Cohousing Principles in Apartment Communities

Sustainability advocates concerned about limited resources, degradation of open space and water supplies and limited energy resources want to encourage and grow new kinds of communities.  These activists propose that if we delay the most effective conservation practices, the adjustments later required will not be comfortable.  Mainly the issue surrounds the unsustainable state of our American demand for and consumption of resources which exceeds those available domestically and globally.

Learning to share resources is not something to which we easily adapt, but many of us have learned to live sustainably, particularly those in apartments, condos and cooperatives. There is a fine line between our broader sense of  community – as in our tribe, our socio-economic level, our religious affiliation and ethnic identification – and the one in which we spend our nights and weekends.

Property managers deal with the latter, but often the most important function they serve is keeping the lights on and the water flowing. As stressed as they are with the physical aspects of property management, they can be invaluable building what we refer to as “community”. The tone is different on every street, of course, but tapping into the sense of what works best for one’s residents takes a highly skilled manager.  For example, small-town grass-roots types tend to tolerate different age groups while the urbanite may be more comfortable with greater diversity. A manager has to see these differing styles live compatibly and provide equal housing opportunity to all.

Building design also appeals differently to people and attracts varying personalities and family types. Some may love the fitness inflicted on them with those lovely stairs while others imagine carrying three bags of groceries with a toddler. Property management style, however, can influence residents’ sense of satisfaction and overcome all kinds of building defects. Every owner knows an active manager can set a tone that either moves people in or moves them out.

In fact, building community is a difficult and complex task and even well-meaning efforts can fail. For the last three years a group of New Yorkers, known as Brooklyn Cohousing, has tried unsuccessfully to create a co-housing experiment with three different Brooklyn sites. Their disbanding was recently reported in the New York Times and the organizers’ sadness and disappointment was obvious. Sixteen private homeowners had a dream that they could create a communal situation in which their members would share certain amenities within their neighborhood complex as well as meet in communal dining and living rooms.  Although they were unable to finalize their plans for many reasons, other groups have been successful.

The Cohousing Association of the United States offers:

Cohousing is a type of collaborative housing in which residents actively participate in the design and operation of their own neighborhoods.

Cohousing residents are consciously committed to living as a community. The physical design encourages both social contact and individual space. Private homes contain all the features of conventional homes, but residents also have access to extensive common facilities such as open space, courtyards, a playground and a common house.

The description they provide could easily be applied to any active multifamily community, and certainly would apply to those in which management actively solicits input from residents. Candidly, the beauty of condominiums, cooperatives and apartment complexes is that they already provide many of the perks of cohousing all within the cost of that housing.

The kind of cooperative living experienced in these communities is wonderfully green. Adding additional community activities can also enhance both sustainability and resident relations:

Tools, equipment and shared cars: Although many of us do not consciously think about it, as a society we are conditioned to acquire ownership. Creating a tool-lending ‘library’ or assigning a parking space for shared car services both help residents lower their acquisition and maintenance costs for these goods.

Coordinating Ride-Share Commuting: An interactive Facebook page or property website is a great place to help residents connect, but a plain old bulletin board in the leasing office works too.

Bike-Share Amenity: As families double up and perhaps learn to live in smaller amounts of space, storage of large possessions like bicycles becomes a problem. Having secure bicycle storage for tenants is a wonderful amenity but having a bike-share program can also be a winner.

Community Gardens & Events: Not everybody is interested in connecting with their neighbors, but for those who are, community gardens and sponsored educational lectures, hands-on classes and plain old fun events can be very appealing. Some creative managers also allow certain community groups – Neighborhood Watch, Book Clubs, Service Organizations – to meet in their common rooms. This not only is a form of subtle advertising, but sets a wonderful emotional tone when people visit.

Casual Outdoor Seating: There is nothing more appealing to residents who’ve been cooped up in a work building all day than to have a chance to sit outside, connect with neighbors without inviting them inside, relax and decompress. Making these seating areas appealing – raised flower beds on the ends of benches perhaps or a water feature that has a soothing sound – can only enhance the ambiance of your property.

When is enough, enough? Of course, well meaning managers can go too far as well. Perhaps one of the problems with the concept of  cohousing is that most of us need and want our connection to the greater social group with one caveat.  Just like any teenager who discovers the freedom of a locked bedroom door, all of us want to be able to maintain this same kind of non-permeable  ’distance’ whenever we feel like it.

Organizing an apartment complex into an apartment community takes time and energy but is well worth the effort. It is important, however, that property managers test the waters occasionally and recognize when ‘enough is enough’ or ‘more’ may be too much.

Other Articles of Interest:

A New Kind of Give & Take for Green Property Management

Make Waves: Create a Bike-Share Amenity for Tenants

Zipping Through the 21st Century

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