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They're in it together
Oklahoma’s first cohousing development caters to community-minded seniors
by Ted Streuli
STILLWATER – Pat Darlington was just chatting with her friend Kay Stewart on the telephone.
“Do you know anything about cohousing?” she asked.
That 2009 conversation turned friends with no real estate experience into business partners who now have Oklahoma’s first cohousing community partially built and a substantial chunk of their bank accounts at risk.
“Pat was so curious about it and took off for that workshop in Colorado,” said Stewart. “I was on a trip to Greece and she kept emailing me: ‘You outta be here!’”
That workshop, led by cohousing guru Charles Durrett, convinced Darlington that she and Stewart could create a community where seniors would be interdependent, sharing skills and helping one another live full lives. Darlington expresses disdain for the assisted-care residences developed 30 years ago, which she says were built to keep aging people entertained until they died.
“I don’t want to be entertained,” Darlington said. “I want to make a difference in the world, and I don’t want to retire from that.”
Darlington, 61, widowed, returned to school at age 50, earning a Ph.D. in psychology, which she practices in Stillwater. Stewart, 71, divorced, has a Ph.D. in housing and public policy. She taught interior design at OSU and sold her home health care business at age 65. Together, they founded Oakcreek, a 7.5-acre community in which neighbors will share their lives but not their addresses.
Cohousing started in Denmark, where there are 450 such communities for families and 250 more for seniors, enough to house about 1 percent of the country’s population. The projects are neither commune nor condominium, although there are elements of both. Residents share some meals and activities, even such mundane entertainment as watching television, in a common house. But each homeowner lives in an individual, attached residence.
The development, Oakcreek Community, will cost $5 million to build. There will be four attached homes in each of six buildings and a 3,500-square-foot common house that holds a laundry room, three guest bedrooms, a workshop, media room, sitting areas, dining room, kitchen, exercise equipment and an office. Ownership includes a 1/24th interest in the common areas, as it would with condominiums. Each unit has a front porch for community and a back porch for privacy. All are wheelchair-accessible so that anyone can visit with ease. And it’s that kind of thinking that makes cohousing different from any other residential development: They are planned specifically to create frequent interaction among the community’s members.
The homes vary from 702 to 1,190 square feet and sell for between $151,000 and $266,000.
“If you do the math, that’s a lot of money per square foot,” Stewart said. “You can’t do that kind of math.”
Stewart and Darlington like to joke that they’re going to charge for the community but throw in the house free.
Even at the steep price per square foot, neither Stewart nor Darlington will make a profit. The overage, about $535,000 after all 24 units are sold, will be the startup money for the homeowners association.
“We put our necks on the line for the financing,” said Stewart. “It’s a high-risk endeavor. We are financially exposed.”
Stewart, Darlington and the eight other early members signed personal guarantees for the $4.8 million construction loan. Each put in at least 20 percent of the cost of the unit they intended to buy, and when they were still $200,000 short their builder got his grandfather to co-sign a loan so he could buy his own unit.
“I’m in up to my eyeballs,” Stewart said. “Pat’s next to me. In exchange, we got a nice discount rate on the purchase of our houses. But I worry about how we’re going to pay the interest on the construction loan if we don’t get all the units sold. I could end up dipping further into my retirement funds than I want to. I’m not worried about the community working, but I am worried about getting all the units sold by the time construction’s finished.”
In February, developers Kay Stewart, left, and Pat Darlington talk on site during
early stages of construction for Oakcreek. PHOTO BY MAIKE SABOLICH
Stewart and Darlington said the financial risk is worth the potential reward. Cohousing is designed to foster community in a much more intimate way than traditional residential construction, and each design element consciously takes that into account. Front doors are 27-33 feet apart because you have to be that close to see emotion on someone’s face. The absence of garages means residents cannot pull into driveways, activate garage doors and enter their homes unseen, avoiding interaction with neighbors. Instead, Oakcreek residents will park together under a single roof and walk to their homes.
