We are an urban cohousing with 12 townhouses and a common house on one acre. About half the households have children, and these kids are like siblings to each other. The adults range in age from 30 to 50. We have common dinners twice a week and potlucks several times a month. Our common meals are vegetarian, but only half our members eat vegetarian in their own homes. The architecture is beautiful and the gardens are lush, lending a European-village feeling to our small site. Our small size (13 households) makes for an intimate group, but it's harder to get things done. We recycle, we compost, and we have a small organic garden. We make decisions by consensus.
THE LAKE CLAIRE COHOUSING COMMUNITY....
....is located in the Lake Claire neighborhood of intown Atlanta, just west of Decatur, just east of Candler Park and Little 5 Points, and a few miles south of Emory University. We’re only about a ten-minute walk from MARTA, Atlanta’s rapid transit system, on which you can easily travel to downtown Atlanta, Decatur, and the airport. We are also next door to the Lake Claire Community Land Trust, a sort of home-made neighborhood park which features a gazebo, a sandbox, a water garden, a fire circle, a sweat lodge, and even a stage for performances.
Lake Claire was the first cohousing built in Georgia and one of the first in the Southeast. (In the Atlanta area, we have since been joined by the East Lake Ecovillage in south Decatur.) There are 13 households at Lake Claire, along with a common house, two courtyards, fountains, and a community garden -- all on about one acre of land.
WHAT IS COHOUSING?
Cohousing began in Denmark in the late 1960’s, spread throughout Scandinavia and other parts of Europe, and then made its way to the U.S. beginning in the late 1980’s. Katherine McCamant and Charles Durrett, husband and wife architects from San Francisco, lived in various cohousings in Denmark for a few years and then wrote a book entitled Cohousing: A Contemporary Approach to Housing Ourselves. That book helped spread the cohousing concept to America, where the first community was built in Berkeley. There are now several dozen cohousings throughout the U.S., and more than a hundred groups in the process of development.
Cohousing is an attempt to reconcile the need for greater community with the need for privacy and personal space. It’s a sort of compromise between the commune and the condominium, in which residents own their own houses, with all the usual amenities, but also share common space, community activities, tools, childcare, and community meals. It’s intended to be something like a village -- but an intentionally created one. As Hans Anderson, a cohousing organizer, once said, “Cohousers are simply creating consciously the community that used to occur naturally.”
It’s possible for a cohousing to be organized around a certain set of beliefs or with a certain population in mind (such as retirees), but most, including Lake Claire, are not. Residents do tend to share many basic values, and sometimes these are spelled out explicitly, but more often the underlying goal is simply to create a sense of community that is increasingly difficult to find elsewhere.
There are three key elements that promote that sense of community in cohousing:
(1) Peripheral parking. All parking is placed on the edge of the complex. One parks one’s car in the lot and then walks through the community to get home. This alone promotes a greater contact with neighbors than one has in most neighborhoods. And the absence of individual driveways and garages allows the space between houses to be used for “outdoor rooms” -- courtyards, walkways, gathering spots, play areas. This is perhaps the most essential factor in creating a village atmosphere.
(2) The Common House. This is a large building, centrally located, with several different amenities, usually including laundry facilities, mailboxes, a play area for kids, and, most importantly, a community kitchen and dining area. Here community meals can be
served during certain nights of the week (the number depending on the size of the community and the number of willing cooks available). Here, also, are other gatherings -- business meetings, committee meetings, birthday parties, holiday celebrations -- and residents often take advantage of the larger space to host their own private functions.
(3) Resident Management. Another key to the strong feeling of community in cohousing is that the owners typically initiate, design, develop, build and manage the community themselves. Cohousings are not built and run by outside groups such as developers or real estate companies. The residents work together, and most decisions are made by consensus. That makes for a certain amount of work, of course, and at least some time spent in meetings, but we think the advantages far outweigh the obligations.
For all of the reasons mentioned above, one has much stronger connections in a cohousing community than one experiences in most neighborhoods. A cohousing tends to feel like a modern-day version of a village. Kids play in the courtyards and common spaces. They get to know adults other than their parents, and other cohousing kids can be like siblings. Adults hang out on their stoops or at the common house. There can be impromptu conversatons, late night bottles of wine, or gatherings to watch favorite TV shows. People can meet at the common house to do yoga, watch movies, or hang out on a Sunday morning with bagels and the New York Times.
And along with the opportunity to spend time together, many things can be shared. While adding less “stuff” to the environment, we have access to more things than we would otherwise have -- we
share books, DVDs, toys, wood shop tools, games, culinary supplies, bicycles, ladders, and much more. Kids have other adults who can watch them when necessary. You can always get a ride to the MARTA station or the car mechanic, or someone to feed the cats and get the mail when you’re out of town. In times of crisis and times of celebration, we are here for each other with soup, birthday cards, shared expertise, and surprising resourcefulness.
