Lee Anderson stands on a small mulch path, garden hose in hand, watering plants in a garden partially funded by grants from the city of Durham. One of his seven housemates, Tony Simpson, stands right behind him, admiring the size of the growing watermelons and cantaloupes.
Simpson is ecstatic. "Those are some weird-looking tomatoes. They look like cucumbers," he says.
"Yeah, those are some weird-looking tomatoes," Anderson replies.
Anderson and Simpson live in the corner house of the North Street Neighborhood, an intentional community—a planned residential complex designed to have a high degree of social interaction. The neighborhood comprises ninety-nine people, with and without disabilities, who live in sixteen owner-occupied buildings and an apartment. It's filled with families, young and old single people, and Duke Divinity School students. In the house where Anderson and Simpson live, there's a chapel for prayer, a room for nonpermanent residents that has housed refugees, and a long dining room table where different residents serve dinner for the others five nights a week.
During college, Anderson lived with several other male students in a house in Chapel Hill.
"I had always kind of had this craving for community, and that was the first place where I really got to live that out and experience community life and sharing life with people and all the different flavors people bring, and just had a lot of fun," he says. "That's a lot of what I love about this neighborhood; it's just, like, a lot of fun-loving people, too."
Before the North Street Neighborhood was formed in 2012, Anderson had volunteered with Reality Ministries in Durham, a Christian organization focused on giving opportunities to teens and adults with developmental disabilities. There, he says, he was "around people with intellectual and developmental disabilities, and you realize they have so much to offer and so much to teach."
That's where many of the ninety-nine neighbors met—helping with weekly programming at Reality. But then they started thinking, What if? That was the subject line of an email sent by future North Street resident Traci Hoover in 2009, which went out to twenty-nine people who were considering forming a neighborhood together. Instead of living in houses with random neighbors, they could live in proximity to their friends.
It arose out of a need for good housing options, and the North Street Neighborhood was more than a solution to that problem—it aligned with values they shared. That's what intentional community is all about, Anderson says. And that's why it looks different everywhere it exists.
North Street offers communal living (though residents stress that it's not a commune). But until recently, the people who live here didn't know that what they had created was part of a national movement: cohousing. The basis of cohousing is that each household maintains its own personal property while sharing a common house and extensive common spaces, like gardens, walking paths, or music rooms. They also share things like washers and dryers and lawnmowers—whatever the community decides.
Residents often gather weekly or monthly to share meals and spend time together through organized or spontaneous events based on common interests.
The thing that qualifies North Street as cohousing is the shared monthly meals, says resident Margot Starbuck, as well as shared space in at least one house and the option to join in other community events, such as daily prayer at North Street or, in the case of Durham Central Park Cohousing, a weekly movie night.
But North Street isn't part of the American Cohousing Association—and until 2015, its residents didn't know they qualified. "A cohousing conference was happening in Durham, and they had just maybe three or four folks who came over to look at the neighborhood," says Starbuck. "I think that's when most of us learned the word, when they said, 'Oh yeah, you're that.'"
With no knowledge of the larger movement, the members of the North Street Neighborhood arrived at the exact same solution as the rest of the national cohousing group to what they view as a key societal problem: it's hard to find a group of people who have your back.
While the majority of Triangle residents may not have heard of cohousing—only a tenth of 1 percent of people in the Triangle live in an official cohousing community—the Triangle has the second-most cohousing residents per capita in major metropolitan areas, beating out greater Boston, San Francisco, and Seattle, and trailing only Portland.
There are 165 cohousing communities operating and another 140 forming in the United States, as counted by the Cohousing Association of the United States. Most are in areas that are growing economically, highly educated, and liberal leaning—like the Triangle. Of those 165 communities, five are here, and three more are on the way.
The upside of cohousing? Shared resources, a social community, and help when you need it. The downside? Less privacy, independence, and silence. For some, it's all about finding and re-creating what they grew up with.
For a cofounder of cohousing in the U.S.—and half of McCamant & Durrett Architects—the real issue is the way society has changed.
