Estimated reading time: 6 minutes
As a city lover who commits to sustainable living, Sheila Hoffman’s day-to-day includes experiencing an alternative form of traditional living—urban cohousing. Inspired to build community in a dense city, Sheila is passionate about creating an intentional and collaborative neighborhood. In this fireside chat, Sheila explores the process of joining a cohousing unit and the role of cohousing in building community.
Here’s what we’ll cover:
Now currently living in Capitol Hill Urban Housing, Sheila shares her experience in living with an intergenerational community in Seattle.
What is cohousing and what inspired you to join?
Cohousing involves a community living with intention together while self-managing and making decisions together, each with their own full home.
It’s important to note that cohousing is different from a commune. The difference between a commune and cohousing is that a commune has a shared economy. In cohousing, we are individual households with our own income and our own rent or mortgage payment. We do not do business together as a community or share our finances in any other way—that’s not part of cohousing.
The types of units can vary depending on the location. For example, I live in urban cohousing in Capitol Hill in Seattle, where it’s an apartment building with intentionally designed common spaces to share. Everyone has their own apartment with their own kitchens.
I’ve been talking about environmental issues for most of my life. For example, I chose not to have children. I became vegan because of the environmental impact of our food choices. We became Buddhist when we recognized everything is connected. My husband and I started riding a tandem bicycle for both recreation and transportation. We live car-free, we minimize our flying—and when we do fly, we try to combine multiple things within one trip, and do not fly overseas anymore.
We love doing things in community and living lighter on the land, which eventually brought us to cohousing. Spencer and I don’t have kids, and we didn’t want to grow old in a senior center. We were seeking another model for growing old, and it’s been wonderful to find intergenerational cohousing.
You can watch this TED talk from my friend, neighbor and architect Grace Kim to learn more about it.
Why did you choose urban cohousing?
When my husband and I were living in our house, it felt isolated. Even though we lived there for 20 years, we never got to know our neighbors. We made community elsewhere, but we lived in isolation. I knew that I didn’t want that as I grew older.
We are urban people. We value diversity, density, and walkability. We initially thought of buying a condo in the SW for the winters and something small in Seattle. This idea freed us from thinking we were going to stay in our house for the rest of our lives. But it turned out it wasn’t realistic because we couldn’t afford both. And we didn’t want to leave Capitol Hill, an urban center in Seattle. It’s been our home for decades and ultimately where our cohousing community is now located.
Once we were open to living in a smaller space, we moved to a condo in the same neighborhood. It was a new construction that we watched be built. We told our friends that it was “cohousing lite” because the marketing emphasized community and many common spaces, which is similar to cohousing.
How did you go from “cohousing lite” in your condo to moving into Capitol Hill Urban Cohousing? What was that shift about?
I was president of my condo association for 5 years where I focused on creating a community amongst the 150-units. We would host at least one event per month such as movie showings, book groups, potlucks, and many other social events.
But, after I was no longer president, no one cared about having community anymore. You cannot legislate being a community. It must be the intention of those who live there. With all the flipping and rental units that sense of community vanished over time.
The idea of cohousing felt like a better fit. I eventually got an email from a neighbor in my condo building. She told me about a Cohousing 101 event where I met Grace Kim, our community's founder. She was on the National Cohousing board and had designed and built other cohousing. We rode our tandem over to a church near the Seattle Center and ended up helping with the room setup and registration. We learned about the property they had and the intention to build cohousing there. We immediately became involved and helped with organizing and recruiting to make it a reality!
Do you buy or rent in cohousing?
Cohousing is not about the financial model. Most cohousing are condominiums. We started our cohousing process after the 2008 crash. Our specific cohousing is incorporated as an LLC. As tenants, we are paying members of the LLC where we pay rent to the LLC on a monthly basis.
What’s the process of forming or finding cohousing?
The early forming process is finding people who want to live in a community. Once you hit a threshold of critical mass, the first thing we worked on was developing a shared vision and values. Then we started having facilitated workshops and trainings related to facilitation, conflict resolution, decision-making, and value alignment. It’s a lengthy process. It took about four years to assemble the group of people who would move into Capitol Hill Urban Cohousing starting in 2010 and we actually moved in the middle of 2016. During that time, we laid the groundwork for our shared living intentions. Since then, there has been no turnover!
