by Sue Ann Rybak
Wissahickon Village Cohousing, a group of Northwest Philadelphia residents who are attempting to create a residential community with shared facilities, are seeking a site for their proposed project.
Libby Harman, of Mt. Airy, who helped to organize WVC, said that despite being in talks with developers her group still doesn’t have a site.
In cohousing arrangements, members live independently in their own homes but have the unique convenience of a common house centered near the homes in which to share community dinners and have access to shared resources.
Harman, 58, said WVC still is in conversation with Iron Stone Strategic Capital Partners, owners of the property at 7048 Germantown Ave., site of the historic Garrett-Dunn house that burned down after being struck by lightning in 2009. But she added that the cohousing group is exploring other sites and developers to work with and also is considering the possibility of retrofitting an existing warehouse or apartment building.
The concept of cohousing began in Denmark in the early 1970s. Harman said it is based on the concept of creating an “intentional neighborhood.”
“There are many different ways cohousing communities can look,” Harman said. “There are rural, suburban and urban ones.”
While the individual design and practices of cohousing vary, there are several standard components of cohousing, including a common house and a kitchen for regular community meals. The common house may include laundry facilities, a childcare space, a workshop or gym.
“The community is designed to encourage interaction and mutual dependency,” Harman said. “For instance, cars are parked on the perimeter so that you pass neighbors as you’re walking home. It is designed to promote spontaneous interactions.”
According to the group’s website, “The goal of the Wissahickon Village Cohousing is to create an urban home in Philadelphia woven into the surrounding neighborhood, committed to a sustainable living and intentional community.”
“We are still in the process of getting to know each other, establishing who we are and what’s important to us,” Harman said.
Harman pointed out that cohousing is often confused with communal living. She said in a cohousing community residents own their own homes.
“Each home is a complete unit,” Harman said. “It’s not like you have a hot plate in your room. Everybody has a full-size kitchen – it’s not even an option.”
Currently the cohousing group has about a dozen members. It hopes eventually to have a community of 30 households. Harman said membership is defined by household and each household gets one vote. There are two levels of membership – full members and associate members. Full members must invest $1,000 and have voting rights and get priority in choosing their unit. Associate members are required to pay $250, but don’t have voting rights. Each household is responsible for its own finances.
“Cohousing is a really well-suited model for families with young children or families who are downsizing,” Harman said. “Oftentimes people say ‘I am kind of an introvert, but this gives me a way of socializing without having to work so hard.’”
Melissa Klein, 40, of Mt. Airy, said she was introduced to cohousing two and half years ago when the group first formed.
“Research shows that your blood pressure actually goes down when you know your neighbors,” said Klein, who is the mother of a kindergartner. “What is wonderful about cohousing is that neighbors consciously decide to get to know each other. You know you can count on your neighbors.”
She added that it is a long process and is hard work.
“It’s one of the best things we’ve done as a couple and as a family,” Klein said. “Cohousing has been a personal growth experience because we’re learning how to work together. One of the things I love the most about this group is that there is a real effort to be truthful with each other. We are able to talk about our concerns and move on.”
Klein said the group is committed to sustainable living. One of the biggest challenges, she added, “is building something that is affordable.”
“Green doesn’t necessarily mean more expensive,” she said.
Klein said the group has been working with the Cohousing Association of the United States and different consultants, and that it has been an educational experience.
“Banks don’t necessarily understand cohousing,” Klein said. “Figuring out how to finance it is one of the biggest challenges. We’re learning that this is a long process. Rather than communities being designed from above, it’s really about the community designing what it wants and fulfilling the basic human need for a connection.”
Abby Weinberg, WVC’s community coordinator, said that to her “it’s a much more rational and sane way to live – people coming together to share resources.”
Weinberg, who has a master’s degree in urban studies from Temple University, said she was interested in alternative forms of home ownership.
“Cohousing is not really a new thing,” she said. “It’s just going back to an old way of life but with modern sensibility. We have been led to believe in our society that a family as a unit should be self sufficient.
Weinberg, whose husband is a rabbi, said most people would agree that they need an inner circle of support, not only for their physical needs but for emotional needs as well.
“Our society is designed to promote this idea of self-sufficiency,” said Weinberg, who is a mother of two young children.
Bob Bernstein, 53, of East Mt. Airy, currently lives in a beautiful six-bedroom Victorian twin and is planning to downsize.
“It’s a little big for a guy with two dogs,” he said.
While Bernstein treasures his privacy, he added that he enjoys being surrounded by people he knows.
“I like the social interaction that cohousing nurtures,” said Bernstein, an architect. “It will provide me with the right combination of private space and social interaction.”
He likes the idea of living in a more environmentally friendly and integrated community. Bernstein, who is gay, said he doesn’t plan on ever having any kids. But as he has grown older, he said he appreciates the joy children bring and hopes to find a place for them in his life.
“Being around kids helps me to be less serious and more playful,” he said.
Bernstein said cohousing would provide him with an opportunity to share his knowledge and skills with other people.
For more information about the Wissahickon Village Cohousing go to wissahickonvillagecoho.com