"I grew up in a neighborhood where kids were running in and out of the houses and kids were just running through the doors," says Kathryn McCamant. "I think that's very, very hard for you to find these days."
The first cohousing development opened in Copenhagen, Denmark, in 1972.
Sixteen years later, McCamant and Charles Durrett, who met at the elite architecture school at the University of Copenhagen, published what amounts to the movement's English-language Bible: Cohousing: A Contemporary Approach to Housing Ourselves. McCamant and Durrett coined the term "cohousing" from the Danish word bofoellesskaber, which translates to "living communities."
Unlike the communes that became popular during the 1970s, cohousing allows participants to maintain their private property while incorporating community into their lives. (The financial setup is just like a condominium.) Residents don't put their money in a pot, and they don't shower together. But they do share a lot of living space, which is what caught Durrett's eye.
One day in 1980, Durrett says, he was on his way to class when he noticed a different kind of housing development.
"There are two apartments, and a lot between that, and then there's this one neighborhood where people are stopping to interact with each other, people are sitting at picnic tables, people are coming and going from this building where apparently nobody lives, but everybody lives, and I stop and ask somebody, 'What's going on here?'" he recalls.
A woman told him that she and her husband had grown up in good neighborhoods, and "they wanted their kids to live in a functional neighborhood," he continues. So they designed and joined a cohousing community based on the neighborhoods they knew.
Durrett and McCamant, now married, had the same goals for their children. They started by building their own cohousing development in San Francisco. Later, in conjunction with an already forming cohousing group, they built the Triangle's first cohousing community in 1997: Arcadia Cohousing, which straddles the border between Carrboro and Chapel Hill. Since then, five other cohousing developments have opened. By 2020, three more will join them, bringing the number of area people living in cohousing to more than three hundred.
Cohousing is growing, McCamant says, because modern society forgoes a close-knit style of living communities. People want that connectivity.
- Photo by Alex Boerner
- Residents of DCPC gather for happy hour on the balcony of their building.
Just past the covered front porch of the shiny four-floor complex of Durham Central Park Cohousing lies the mailroom. It's right by the door, with a view of the street from a large window. Each black metal mailbox has a lock, but many aren't secured. Keys sit in about 80 percent of them, allowing other members to access the mail, ideally to help retrieve it for someone going out of town. Still, there's a certain amount of trust that goes into such an arrangement.
"Who's going to take our mail? Nobody that lives here," says Tim Hunter, a sixty-four-year-old resident with glasses and a thick gray moustache. He's been living in the building since it opened in 2014.
Every afternoon at five thirty is happy hour, a community get-together open to whoever wants to come. Hunter is almost always there. Sometimes, three residents show up, other times thirty. But for whoever is there, it's a time to talk about life—"The same thing that you might do with all your buds," Hunter says.
Sitting just across from Hunter is Richard Jamison, also sixty-four, dressed in a suit and tie. If the two hadn't joined the DCPC, they likely wouldn't have met. But now that they've helped design a building they both live in, it's impossible for them not to be close.
"It's like I say, we ought to be calling each other cousins, because really it's like a family," Hunter says.
Not everyone is into this kind of community, of course. "A friend I had lunch with yesterday, he just can't even stand the idea," Hunter says. "He wants to live out in Garner, in the middle of his big four-acre property, you know, and the notion of living in this place just makes him feel sort of creepy."
Two people who tried to found a cohousing community called Raleigh Cohousing—a project abandoned last week—say they admire how tight-knit DCPC is. But that kind of community doesn't just happen; it takes work. For Reverend Kayelily Middleton and Dona McNeill, who are seventy-three and sixty-six years old, respectively, replicating it was a welcome challenge, because they see cohousing as their only viable option as they continue to age.
"I think our particular generation, the Boomers, and those who are just on the edge, we really like to control things and to control our lives. And a lot of us have been taking care of our parents and dealing with the old system of assisted living and nursing care, and we don't find it very appealing," McNeill says. "So if we can create a community where each of us are looking out for each other, and if we need some nursing services, we can do a contract so we can have someone working in our community, we'll do the things that we can to keep people in their community and to keep them healthy. Healthy until you check out."