Meals: And of course, there are the common meals, which in many ways are the heart of the community experience. They’re a time not just for eating, but for catching up, communing, commisserating, celebrating. In the meantime, however, the food is also quite good, and it’s a great help to have someone else do the cooking two nights a week.
At Lake Claire there are two regularly scheduled meals each week, as long as cooks have signed up to make them. On Thursday nights, the meal is open to whoever shows up, including folks from the surrounding neighborhood, and we simply hope there will be enough food for everyone. (There almost always is.) On Sunday nights there are meals that people sign up for in advance, and the cooks prepare accordingly. The cost is divided evenly between those who signed up, although kids are charged half as much as grown-ups. The cooks try to keep the cost to less than $4.00 per adult. There are also potlucks a few times a month -- usually before Monday night community meetings, although sometimes impromptu potlucks are organized to finish off leftover food from the meals. And there are occasional special meals, like the annual holiday feast that one of our resident gourmets likes to prepare each year.
Not everyone has to cook for meals. There are several regular cooks, but several other people who prefer to sign up for cleaning
instead. Cooking and cleaning are simply part of the monthly chores
that anyone can choose to sign up for. All community meals are vegetarian, but meat is allowed in the common house for private functions.
Yes, we do have these. Alas, there are tasks to be done, taxes and repairs to pay for, agreements that have to be reached, and meetings to attend -- but we try to keep all of these things to a minimum.
Chores: We have a master list of work that ideally needs to be done each month -- from cooking and cleaning for common meals to sweeping the sidewalks to watering the garden -- and for each item there is an estimated amount of time involved. Currently we calculate that each adult owner needs to sign up for about 7 hours worth of tasks per month in order to cover it all -- or at least pay someone else to do those chores for them. We encourage everyone to do this, but, inevitably, some do more, some less. We have never chosen to police this very strictly, and there is no one officially in charge of doing so. We talk about it a lot. We tinker with it. We each feel guilty during months when we can’t do as much. Somehow, the essential things seem to get done. Occasionally there are workdays, in which a lot of us assuage our guilt by turning
out en masse to work on the landscaping or the common house.
Dues: Legally, cohousing communities are considered “fee simple townhomes”, like condominiums, and we have the same sort of “home owners’ association” fee. It goes toward paying the taxes on the common house and common land, paying for ongoing maintenance, and building a reserve fund for major projects. We also share one large water bill, and each home contributes
according to the number of people in their household. All this is combined in a monthly bill which we each receive from the
community treasurer. Most are in the $150-200 range.
Rules: We like to call them “agreements”, actually, and like everything around here, they are arrived at by consensus of the whole community and always open to more discussion. Current agreements include things like no pets in the common house (some people are allergic), no smoking outside one’s own house, vegetarian food at common meals, no loud noise outside after a certain time of night, no realistic-looking toy guns in the commmon spaces, and so forth. Some issues are discussed without definite agreements being reached. If an adult has real guns, for example, can we do anything about that, or can we at least insist on full disclosure and strict safety precautions? Should there be television in the common house or do we want it to be a TV-free zone? Should there be a limit on the number of outdoor pets in the community and if so, what should that limit be? Such questions are an inevitable part of living in community, and we’re always working on such details, as well as the process by which agreements are reached.
Meetings: At Lake Claire we have a business meeting on the second Monday of each month. The current president of the home owner’s association facilitates, there is an agenda posted in advance, and someone takes minutes. Usually business meetings take an hour and a half to two hours. On the third Monday of each month we have a meeting to talk about any conflicts or emotional issues within the community, facilitated by a local therapist who has worked with our group for years. First Mondays are sometimes used to talk about special topics -- such as different peoples’ spiritual journeys or family experiences -- but sometimes we simply
“pass the stick”, which is a chance for anyone who wants to to talk about what’s going on in their lives.
COMMITTEES: In addition to these whole group gatherings, there are occasional meetings of three smaller committees -- Common House, Landscape, and Community Life -- to discuss their particular issues. Most owners in the cohousing are members of at least one of these.
HISTORY OF LAKE CLAIRE COHOUSING
It is said that for most cohousing communities to be built, it takes a “burning soul”, a person who is passionate about the project and keeps it alive through many crises. For Lake Claire Cohousing that person was Greg Ramsey. He and his wife, Diane Burgoon, sacrificed a great deal of time, effort, and money to bring this community into being. Greg is an architect whose primary focus is on creating more sustainable communities. He lived in France for several years when he was growing up and dreamed of creating communities in America that would look and feel like European villages. He worked for a while with Catherine McCamant and Chuck Durrett, and in the early 90’s he formed Village Habitat, to develop cohousings and other kinds of intentional communities in the southeast.
