Opinion | Does Co-Housing Provide a Path to Happiness for Modern Parents? - The New York Times

OPINIONGUEST ESSAYDoes Co-Housing Provide a Path to Happiness for Modern Parents?Credit...Rose WongShare full article370By Judith ShulevitzMs. Shulevitz is a cultural critic who has written extensively about family, feminism and related topics.Leer en español

Eastern Village, a 55-unit apartment complex off a commercial strip in Silver Spring, Md., is a surprisingly lovely place, considering that it once housed the drab offices of a social workers’ association and then stood abandoned for nearly a decade, water dripping through the ceilings. When I visited this summer, ivy cascaded so exuberantly over the facade that I walked past the entrance. The landscaped courtyard, wrested out of a parking lot, exuded European charm. Looking up, I saw open walkways lined with balconies, flowers and herbs. Then I spotted a baldish man sitting at a little round table waving to me. He had to be Rabbi Jason Kimelman-Block, a friend of a friend I had asked to show me around the place.
I was there to find out about life in a co-housing community. Ever since I had my first child and was sucked into the vortex of parental logistics, I’d been wondering how to make child rearing a more sociable activity. I hadn’t foreseen that motherhood would turn our home in the suburbs, a Dutch colonial with a box-hedged yard, into a site of solitary confinement — a very bucolic site, I freely admit. (Having no right to complain has never stopped me from complaining.) But when the baby and I trundled along narrow sidewalks or weed-choked roadsides, we saw almost no people, just cars. “It was as if mankind had already made way for another species,” I told my husband, stealing the line from the novelist W.G. Sebald.
Around then, I began to read desultorily about American experiments in communal living — 19th-century utopias, religious communities, hippie communes. These seemed as far-off as the moon. Still, I hoped that they’d pull back the curtain of the present and reveal a different tableau of motherhood.
Several years later, it has become clear that I am not alone in my longing for the shared life. About four years ago, stories began appearing about co-living, often an investor-driven effort to create dormitory-like housing, mostly for transient, affluent twentysomethings. (Think WeWork for the off hours.) Co-living apartments are now offered to families, too, along with cleaning services, child care, community events and yoga — all for a nice, fat price.
The most recent manifestation of the communalist impulse is the postvaccine nostalgia for the pandemic pod. People are now telling reporters that they miss the camaraderie of those pared-down social networks, as well as the frequent physical company of the same group of friends, the “transformative power of proximity,” as the psychologist Susan Pinker calls it.
I was late to find out about co-housing, a species of intentional community that dates back 30 years, in the United States, anyway. (It emerged in Denmark in the 1970s.) Forced to characterize co-housing in a phrase, you might say “living together, separately.” Those living together have built a community based on, well, belief in community. But they live separately, in that they own their homes, condo-style.
Co-housing sounds confusingly similar to co-living but has a whole different vibe. Co-housers aren’t transient. They have a much stickier idea of social affiliation, and they’re not about to rent a bedroom in some random complex. To draw even finer distinctions: Co-housing communities are not communes. Residents do not give up financial privacy any more than they give up domestic privacy. They have their own bank accounts and commute to ordinary jobs. If you were lucky enough to grow up on a friendly cul-de-sac, you’re in range of the idea, except that you don’t have to worry about your child being hit by a car as she plays in the street. A core principle of co-housing is that cars should be parked on a community’s periphery.
This, I thought, was an idea with promise. Co-living accommodates precarity; co-housing seeks stability. Podding is a byproduct of the collapse of society; co-housing builds society.
Out of the 165 co-housing communities around the country, Eastern Village interested me because it’s urban and vertical, while the majority are suburban or at least suburbanish. I wondered whether co-housing could survive the claustrophobia of city living and the resulting need for personal space. My cheeks still get hot with embarrassment when I remember a remark in an elevator: It was a few years after my son was born, and I’d moved back to Manhattan, hoping to find the something I missed in the suburbs. “You’re not from around here, are you?” a man said, after I tried to start a conversation. Oh, right, I thought. People crammed into a box don’t want to talk to a chirpy lady they might have to edge away from. I never did get to know the other families in the building.