anything, please be sure to leave another comment or e-mail me and I'll be glad to add it to the discussion.

  3. I am a member of Wolf Creek Lodge proactive adult cohousing in Grass Valley, CA. Our 30 home lodge will be ready for move-in this fall. Members worked with green-award winning architect Chuck Durrett to plan our lodge to promote the values and meet the needs of our community. Because of this and the fact that all members will be actively involved in the running of the lodge through our monthly business meetings and ongoing committee work, our common areas will be well used. (The HOA will consist of all members.) We look forward to aging-in-place with the support of a caring community as well as being active with our neighbors and enjoying the recreational and cultural richness if the gold country region together. Wolf Creek lodge offers the perfect blend of privacy and community in a rural setting within close walking distance to shops and services. To learn more visit

    1. Thanks, Suzanne, for alerting everyone to this community in the Sierras of California. I checked out the web site and saw some gorgeous photos.

      Could you comment on why you decided to live here? Your earlier comment sounds as if you work for the developer, but I would be interested in if you plan on living there, too, and why.

    2. Yes, I do plan to live there! I have been a member since we began our community. I was especially drawn to the diverse and talented people in our group, and as our community continues to grow more like-minded people are joining. I also see cohousing as a wonderful way to live more ecologically. The land, a wooded site bordered by a free flowing creek, is important to me as I love to be in nature, yet we are close to shopping, reducing our need for cars. I also value having my privacy while having community at my doorstep.

    3. Thanks Suzanne for your extra thoughts. You bring up a good point; housing like this is better ecologically. There is less waste when common areas and spaces can be shared.

      Privacy and community in one package...sounds like you have found your spot.

  4. My widowed sister lives in co housing. Her house is an individual place with shared walls. She goes to meals occasionally, but has a nice small, open kitchen for her daily use. The rest of her place is just a normal well built townhouse. . The community grows a lot of foods to suppliment daily meals. The community makes decisions together- which can be a slow process- but is the first HOA that makes sense to me.
    Her co housing community is about as expensive as mid range town homes in the Tucson area. They have a variety of ages from a few toddlers and homeschooled youngers to a number of retired professors. Some households work, others are retired, some own, others rent, elderly are supported to age in place. It seems many are similar in belief system of environmentalism - helping them to find common ground.

    For what it is worth, it reminds me of a kibbutz with more individual space. They "rule" on the Greek system of mediation and citizenship voting. Interesting. I think we will see many more of these in the future. Multigenerational living where everyone has their own place.

    1. I like the idea of multi generational living. One of the biggest problems I have with a typical retirement community is everyone is old, and getting older. There is a lack of fresh blood and fresh ideas.

      I had read about the group decision making but glad you mentioned it. Yes, a typical HOA is a scary form of mini dictatorship that can make living in a community miserable if power hungry people are running things.

    2. Janette...this just makes such good sense. The HOA we just left was run on rules etched in stone. It made everyone nuts!


  5. The very idea of living in isolation just makes my blood run cold. I have done quite a lot of research into this possibility and I think it may just work. In my RV resort in the desert we live that very kind of lifestyle. We share and colaberate all the time. It is amazing how much easier life is in that kind of situation.

    We live in a close knit 55+ community when we return home to Oregon and I am seeing it evolve into a type of cohousing. I like that a lot.

    Thank you for the thoughtful post Bob.


    1. Your RV setup in Tucson is an "unofficial" cohousing type of arrangement...I hadn't thought of that before, but that is what it is without the title. Good point.

  6. Bob,

    Those statistic are chilling. "Cohousing" sounds a bit like communes from the old days, but updated! In my area of Hawai'i there are some communities where people live in a similar situation, but generally younger people. I'm curious to hear more about how people in retirement are finding cohousing.

  7. With the Ohana (family) so strong in the culture of Hawai'i I bet there are all sorts of cohousing situations but much more informal. Young people may be attracted by both the social and financial aspects of cohousing.

  8. Bob:

    I am part of the Mountain View Cohousing Community in Mountain View, CA. Our community will, when construction has been completed, consist of 19 completely self contained condominium units plus a large common house and gardens and underground parking. We will balance privacy with our desire to live among people who care about us and our community (just like an old fashioned neighborhood used to) be but definitely not like a commune.

    Our community will be located within walking distance of downtown Mountain View - restaurants, library, theatre, book stores, a food market, public transportation and more. Our members are baby boomers. Many are down sizing from large homes located in areas from which we have to drive almost everywhere or from where we are fairly isolated.

    You mentioned a concern with not having fresh ideas if the community is not multigenerational. That could not be further from the truth of our group. Most of our group are still working and/or are deeply involved in community and civic affairs. We all have curious minds and our discussions are both challenging and informative. Maybe it's a function of our being in Silicon Valley but many of our ideas are definitely forward thinking and thought provoking.

