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Why Not Commons?

news Walnut CommonsNewly finished Walnut Commons is a Santa Cruz experiment in cohousing

For Cecile Andrews, living at Santa Cruz’s new cohousing project Walnut Commons is a lot like being back in college. There are neighbors in close proximity, shared community meals, and generally always something happening.

“There are people to talk to, and they’re not just superficial conversations,” says Andrews, a longtime community activist and author of several books, including Living Room Revolution. “They’re ongoing conversations, particularly about community. Most people here are interested in the idea of community, but it has to be figured out: what is it, and how we do it.”

Located on Walnut Avenue and Center Street downtown, Walnut Commons broke ground in March of 2013, and was completed this summer. At this point, all of the units have been purchased and the residents have started moving in.

From the outside, it looks like any other condominium or apartment building. There are 19 units, a shared laundry facility and a patio space with tables, benches and a small herb garden. But while members own their own units with kitchen, bedroom and living areas, it’s far from your average apartment building. The building also has a shared kitchen, a community room, two guest rooms and a dining area that seats more than 30 people, and members agree to share community meals three times a week, take a turn cooking once a month, collaboratively build the community, and help to maintain the space. Many cohousing projects consist of standalone houses with shared common buildings and outdoor areas, but at Walnut Commons, everyone is in one building. It’s like having an entire well-connected neighborhood under one roof.

Ownership of a unit also includes partial ownership of the common areas. Members pay Homeowner Association dues each month that cover the building insurance, yearly maintenance, utilities for the common areas and funds for the community’s reserve.

City council requires all new projects to comply with its Green Building Program, so the new space was built to conserve water, energy, and material resources. It also has 29 bike parking spaces—eight more than it has for cars.

With its proximity to downtown and the increase in urban density that Walnut Commons provides, the project is a small move in the direction of meeting the city’s Climate Action Plan goal of reducing local car trips by 10 percent by 2020.

“This is really an ideal infill project,” then-councilmember Ryan Coonerty told the Santa Cruz Weekly when Walnut Commons was in the planning stages. “It’s built at a location where they won’t generate much traffic, because they can walk to everything they need.”

Walnut Commons is an experiment in living intentionally in community. But Sandy Lansdale, chair of the membership marketing committee for Walnut Commons, explains that the shared vision does not necessarily mean close relationships between all members.

“Not everybody is going to be your best friend,” she says, “but there’s a respect, and a mutual sense of giving everybody the benefit of the doubt and working toward the common good.”

With origins in Denmark in the 1960s, there are now hundreds of cohousing communities around the world, and while there are guidelines and best practices for cohousing, each community is different and designed around its specific needs, interests, and strengths. In Santa Cruz County, there are two other cohousing projects, Coyote Crossing on the Westside and New Brighton Cohousing in Aptos, both of which have stable, long-term, inter-generational communities in place.

While some cohousing projects cater to seniors, Santa Cruz’s latest version is not a retirement community. Most of the members are over 50, although the plan, from the outset, was for the project to have an inter-generational community. Lansdale says, “I’m not ready to move into a retirement community.” Andrews adds with a laugh, “No one here is.”

One criticism levied against cohousing in general is affordability: an owner buy-in model is an entry barrier for many people, and Walnut Commons is no exception. With prices starting around $400,000, the project was out of reach for many. Lansdale explains that the high price is due to the fact that the building, with its green materials and earthquake-safe construction, cost a reported $9 million to build, and it’s sitting on prime downtown real estate.

“This is not a cheap variety of cohousing,” she says. “We’re on a piece of land that is prime land, and the building itself had to be built really strong to the earthquake code.” The building, she explains, has 69 piers going deep into the ground.

There are affordable cohousing projects out there though, and there’s a growing global movement to create more. A pioneering model is LILAC (Low Impact Living Affordable Community) in Leeds, England, which is the first affordable eco-cohousing project in the U.K. Through a “mutual ownership scheme,” members pay a flat 35 percent of their income toward their housing. The Partnership for Affordable Cohousing, based in Amherst, Massachusettes, is a nonprofit working to promote and establish affordable cohousing throughout the U.S.

With its collaborative ethos, cohousing challenges not just traditional notions of housing, but also traditional American values of self-sufficiency and independence. “This culture is a really isolated culture,” says Andrews, “It’s in our DNA. Americans are always self-reliant; we don’t need anybody, and that has led us astray.”

Living in community requires active participation from its members. At Walnut Commons, decisions are made by consensus, which means that everyone has a chance to speak on an issue before a proposal is stated. If consensus is blocked and not obtained after several tries—which Lansdale explains could mean a couple of meetings—the group can fall back on voting.

Andrews explains that consensus doesn’t mean everyone has to agree on everything all the time, but that every voice is important, even when members don’t reach total harmony on every issue.

“Learning to work with consensus is something everybody should learn,” she says. “It may not work for everything, but that’s one of the learning tools of how do you make decisions. The big thing in consensus is everyone talking, listening and being heard.”

Lansdale adds, “It’s about trying to draw out the wisdom of the group to make a stronger decision.”

While Walnut Commons is still in its early stages, there’s a vision that the community will be a strong and supportive one that will find ways to integrate with the larger Santa Cruz community. “This is a laboratory,” says Andrews. “We’re trying this out, and we want to communicate it to the wider world.”


PHOTO: From left, Cecile Andrews (with her dog Millie) and Sandy Lansdale have begun moving into a new cohousing complex on the corner of Walnut Avenue and Cedar Street . KEANA PARKER

Contributor at Good Times |

Cat Johnson is a writer and content strategist focused on community, collaboration, the future of work and music. She's a regular contributor to Shareable and her writing has appeared in dozens of publications, including Yes! Magazine, No Depression, UTNE Reader, Mother Jones and Launchable Mag. More info: catjohnson.co. Follow her on Twitter at @CatJohnson.

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