Co-housing pushes idea of 'we're in this together'

New London - A nascent effort to create an alternative housing community in southeastern Connecticut had its first public meeting Sunday, drawing about 15 people interested in learning what co-housing is, isn't, and could be.

"The thing that sets co-housing apart is that they are managed, designed and run by the people who occupy the residence," said Kit Johnson of Stonington, who with his wife Jane were part of a small group that organized the meeting at All Souls Unitarian Universalist Church. "The decision making is participatory, not hierarchical."

Jane Johnson emphasized what co-housing is not. It's not a commune, or retirement community or assisted living or a condominium, she said, although it does share some of the characteristics of condominium developments, such as shared common areas.

"Most co-housing projects are meant to be multi-generational," she said. "You become close to your neighbors so it's not necessary to move into assisted living. Co-housing is an opportunity to share and to help, to save and to simplify, to learn to live within the world's means - and our own - as the world's resources and energy dwindle."

Co-housing projects share areas for laundry, gardens, libraries and workshops, and can have common kitchen and dining areas, but residents also own their private areas. The Johnsons and other founding members of Eastern Connecticut CoHousing envision a community that would be affordable and environmentally friendly, embracing energy efficiency and limited use of cars.

There about 100 co-housing communities nationwide, Kit Johnson said, and another 100 are in the works. Connecticut's first co-housing community, on 31 acres in Bethany, is about two years away from opening, according to Dick Margulis, one of the members of that group.

The Bethany group is about to purchase an option on land where housing for about 35 people will be built, he said. That group formed about five years ago and has worked with a housing consultant, architect, lawyer, accountant and other outside experts, he said.

"We're a group of strangers who have become friends, and our intent is to create a sustainable community," he said.

Members of the group, who have undergone a lengthy selection process, represent a variety of incomes and ages, including families with young children, Margulis said.

Kit Johnson said he and his wife have been interested in co-housing for about 30 years, but over the last six months set out to make it a reality in southeastern Connecticut, and helped form the small core group of founding members interested in pursing the idea.

"We recently decided to put it on the front burner," he said.

The group has talked to an attorney, to New London City Planner Harry Smith and others about their idea, and have explored three possible locations. Kit Johnson said he and his wife are most interested in establishing the co-housing in New London, although they have also considered a property in Waterford.

"Jane and I are most interested in an urban situation where we can walk to the post office and the grocery store," he said.

One possible location, he said, is the former Lighthouse Inn, which has been closed since August 2008.

"The hard work is between this meeting and when you lay the first brick," he said. "The really nitty-gritty stuff is learning to get along with one another and coming to consensus around the values we want to incorporate in our living space."

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