    Yes, the price of the units in our community preclude some people from joining us but these prices are in line with other condominiums currently being built in Mountain View and offer so much more than a standard condo.

    Check us out at

    1. Thanks for the info on this community, Minna, and the web site info. Mountain View is a pretty part of California in the Bay area. As many of us are learning, cohousing is rapidly becoming a mainstream choice for many. The desire of connections with others is an unsatisfied need in too many of our current housing choices.

    2. I'm part of the same Mountain View Cohousing group that Minna Vallentine is in. I'd like to add a few examples to what she said about our members being very much engaged in the wider society. Our group as a whole cosponsored a local film series on Reinventing Our Cities last year. A number of us have been part of a big community running/walking event that raises money for expanding the recreational trail system in this area. A couple of us are involved in national and state-level political activities through organizations we belong to.

      Last year, Dr. Monique Lambert, a health ethnographer who works for a large HMO nearby, became fascinated by our community's interest in incorporating state-of-the-art technology into our design. She did a series of interviews with our members to gain an understanding of what attracted us to cohousing, and what our expectations and apprehensions might be in making the transition to the new way of living. One of our members, Benay Dara-Abrams, worked with Monique in putting this material together for publication; over the past few months, the two of them presented the results at number of professional conferences around the country.

      Since most of us in Mountain View Cohousing are involved in community organizations in one capacity or another, we've also thinking actively about how some of our shared facilities can also be made available on occasion to local civic and non-profit groups.

    3. That is quite impressive, Kate. I have always been an urban studies fan so that film series would have been quite interesting to me.

      One follow up question for you, or Minna: what about health care? Cohousing isn't like a three-level retirement community with a nursing facility or health care on campus is it? Is Mountain View primarily for people who are still active enough to live independently? What happens when more intensive care is needed? Would someone have to sell and move?

    4. Our 20 current members range in age from early 50s through late 70s; three are 70 or order at this time, but most are solidly in the Baby Boomer demographic. We're aware that most of us at some point will have illnesses or surgery that will require short term care--"a little help from your friends" for a few weeks. However, with an eye toward more lasting infirmities, we've used "universal designed" principles for our units, with such features as wide doors, paddle handles, showers that are designed to accomodate wheelchairs, and grab bars in the bathrooms. All of the units are flats (single-story) except for one. Our parking will be underground, beneath the main building. An elevator will go to all floors and there are wide ramps that connect the two buildings on all floors, so someone could park in the garage, take the elevator to the third floor, and roll in a wheel chair to their third-floor condo in the other building. One of our members had a stroke about 10 yrs ago and has some residual mobility problems; her input has been very valuable.

      When we reach the point where one or more of our residents will need help from a caregiver on an ongoing basis, there are a couple of possibilities. If it's just one household, they can hire someone to come in to help.
      All of the units have at least two bedrooms, so someone might even have a live-in caregiver. If several of the households are using the same caregiver, we will convert part of the farmhouse into a caregiver suite, which will be a small apartment. We already have received permission from the city to do this. During construction, we will be stub in the plumbing so, when needed, we will easily be able to add a small kitchen to create the caregiver's apartment.

      We won't have a nursing facility or health care on campus, though. When someone reaches the point of requiring assisted living beyond what I've described, or simply cannot live independently as a household, we'll have to ask them or their family to make other living arrangements. That decision will have to be made as it is for individuals living in single-family housing.

      I've talked with people who are in, or have friends/relatives who are in, three-level retirement communities that provide for graduated progression from independent living to assisted living to a nursing unit. Those who make that choice like the prospect of never having to move again, for the rest of their lives--of having those future decisions made for them. Other people, including our cohousing community members, are choose not to go that route. They prefer to keep their independence and sense of autonomy as long as possible, recognizing that at some point they may have to move--or be moved--elsewhere. Most of our members are young enough that the prospect of another move when they are really old and infirm seems pretty remote--something that they'll cope with when/if it eventually becomes necessary.

    5. Thank you, thank have fully answered my questions (and those of others, I am sure). I assumed the cohousing situation would be as you have detailed it, but figured it was best to ask an "expert."

      The amount of planning that has gone into making the aging process as easy as possible for your residents is quite impressive. To make each unit prepared for some assistance help is wonderful.

      My wife and I live in a 2 story home we bought for cash 11 years ago. When housing prices in our area recover enough to sell our plan is a condo type arrangement that eliminates most of the maintenance worries we have now. Then, a three-level community like my dad lives in will be our ultimate destination.

      So that is the current plan....but the entire concept of cohousing is a new option that I was unaware of until this post and all the comments. We may re-think our options when we move in the next 5 years or so. I'll be in my late 60's and my wife in her early 60's, still much too young to be in a typical tri-level type retirement community.

      Thanks, Kate. You have been a tremendous help.