The Lake Claire group first came together in the spring of 1993, found the land in Lake Claire, and began the long process of designing the community, attracting prospective owners, finding a builder, and putting together financing. Construction was finally begun in the spring of ‘96, and the first owners moved in in the spring of ‘97.
FREQUENTLY ASKED QUESTIONS
Q: Is one expected to always participate in community activities? Is there pressure to constantly be involved?
A: Not really. An essential part of cohousing is that there is a balance between community and privacy, and most people go through periods when they need to be less involved. Their absence is felt a bit more in a small community like ours, but it’s important that everyone feel free to pull back when they need to.
Q: Is it difficult, just physically, to have privacy when you want it?
A: No. Your own house is your private space, and there are many ways to ensure that it stays private. Most people have hours during which it’s okay to call or knock. One can close the curtains or draw the blinds. And even when walking through the community, it’s perfectly acceptable to be too busy or preoccupied for a conversation. The community is there when you want or need it, but we are careful not to intrude on each other.
Q: Is the community kid-friendly? Are kids included? Welcome?
A: Very much so. Of the 13 households at Lake Claire, eight currently have children in them. There are about 20 adults these days and about 17 kids in all -- though some are only in the community part-time because they have another parent living elsewhere. Kids play outside together and run in and out of each others’ houses, there is a great deal of shared childcare, and when the adults have meetings, there is almost always a baby-sitter available.
Q: What schools are nearby?
A: There are quite a few, both public and private. Mary Lin Elementary, Inman Middle, and Grady High are all part of the Atlanta public school system, and Mary Linn is within walking distance of the cohousing. Private alternatives include the Atlanta School, the Horizons School, the Friends School, the Paideia School, and the Waldorf School -- all just a few minutes away.
Q: Is there a guest room in the common house?
A: Not yet. We have many dreams for the second floor of our common house, including a guest room, a recreation room, and perhaps even a shared office space, but so far all of these have been beyond our budget. For now, the second floor simply provides extra storage. When people have needed guest space beyond what they have in their house, they’ve usually been able to find extra rooms in other homes in the community, and owners have sometimes made their entire houses available while they’ve been out of town. It’s surprising how well it usually works out, but a guest room in the common house is still a major goal. We’re currently discussing whether to make our kids’ room convertible to a guest room when necessary. Since it’s downstairs, it could also be handicapped accessible.
Q: Is it possible to rent? Are renters allowed to participate in the community?
A: There are indeed renters, though availability varies of course. One house has an attached apartment, a few other owners rent out rooms, and there is occasionally an entire house for rent. Renters are not required to participate in the community, though we are
delighted when they choose to do so. Renters are simply expected to follow the same rules and agreements as other residents, and they have a key to the common house in order to use the laundry room and get mail. But some have gone much further -- attending or even cooking common meals, pitching in on workdays, babysitting, and so forth.
Q: Has there been much turnover through the years?
A: After eight years, seven of the original 13 households are still here, and two of the second generation households have been here for most of those years. So the community has enjoyed a great deal of continuity.
Q: What’s the process for selling one’s house?
A: There are no binding agreements on how to do this, but so far sellers have tried first to market their houses through word of mouth, among people who are interested in cohousing specifically -- and in most cases that’s how houses have sold. There are associate members and friends of the community who are often interested or who help spread the word to others. There is also a national cohousing website through which homes for sale can be advertised. And we’re fortunate to have a licensed realtor in the community who has helped to find appropriate buyers.
JOINING LAKE CLAIRE
People often ask if there’s a screening process for new residents, but we have never been comfortable establishing a formal mechanism and voting people in or out, and legally we can’t
really do so anyway. So it has always been a self- selecting process. When someone is interested in buying a house and joining the community, we encourage them to take a tour, to learn as much as possible about cohousing (by reading the available books, asking a lot of questions, etc.), and to come to several community events -- meals, business meetings, and so forth, to get a feel for our particular group. And when someone new does move in, we do our best to make the transition a smooth and happy one.
We also have some “associate members”, who pay a small monthly fee, attend meals regularly and perhaps even join the cooking rotation, participate in other community activities, and are allowed to use the common house for private events.
If you want to learn more or arrange a visit, call John Greene at 404-687-0179 or e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
| | Contact:
Lake Claire Cohousing, attn John Greene
258 Connecticut Ave. NE
Atlanta, Georgia 30307 United States
Community location is placed at the center of the zip/postal code, city/state, or city/country (not based on street addresses)