About 40 people — toddlers, divorcees, young couples and teenagers — crowd into a massive dining room, where enticing smells drift out of a restaurant-grade kitchen.
A few adults trickle in, laughing and holding after-work beers. They came from a chicken coop in the garden, where they were watching what they called “Chicken TV.” The four people who were assigned dinner duty set out food, and the twice-a-week communal meal begins.
That’s a typical evening at the Arboretum Cohousing development on Madison’s Near West Side, according to resident Janet Kelly.
Cohousing — a type of living arrangement that combines all the privacy and amenities of a private home with the public spaces and conviviality of dorm living — is slowly gaining popularity in Madison.
The city is currently home to three cohousing developments – two, if you’re a cohousing purist, Kelly said.
And two more cohousing communities – Sister East and Madison East Side Cohousing — hope to build homes at the redeveloped Union Corners on the East Side in about three years.
People who live in cohousing often have a hard time explaining the community to friends and family.
“My daughters tell their friends their mom is living in a commune,” laughed Kelly, who moved into Arboretum Cohousing when it was built in 2008. When a daughter came to visit, she told her mom the development seemed like “a giant dorm for grown-ups.”
Resident Karen Ecklund said Kelly’s daughter was right. When the members first moved in, Ecklund felt like she was in college – people burned popcorn and set off fire alarms, hosted parties and buzzed like excited freshmen.
Cohousing buildings have larger private units than co-ops or communes, but more expansive shared spaces than average condominiums.
Arboretum Cohousing has a shared kitchen, exercise room, two playrooms for kids, a TV room, music room, garden, office and dining area. Members take turns making dinner for the entire group, with community-owned kitchen tools, Kelly said.
“There’s a way better waffle iron than I would have ever bought,” said Brendon Panke, who has lived in Arboretum Cohousing for three years.
Panke and his wife, who both studied sustainability in graduate school, said they enjoy raising their 2-year-old son in cohousing.
“It’s kind of like living with professional grandparents,” Panke said.
About 90 people live in Arboretum Cohousing, Kelly said. The youngest member is 6 months old; the oldest is 85. Kelly said the group has a lot of divorced women, though there are also 28 kids, most of which happen to be boys.
“The young boys balance the old women,” Panke said.
Rules and reluctance
Arboretum Cohousing governs itself through Quaker-style consensus, though Kelly said the community has no religious affiliation. The group requires adult members to work four hours per month, on tasks such as gardening or feeding the chickens.
But legally, cohousing is no different than a condominium, and residents have no official obligations.
There’s no score sheet, Kelly said. If a member just had a baby or is going through a major life event, they’re not expected to pitch in.
Cohousing — which started in Denmark in the late ’60s — came to the U.S. in the ’90s, according to Joani Blank, who works for the Cohousing Association of the United States. There are about 125 cohousing associations in the U.S., and Blank said that number is growing, despite occasional hesitation about the arrangement.
Blank said that men, especially, fear there’s no privacy in cohousing. She recently attended a cohousing seminar geared toward “the reluctant husband.” However, she said once husbands move in, they find plenty of alone time.
Another misconception is that cohousing costs less than typical living arrangements, Kelly said. Cohousing units are usually the same price as regular condo units — a brand-new two-bedroom unit at Arboretum Cohousing with upgrades such as hardwood flooring sold for $250,000.
The community also decided to inflate most units’ prices, in order to make a few condos more affordable for lower-income residents.
Residents also pay about $250 a month to cover insurance, heat, hot water, upkeep of common spaces and build a reserve fund for major expenses. The fee varies based on unit size, and electricity is paid separately.
There’s very little turnover at Arboretum Cohousing, Kelly said. Over seven years, eight people moved out due to life changes and two realized cohousing wasn’t a good fit.
Arboretum Cohousing has been around for four residents’ weddings, six births and one death, Kelly said.
Union Corners cohousing
Madison’s first cohousing community was Village Cohousing, located in the Greenbush neighborhood. Troy Gardens on Madison’s North Side also considers itself a cohousing community, though Kelly said it doesn’t have shared living space — a defining cohousing characteristic.
Another defining aspect of cohousing is that members actively participate in creating their living arrangement. Creating a cohousing community typically takes seven to nine years, from inception to move-in, said Linda Lenzke, who has served on the board of Madison East Side Cohousing, or MesCoh.
MesCoh, along with another group called Sister East, is about two years into the development process, and hopes to move into Union Corners by 2018.
MesCoh and Sister East aren’t competing for the space; they are collaborating, but decided to split up to keep the groups small. A development with more than 40 units can be unwieldy for consensus-based decision making, Lenzke said.
The two communities will vary slightly. MesCoh plans to build a three-story, apartment-style building with underground parking, and Lenzke said possible residents hope to “age in place,” though the building won’t cater strictly to seniors.
Sister East will include a mix of apartment-style units and townhouses, which have seen interest from young families who want a private entrance and access to the outdoors, Lenzke said.
MesCoh calls itself “intentionally welcoming,” and the group is looking for diverse members, focusing especially on seniors and the LGBT community. Many of the possible future residents already live on the East Side, some of whom had histories with the Rayovac battery plant, which previously occupied Union Corners.
Lenzke said both groups have worked closely with Arboretum Cohousing, using their bylaws and building layout as a starting point.