Despite years of work, Raleigh Cohousing broke apart over disagreements over what kind of property to build on.
When cohousing groups form, they often don't reach their end goal, McNeill says. She was more saddened that people she had grown close to won't be living in her community. "We got down to four families, and I was part of one of the four families, and at that point some of the [ten] families that had left had been very dear to me, and so it sort of took my heart out of the project."
McNeill will be joining Village Hearth Cohousing in Durham, which is further along in the process of forming than Raleigh Cohousing was and has already selected a property and gotten approval from the city council. Middleton and her husband are still deciding whether they will do so as well.
- Photo by Alex Boerner
- Architect Charles Durrett talks with attendees at a presentation on cohousing.
At Arcadia Cohousing, there's a bulletin board in the common house. It's covered in fliers and pamphlets, including a folder with projections of financial returns on the monthly dues members pay.
The community tries to be open with its financial records, which are available at any time to residents. Those funds go to things like keeping the paths and walkways in good shape and meet-and-greets to welcome new members.
The common house sits at the end of several walking paths that span the property and hosts shared weekly meals. Initially, explains founding resident Becky Laskody, the community shared meals three times a week. Back then, almost all residents always came; now, not so much. Regardless, a minimum level of involvement is expected. And with that expectation comes trust.
That basic value is why Laskody was so keen on raising her son in the community—to have people around him she could trust.
Two decades later, her son, Elijah Laskody, lives in Arcadia—at least for now. He graduated from UNC in May and recently interviewed for an advertising job in Seattle. Dressed in a flannel shirt, navy shorts, and Adidas slides, he looks like an advertising major. He has a hint of scruff on his face and a streak of wild, yet somehow tame, brown hair. As he stands outside on one of the many paths leading out from the common house, birds chirp. They don't stop for the rest of the morning.
Lined with trees and filled with gardens spread among the thirty-three residential houses, Arcadia is distinct from the subdivisions on either side. There's only one road that residents park on, and the houses face one another, not the road. At the entrance, squirrels run happily, and two deer timidly cross the street.
"That's pretty standard," says Elijah, who moved into Arcadia at the age of one. He didn't have much of a say in the matter, but now he looks back fondly on his time in cohousing.
"When I grew up here, I knew all my neighbors on a first-name basis," Elijah says. "This was very odd for people outside the community, who didn't grow up with this and were used to it being trespassing if you were on someone else's property or something like that."
That freedom to roam, Elijah says, epitomizes the benefits of cohousing. For a college application essay, he wrote about how he was able to ride his scooter up and down walking paths in the neighborhood without fear of being hit by a car. But much of Arcadia's distinctiveness was lost on him until he visited other neighborhoods. One of the biggest differences he saw was the environmental footprint.
While typical neighborhoods have two garbage bins per house, Arcadia has only eight garbage bins for all thirty-three houses. As a shared value, the community takes every opportunity to recycle and compost.
But while Elijah values the environmental aspect, the most important thing to him is the group's sharing nature.
"I think it's kind of like the pie is getting bigger for everyone," he says. "It's not like this zero sum thing, where if you take from me then I have less; it's like we're sharing and the pie is getting bigger."
While attending UNC, he studied abroad in Italy for seven months and plans to move to a big city in the near future—hopefully Seattle. That may seem like a stark contrast to the semi-isolated, tree-laden neighborhood he's grown up in, but he sees it as an opportunity—and his time in cohousing as preparation.
"In a way, I had some training experience in kind of a separate world from the broader workings of society," he says, "but ended up integrating that public school education in a way that parallels my experience with the fact that the people who live here are integrated with society and do understand how things work, and are using that knowledge to try to make the world better in the ways that they can."
Explaining cohousing is difficult, since it varies so much from community to community, Elijah says. "If I was going to sum it all up in one word, I'd say understanding."
A mutual understanding of ideals and purpose—and a place where people really know one another. But to live in cohousing, one has to relinquish the normal way of American life, with all its individuality and comforts.
And that's kind of the whole point.