Virginia Cohousing Groups Seek To Put Community First In Housing Development
A Dutch-inspired housing movement known as "cohousing" seeks to better connect neighbors with one another. The movement seems to have caught on in Virginia. There are 16 established co-housing communities statewide, including Blueberry Hill in Vienna.
The community was developed 20 years ago in partnership with the Potomac Vegetable Farms. Anna Newcomb, one of Blueberry Hill’s founding members, grew up on the farm. Her parents started the farm in the 1960s when Anna says her dad started thinking about how communities and farming could be intertwined.
“It’s not too far from the tree, what we have created here,” Newcomb said.
Anna’s husband Gordon Newcomb mixes together a big bowl of oats, wheat germ, spices and a variety of seeds: pumpkin, sesame, and sunflower. He’s whipping up a batch of granola, while another batch bakes in the oven.
“Gives it a nice color, gives it a nice crunchiness,” Newcomb said. “Then it’s good to go.”
The couple’s kitchen - and all of the kitchens in the homes of the Blueberry Hill co-housing community - are positioned at the front of the house. And that’s by design.
“Why is that neighborly? Because you’re standing there doing your dishes and you see your neighbor walk by. And you’re more likely to open your door and say hi,” said resident Kenyon Erickson.
On a tour of the community, Erickson pointed out other features that are typical of the co-housing model: like a common house for the cooking – and eating – of shared meals. They’re equipped to cook for a large group, with two stoves and three dishwashers. Anna Newcomb says she got used to cooking for big groups of over 100 people working at a co-op in college. There’s a calendar in the common house for other residents to sign up to cook as well.
“We often have one or two, sometimes three, meals a week as a community,” said Erickson.
Jack Wilbern, one of the first residents of the community as well as an architect, helped design the community. He says they followed the classic self-developed cohousing model, as outlined in the book "Creating Cohousing: Building Sustainable Communities."
“It turned out that my classmate from college and his wife wrote the book,” Wilbern said. “I thought, obviously, destiny has struck and we must go there.”
He says the group’s founding members were essentially developers, and there were a lot of upfront costs that would be invisible to a homeowner who buys in a new subdivision. Things like $12,000 per household for parks, and $9,000 per household for schools, Wilbern said. Each household also had to put down an initial deposit of around $20,000 before the community was even approved for development.
“There was zero guarantee the county was going to approve it,” Wilbern said.
Another big difference between this community and your run-of-the-mill cul de sac is that here, there are no garages, or even driveways in front of the single family homes. Instead, there are parking lots and a footpath that weaves between the homes and through a wooded area. Again: an intentional design element.
Lisa Poley, a Blacksburg cohousing resident and former cohousing consultant, says these green spaces and common areas are especially great for parents and young kids.
“It’s just a very free flowing, organic experience for the kids,” Poley said. “Opting in and out without having to make playdates, pickups and dropoffs.”
Poley wrote her doctoral dissertation about cohousing at Virginia Tech. She wanted to study whether or not people living in co-housing communities were more likely to get involved with the larger community outside of their own.
She did find that, generally speaking, folks in cohousing tended to volunteer more. They were more likely to vote, and serve as an officer for a local committee or organization. And they were largely very liberal, and white.
“Not very many folks who had very, very different sort of value or political perspectives chose to move into cohousing,” Poley said.
According to a national cohousing association, there are 16 cohousing communities in Virginia, in cities like Blacksburg, Harrisonburg, and Abingdon. The list includes Richmond Cohousing, which is currently under construction in the city’s urban Manchester neighborhood. Residents are expected to move in sometime next year.
Members gathered at a potluck earlier this summer. Leslie Brown made zucchini roll ups.
“Every time we have a potluck I make something I’ve never made before. Why? Because I know I can screw up here and I’m not going to get voted off the island,” she said.
Brown moved to Richmond from New York in 2015 and says she found out about cohousing through a meetup. “I didn’t know community was missing from my life until I started to experience it,” Brown said.
But it hasn’t always been kittens and rainbows for the group. Karl Zweerink, a Richmond Cohousing member, says it took them a long time to find land in the city.
“Where are we gonna live, and can we afford to do it, what kind of a building are we going to have? Those are the issues we’ve had to work through,” Zweerink said.
Unlike Blueberry Hill, they ended up partnering with a developer who had already acquired land in Richmond’s Manchester neighborhood. They were able to work out a condo model to accommodate the big picture goals of the Richmond Cohousing group, like including a common space.
The condos aren’t cheap, certainly not as affordable as members initially hoped. For example, a unit that’s about 1,000 square feet costs $300,000. But Zweerink says these challenges have only made them stronger as a group.
“There’s a lot of trust between the members,” Zweerink said. “We’re feeling really good about where we are right now.” The condos are still under construction, but the cohousing group hopes to move in sometime next spring.
Another cohousing community just outside of Richmond called the Piedmont Ecovillage is also in its early planning stages. Their goal: a community of 20 tiny homes with a shared commonhouse. But unlike Richmond Cohousing’s urban condo-style community, this one will have a more rural, off-the-grid feel.
VPM News Intern Patrick Larsen assisted with reporting and recording for this story.