Cohousing communities take neighborly bonding to another level

Tricycles, bicycles and scooters are scattered along the new sidewalk, the path that founding residents Anne Olson and Pete Pages affectionately call "Main Street" at East Lake Commons. They belong to some of the nearly 50 children who live in the community and play in front of the pastel townhomes.

“You have to watch where you put your feet because you might hit a scooter by mistake,” said Olson, laughing. “We’re trying to train the kids to park their vehicles.”

The pathway and another one, called “Candy Lane,” branch out to the townhomes and apartment buildings in the DeKalb County community with about 200 residents.

From playing together to weekly meals, residents in Georgia's two cohousing communities, East Lake Commons in Decatur and Lake Claire Cohousing in Atlanta, desire to live more connected lives. The Cohousing Association of the United States, a non-profit organization based in Durham, N.C., lists more than 250 cohousing communities.

Cohousing is different from a traditional neighborhood in that the homes are clustered around shared spaces, such as a common house, garden, greenspace and walkways, and neighbors manage those spaces and plan activities. In Atlanta’s cohousing neighborhoods, residents share meals, trade off on childcare responsibilities and serve in the community.

The two- and three-bedroom townhomes in the communities, which are 5 miles from downtown Atlanta, have recently sold in the low to high $200,000s. Some homeowners in East Lake Commons also rent out rooms for $650-$750 a month.

“The dynamic here, where everyone is almost expected to be interacting with each other, has been a great way to connect with people,” said Heather Bailey, who moved to East Lake Commons in 2015.

Thomas Chapel, a founding member of Lake Claire Cohousing, said he was drawn to cohousing partially due to the neighborhood’s tagline: “Because people want community as much as they want privacy.”

Caring for kids, gardens and each other

The main draw for cohousing is the sense of community, particularly for families.

“There’s a ready-made support system when you need it,” said Chapel, who moved in during 1997 and has two children. “I think about when each of our kids was born. There was never any doubt that when we came home there would be a line of people ready to help mind the baby while we slept or bring us food or run errands for us.”

The community design makes it easier to let kids out to play, parents say. The layout was an important factor for Bailey’s blended family of five.

“We can come home and they can go outside and they can play until dinner. There are tons of kids around,” she said. “The biggest thing we have to worry about is trying to find them when it’s time to go somewhere.”

Julie Walter, who planned to close in July on a home in East Lake, says the informal kid-friendly setting attracted her family.

“That’s why we’re moving, primarily because our kids can just have friends and have unprogrammed play, which doesn’t really exist anymore,” Walter said.

A common house in the center of East Lake Commons is equipped with a kitchen, meeting areas, a piano, a workshop and a theater. The communities also have central mailboxes and a laundry facility.

Another key component is community events, such as seasonal parties, weekly group dinners and summer camps. At East Lake, which was established in 1999, cooking for Tuesday night potlucks and Sunday night group dinners counts as part of the four service hours that residents agree to perform each month.

Growing interest in cohousing

Cohousing began in Denmark in the 1960s, but doubled in the 1980s and has expanded since then, said Kim Skobba, an assistant professor in financial planning, housing and consumer economics at the University of Georgia. She said she is not surprised cohousing appeals to individuals, especially since it can be easy to be isolated in some neighborhoods.

“I don’t think that traditional neighborhoods always work for people,” Skobba said. “I think on some level we all would want to belong to a community where we can really take part and help each other out.”

Neighbors also pull together on community projects. Residents in East Lake participated in a barn raising a few years ago and worked on a playhouse this summer.

“Life is good here,” Olson said.