- The Washington Times - Friday, July 26, 2002

There are no MTV cameras panning over the hot tub to record late-night dish sessions aimed at whom among the current residents at 6827 Fourth St. should dump a girlfriend or stop eating too many Pop-Tarts, but there is something distinctly "Real World"-like about the cast of characters who inhabit Washington's first foray into the Danish phenomenon known as co-housing.

Among founding residents of Takoma Village Co-housing, as listed in short bios on its Web site, are a "card-carrying bureaucrat," a "single, politically progressive, agnostic vegetarian," and an "artist, writer and escaped university professor."

In co-housing, as in popular television, having an interesting cast sells the show.

Not that there are any units available in Takoma Village, which was practically sold out before it even broke ground in 1999.

The Washington area has become a "hotbed of co-housing activity," says Lauranne Oliveau, founder of Proximity Co-housing, which is being built in Taylorstown, Va., just a few miles from the site of the future EcoVillage of Loudoun County. Nearby, in Frederick County, Md., Liberty Village Co-housing development is moving into the construction phase.

There are seven co-housing communities under way in the metropolitan area, says Ann Zabaldo, past president of the Mid-Atlantic Chapter of the Co-housing Network and a resident of Takoma Village. Ms. Zabaldo works as a co-housing consultant to Eco Housing Corp., which built Takoma Village and is working with a group called Chesapeake Co-housing to buy property in Annapolis.

Around the country, the co-housing boom is so strong right now that Eco-Housing has projects backing into each other.

"We are turning away projects," Ms. Zabaldo says.

Part of the allure is the planned interaction that co-housing is built upon.

Central to the co-housing concept is a physical design that encourages neighbors to come together to cook, converse, make decisions and help each other. Each household has its own private space that can open to a courtyard, family room or some other kind of shared property.

In Blueberry Hill in Vienna, which opened to residents in early 2001, houses are built without garages or driveways to allow an open play area for children. The 19-home subdivision has a clubhouse with a kitchen and dining room where twice a week two-dozen or three-dozen people dine.

"It's kind of a throwback to the old days when people had more time to spend in their yard or garden and kids would play together outside," says Ted Kramer, one of Blueberry Hill's founding residents. "It's an attempt to recapture the past."

But selling lots in a co-housing community is a far cry from sticking a sign in the yard of your average suburban development. Organizers of Takoma Village had sold 75 percent of its units before it ever broke ground, simply relying on word of mouth. To a large extent, the personalities of the residents become primary selling points.

"With conventional sales, you don't interview the neighbors," says Mrs. Oliveau, whose development will have 18 households, "but we're going to try to run this place on consensus. It's that plurality and democracy that I think make it really exciting."

Annapolis resident Lynada Johnson is a part of Chesapeake Co-housing, which has been holding organizational meetings for more than three years. The veteran community health nurse and her retired husband have talked to dozens of prospective residents whose primary commonality is "an interest in people."

"I know I'm one of the selling points and believe me, this is stretching all of us to our limits in terms of building an organizational structure based on consensus," Mrs. Johnson says.

While communities such as Mrs. Johnson's wait to break ground, many established co-housing communities maintain waiting lists of families looking for openings. Ms. Zabaldo says the Mid-Atlantic Chapter of the Co-housing Network is building a list of contacts for people who are interested in the concept but cannot find space.

"These houses aren't sold through typical channels," Ms. Zabaldo says.

Indeed, Blueberry Hill's first resale spent more than a month on the Multiple Listing Service (MLS) before it sold to a family that found it through a co-housing resource.

"It ended up selling very close to the asking price," says Mr. Kramer, a real estate agent with Long & Foster who is selling his own home now. Mr. Kramer doesn't intend to put his three-bedroom, 2,200-square-foot, detached house on the MLS, but he has posted a classified ad on the Blueberry Hill Web site and Co-Housing Network's Web site, where it lists for $419,000.

The price reflects market value in Vienna, Mr. Kramer says, but the houses are a little smaller than others in neighboring developments and they don't have garages.

"It's a trade-off," he says. "You're not going to find too many subdivisions with 19 houses with a clubhouse. The price of the home supports that."

Indeed, Ms. Zabaldo says she got less private space for her money when she bought her 850-square-foot apartment in Takoma Village, but she also has access to a hot tub, a music room and an exercise room that she wouldn't have otherwise been able to afford.

There are other savings, too. Takoma Village, which just won a national award for environmentally sound building, has geothermal heating and cooling. That keeps Ms. Zabaldo's total utility bill at about $35 a month.

Mrs. Johnson hopes the neighbors in her future community will share tools and trips to the grocery store. Mrs. Oliveau says her children cannot wait to move into their new community because, during visits to other co-housing developments, they were given free use of the children's scooters and bicycles.

In a country where good fences have made good neighbors as a matter of tradition, however, co-housers admit that living closely requires an investment of time. That, says Mrs. Oliveau, is part of the attraction.

"Conflicts arise in co-housing communities and in other communities, too," Mrs. Oliveau says, "but here, we will work them out together. These are confident people who enjoy community and want to make it work. They've got a lot invested in making it work."

More info:

Online —

Local co-housing communities have information about building status and sales at these sites:

— www.proximitycohousing.com.

— www.libertyvillage.com.

— www.takomavillage.org.

— www.blueberryhill.org.

— www.chesapeakecohousing.org.

— www.ecovillages.com.

— www.cohousing.org is the Co-housing Network's national site, with general information about co-housing, a list of sites around the country and a classified section listing units available.

Book —

"CO-HOUSING: A Contemporary Approach to Housing Ourselves," by Kathryn McCamant and Charles Durrett, Ten Speed Press, ISBN 0-89815-539-8. The writers are the persons who brought co-housing to California from Denmark.

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