If you’re seeking an existing community you can explore the listings from all over the US in the cohousing.org directory. You can also hop on a free Zoom call with the national organization at The Commons on the 10th of every month (9AM PST) to learn more.
How do you know when to have these trainings and workshops, and what kinds of things to learn about?
It’s important to have good communication and conflict resolution skills, and know how to make decisions by a form of consensus. Some people may not have experience in dealing with these related situations, so it’s helpful to have these workshops and trainings. In the end, it helps minimize turnover and provides opportunities to practice integrating new people into the community. The need for ongoing growth never ends.
Tell us more about your day to day life in cohousing!
We live in a small 9 household community and all but one household has two adults plus kids. We all participate in the meal program and share the workload of managing the building. Everyone contributes as best they are able.
For example, we have meals three times a week and we don’t charge each person. The person who cooks or chooses the menu pays for it. Everyone rotates in cooking and cleaning. All meals are nutritious and delicious for everybody who attends.
It’s great because the people with kids and busy schedules don’t have to think about what’s for dinner. They can sit down, eat, socialize and go home, or take a late plate if they’re feeling like being alone.
Our meal program is a special and unique part of Capitol Hill Urban Cohousing. We have the physical space to host everyone in our building as well as a few guests. Kids can run around, and everyone can feel like it’s their home.
We’re also an intergenerational community. The youngest person in our community is seven years old, and Spencer and I are the oldest in our 70s. We’ve watched kids be born, grow up, and three have already gone off to college and work life.
What percentage of the 9 families were you friends with before cohousing came up?
A lot of people assume that in order for cohousing to work, a bunch of friends have to join and create a cohousing unit. This scenario sometimes happens, but not for us. I didn’t know anybody until I went to the first meeting. Some tenants knew each other beforehand, but the info sessions would get people interested to join.
What are the challenges of living in cohousing?
Of course we all come from unique lives, with unique family situations and unique values so we’re not homogenous. That became particularly apparent when we each had unique views of how to address the unknowns of Covid. This is where our communication skills and conflict resolution skills can become critical. Living in a community is a microcosm of our society and all the issues you’d expect still exist. But instead of living in an isolated home we are provided the opportunity to learn and grow and challenge ourselves. This is also the value of living in community.
What are different avenues towards cohousing or communal living, especially for people with less resources? What are some smaller steps we can take without having to move?
First, it’s important to have a common space where people can gather. Cohousing communities tend to be two or three dozen homes, and community involvement can vary based on size.
For example, it may not be possible that everyone in a large cohousing community will participate; however, for a very small community like ours, it was imperative for everyone to agree to participate in the beginning. Our meal program is only viable if we have 100% participation from all adults.
These programs and activities should feel like an extension of your home and shouldn’t just accommodate the people in the community. Anybody should be able to bring guests without running out of food. When we prepare food, we prepare enough to have both guests and leftovers.
Design is an important factor. Spaces are intentionally designed to maximize interaction. The architecture of our dining room is designed to seat way more people than the number of people in our community. Our walkways are wide to accommodate plants and bistro tables. Kitchen windows face each other, etc.
There have been examples in California where a group of friends pooled their resources and bought a communal house, in addition to their individual homes within walking distance.
Even buying a duplex with one other family can be a smaller step. On the most basic level, just sharing meals regularly with your community can be a good place to start.
What are creative ways to incorporate more prosocial activities into our daily lives?
Do it Anyway: The New Generation of Activists by Courtney Martin may have resources on how to create community with people who have shared interests. You can also start a club, organize a block party, or check out your local Buy Nothing group!
To learn more about urban cohousing, check out this resource from Capitol Hill Urban Cohousing! If you’re interested in seeing what living in cohousing is like, check out their upcoming tours and videos. To find a community of your liking, check out this directory supported by Cohousing US.
Finally, can you share some more of your favorite resources on cohousing or related structures?
Here are some additional book recommendations:
Creating Cohousing by McCamant and Durrett
Finding Community by Diana Leafe Christian
The New Better Off by Courtney Martin
Get our free bite-sized climate action plans before you go!