- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 30, 2005

The real estate market in the Washington region is a superstore, a virtual Home Depot of housing. Real estate agents serve as the cheery floor attendants who direct buyers to the appropriate aisle or to subtly steer them toward their cultivated inventory of condominiums, town houses and single-family homes.

Of course, there are those customers who just wander around the store unassisted and perplexed — but undaunted. They know what they came for, but, in meandering, might welcome options they happen to find.

One interesting housing option in the region is co-housing, a broad category that often seems to be confused with apartment-style cooperatives or to conjure images of communal living somewhat short of 1967’s Summer of Love.

Co-housing’s advocates want to set the record straight.

“This is not a commune, and there is nothing radical about it,” says Kevin Oliveau, founder of Catoctin Creek Village, a 164-acre co-housing development outside the Loudoun County community of Lovettsville, across the Potomac River from Point of Rocks, Md., and MARC commuter train service.

Mr. Oliveau says co-housing is more of a “tweaking of the subdivision concept to re-create a small-town feel.”

The Co-housing Association of the United States (www.cohousing.org) defines co-housing as an alternative to “the alienation of modern subdivisions in which no-one knows their neighbors.” The communities are managed by their residents, designed to foster community living and feature individual dwellings “but also extensive common facilities,” the organization says.

Co-housing started in Denmark in the 1960s and first appeared in the United States in the 1980s, and the Co-Housing Association reports that there are some 100 co-housing communities in North America.

The organization offers state-by-state links to co-housing community Web sites.

There are several co-housing communities in the region.

Catoctin Creek Village, for example, includes 18 homesites. Ten sites are currently available, most ranging from 0.31 acres to slightly more than an acre. There is one 10-acre lot.

Mr. Oliveau says the structure of the community is that of a self-governed homeowners’ association with common ownership of some 115 acres of woods and meadows, a mile of Catoctin Creek frontage, a small lake, a large “bank” barn, and a restored 200-year-old farmhouse that serves as common house for community activities and meetings.

Home and lot costs range from the high $500,000s to $1,500,000. The community features custom-built homes by Proximity LLC.

Not all co-housing offerings are rural, but one shared characteristic of co-housing communities in the area is community or “common” houses.

For example, Eastern Village (www.easternvillage.org) is a 56-unit co-housing community in a renovated 1950s-era office building near the downtown Silver Spring arts-and-entertainment district. The community’s Web site says it offers “a large community dining hall for shared meals, community living room, kids playroom, game room, yoga room, library, workshop, hot tub, green roof and much more.”

Takoma Village Co-housing resident Ann Zabaldo says her community’s common house includes a kitchen, a dining room, a play area for children, a workshop, a small office, an exercise room and guest rooms. The community’s Web site (www.takomavillage.org), says there is a waiting list for buyers.

Takoma Village was built on a site that once was home to a dry cleaner and overflow storage for a car dealership. It has some 43 households in a mix of “apartment-like” condos, town houses and “stacked” units, Ms. Zabaldo says.

In co-housing, children are a great unifier, says Takoma Village resident Sharon Villines.

“We have 18 children now. Many people moved here because it was child-friendly. We have restrictions on the children; it isn’t a free-for-all, but everyone enjoys the children. No one would ever complain about happy kids’ noises,” Ms. Villines says.

This underscores the co-housing approach to design for community life — pushing roads and parking to the periphery to foster walking, neighborly interaction and safer outdoor play areas for children.

The difference between co-housing and condo living, Ms. Villines says, is the shared “intention of being a community” in which residents relate to one another, not to a management company.

“It’s more like living in a large extended family. Some people you love, some you would rather not see often. Some you see every day, others you only see at social events or meetings. But in the end, everyone is family,” she says.

Ms. Villines says the popularity of co-housing in the area is reflected in quick sales.

“We have waiting lists,” she says. “The only problem with building more is finding the land or the buildings in D.C.”

In co-housing, residents can find more than common buildings. They can sometimes find common ground, intellectually speaking. The environment seems to strike a chord among co-housing residents.

Consider Broomgrass, “an organic farm community” of co-housing in the eastern panhandle of West Virginia.

Co-founder and architect Matthew Grove says he started thinking about what to do with the more than 340 acres of historic farmland in Berkeley County in the 1980s, when he was still in college. His father had been a co-owner of the property for some 40 years.

Mr. Grove says it was a mixture of fond memories of growing up hiking, fishing and camping on the farm property and the realization of the increasing number of farms being sold for development in the area that led him and his wife, Lisa Dall’Olio, to create the working organic farm preserve about 20 minutes from Martinsburg, W.Va., a city that offers MARC commuter train service to Union Station.

Nine of the proposed 16 1-acre building lots that make up the community are already under contract, Mr. Grove said. They range from $165,000 to $215,000, depending on location and view, with each lot offering a mountain view or wooded setting.

Community residents will own an equal-share interest in the remaining land, which includes 150 acres being farmed and 150 acres of woodlands. The property includes 1.6 miles of frontage on Back Creek and two ponds.

Residents will be encouraged to be active in the farming of the land, although it is not mandatory.

“There are some who are not anxious to farm but still appreciate the rural quality of the Back Creek Valley, relatively untouched by development,” Mr. Grove says.

He says a community garden with individual plots will be reserved for each homeowner and a farm board will coordinate farming projects, with residents encouraged to explore their “agricultural interests.”

In addition to hiking, canoeing, kayaking and cross-country skiing, the planned community amenities include a 25-meter swimming pool, a spa, a cabana, a bathhouse and a multi-use ball field. Plans also call for a barn, a field tractor, and restoration of a 200-year-old farmhouse to serve as a place for workshops, meetings and community activities. More information is available at the community Web site (www.broomgrass.com).

Eastern Village in Silver Spring was named a “green community of the year” this year by the National Association of Home Builders.

EcoVillage of Loudoun County (www.ecovillages.com), a co-housing community on 180 acres of “organically managed” land, has lots, home packages and several financing recommendations with area lenders.

Ms. Villines, who publishes a newsletter on developing co-housing (www.buildingcommunitynews.org), says one appeal of co-housing in the Washington area may be that area residents are used to sharing and being interested in world affairs.

“[Residents] travel a lot for business and politics,” Ms. Villines says. “Co-housing allows them to have a community and social life without extra effort. Cat sitters are always available.”

Many of the co-housing community Web sites include short biographies and interesting facts about residents. To say these communities are eclectic and diverse would be an understatement.

The popularity of co-housing would suggest a strong resale market. However, each community has its rules and regulations regarding the reselling of homes and units, which are outlined in covenants and agreements. There is no apparent reluctance on the part of lenders to provide mortgage financing.

So what’s not to like about co-housing? The truth is, it isn’t for everyone.

Some communities have community meals on a regular basis, requiring volunteer preparers and clean-up crews. Other communities have a schedule of responsibilities. Some would call these chores.

There is the matter of children. While having children around might well appeal to young families with children themselves and empty nesters missing the “joyous noise” of childhood, it might not hold the same lure and appeal for others.

Then there is the notion of switching between the power suit and the overalls. For those who struggle to keep a potted plant alive, the opportunity to organically farm acres of land might not hold a strong appeal.

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