Elizabeth Rosenau | Reprinted from the Housing as a Human Right issue of Visions Journal, 2022, 17 (2), pp. 15-17

In the fall of 2019 I met a group of people who shared an audacious dream. They were planning to build a new cohousing project on a piece of property they had recently acquired from the Township of Langley. Development is a high-risk activity, even for experienced professionals. So how could a group of ordinary citizens be their own developer? I just had to find out.

Cohousing originated in Denmark in the late 1960s when a group of families designed a neighbourhood that reflected their values and needs. These families wanted a community that promoted friendship and sharing among neighbours of all ages and family types. Safety for children and the elderly was paramount, as was respect for the environment. The Danish used the word bofoellesskaber (“living communities”) to describe these developments. North Americans use the word cohousing. WindSong, which opened its doors in the summer of 1996, was Canada’s first cohousing community.

I had several personal reasons for exploring this housing option. First, I had lived in housing cooperatives before, and I knew first-hand how enriching it was to live in a place where I knew my neighbours. Second, my grown children had moved into homes of their own, leaving me in a house too big for a single person. Finally, I had learned from my experience with depression that social isolation was unhealthy for me. I reasoned that living in a multi-generational cohousing community would keep me socially engaged, helping me maintain my mental health. While seniors-only cohousing developments do exist, I prefer housing for mixed age groups because different generations add new dimensions to people’s experience.

On the day of that first meeting, I also took a tour of WindSong. This helped me understand the group’s motivation for building more cohousing. WindSong’s buildings and grounds were unique, with many spots that seemed perfectly designed for spontaneous gatherings. There were extensive shared amenities, such as guest rooms, a dining hall and a workshop, and signs of life were everywhere. The adults we met were friendly and welcoming and the kids played together in multi-age groups.

After a few more meetings with the group, which called itself Compass Cohousing, I was in. Joining shortly after several other families, I became the ninth shareholder in our development company.

The goal of Compass was to build 32–40 individual homes with extensive common indoor and outdoor spaces. We envisioned a large dining area with gourmet kitchen, a workshop, guest rooms, music and craft rooms, lounges, community gardens, children’s play areas and even community office spaces. To attract diverse families, the unit mix would range from studios to four-bedroom townhomes. I was interested in a ground-level two-bedroom apartment with room for a plant collection.

We planned to keep purchase prices down by foregoing the usual developer’s profit and doing our own marketing. We knew our units wouldn’t be as affordable as some, but with luck and careful planning our expectation was that prices would be comparable to similarly sized new units in Langley.

Our cohousing consultant, Howard Staples, had 23 years’ experience living at WindSong by then. Prior to that, he’d played an important role in building WindSong. He guided us through complex tasks as we formed teams to tackle all aspects of the project, from legal to marketing, social to financial and so much more. We rented halls to hold information sessions that were well-attended. Everything seemed to be coming together beautifully. There was excitement and momentum.

Then the pandemic started.

It’s been said that creating cohousing is one of the best self-improvement programs there is, plus you get a house at the end. Two years later, I understand what’s behind the saying.

Within six months of COVID hitting, we were down to seven shareholders and our cohousing consultant was starting to have serious doubts that we’d be able to build our project. The in-person events we had been holding to generate interest were off the table and an atmosphere of uncertainty hung over everything. We were learning about Zoom and discovering the limits of wireless connections, as we would suddenly be disconnected from calls at awkward moments.

When I look back at that tough period, what amazes me most is that our group of seven shareholding families stayed deeply committed to the project and to one another. I’m quite certain that if I hadn’t joined Compass when I did, the isolation brought by the pandemic could have triggered a disabling bout of depression. As it was, figuring out how to improve our website, up our social media game and not get kicked out of Zoom meetings kept me socially engaged, even while physically alone. I stayed well—against the odds.

Eventually our online activities began to bear fruit and new members joined us. Several families with young children took the plunge in the spring of 2021. We were thrilled. Our dream of living in a multi-generational community was closer to being realized.

I was still working on Compass tasks this summer when BC experienced an unprecedented heat dome resulting in premature deaths, crop failures and wildfires. Climate change had been a concern of mine for decades. Now, suddenly my actions seemed trivial when measured against government and system-level complacency. I began to feel my sadness returning. I knew I needed to step back from my Compass commitments to allow myself time to mourn. But how?

As hard as it was, I mustered up the courage to tell people in the group about my feelings of sadness and my need for time to mourn. There were no objections. I felt nothing but understanding and support. Within a week or so, I was able to pick up where I had left off. I’m still filled with gratitude that nobody in the group discounted my feelings or judged me as weak for having them.

As I write this, our proposal has just passed third reading at the Township of Langley. We’re celebrating four new shareholders who decided to join us, and a few more of our units are getting final design tweaks by their future owners. The momentum and excitement are clearly back. Even better than that, I know who my future neighbours are and I couldn’t be more grateful.

About the author

Elizabeth is a retired pharmacist who currently lives in Maple Ridge. Becoming a developer was never in her wildest dreams.

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