That’s unlike typical suburban single-family design, where, as Darlington put it, “The only people who use the front door are FedEx and the Mormons.”
The interaction-encouraging layout came to Oakcreek from architect Durrett, who discovered cohousing while studying in Denmark and is widely credited with bringing the idea to the United States. He has been involved in 50 of the nation’s 120 cohousing projects, including the country’s first, a project he developed in Emeryville, Calif., about 30 years ago. Durrett and his family now live in a multigenerational cohousing development he put together in California’s gold country.
By Durrett’s definition, cohousing is a project that includes four elements: Future residents planned the neighborhood together, there are extensive common facilities, it’s self-managed, and it was designed to foster a sense of community.
In most neighborhoods, people know a couple of residents well enough to ask one to pick up the mail during a vacation. Neighbors in a cohousing project do their living with one another; they don’t merely reside close by. At Oakcreek, neighbors will eat three or four meals together each week, drink wine with one another and chat together on porch swings. Mail will come to the common house, where there are muffins and coffee. Like the parking area, it’s designed to make people get out, walk and encounter their neighbors.
As one 97-year-old resident of a Durrett cohousing project said, she didn’t mind living 700 feet from her parking space because her relationship with her neighbors was more important than her relationship with her car.
“It’s a place where community happens,” said Stewart. “You come home in the evening and somebody’s sitting on their front porch having a glass of wine and you say hello, and they say come have a glass of wine with me, and then you’re building community.”
Durrett said the setup works well for families; at his California home, parents are comfortable letting their young children run out the front door at will. There are no cars, and they know their neighbors so intimately that it’s like turning the children loose at a family reunion; everyone is watching them. But cohousing’s success may come from the other end of the age spectrum. With baby boomers quickly becoming retirees, a lifestyle that offers self-reliance and security is appealing.
Cohousing has gained popularity on the coasts and a few other places – Colorado has several successful cohousing communities – but hasn’t managed a substantial foothold in the country’s midsection. At least five cohousing projects have been started in the Dallas area, for example, and all have failed. Durrett blames the busted ventures on failure to find the right real estate, failure to study a project’s feasibility, and a belief that even a novice will succeed without guidance. As he said, building what can be an $8 million project isn’t child’s play.
Alex Marshall, a journalist and author who has written extensively about urban planning, spent three years trying to start a 40-unit cohousing community in Brooklyn, N.Y. He and 15 others hired Chris ScottHanson, who has been a cohousing consultant since 1989, and the group tried three sites with project budgets from $18 million to $35 million. When in 2010 the third proposed location, an unfinished condominium development, didn’t pan out, Brooklyn Cohousing threw in the towel.
“We kind of did everything right,” said Marshall. “We collectively raised more than $1 million, we hired architects and had plans, but the banks squashed us. We came to fruition right as the banking crisis was happening in 2008. We had contracts with landowners but we just couldn’t get a bank loan.”
The group collapsed under the weight of the debt.
“We couldn’t work around the absence of a bank loan,” Marshall said.
The 16 members lost that $1 million, much of it in fees paid to ScottHanson’s company.
Marshall said that, especially in the banking climate at the time, it was unlikely anyone could have made the project work. While Europe has banks that specialize in financing cooperative developments, the idea is mostly foreign to U.S. lenders.
“Development is really challenging because the system is not set up for it,” Marshall said. “You’re sort of pulling yourself up by the bootstraps while you’re making the boots.”
Were he to do it over, Marshall said, he would set a spending limit and be willing to abandon the project when that cap was exceeded.
“Sometimes,” he said, “you just have to walk away from the table.”
There is also the problem of personalities. Stewart said she knows some who buy into Oakcreek will have missed much of the planning and will have strong opinions that differ from the group’s consensus. And some may discover they simply don’t like on another. Since the project relies on cooperation there’s a conflict-resolution system, a sort of mediation process, built into the community’s membership agreement.
“We invite people who are interested to come to the meetings and see what making a decision by consensus really looks like,” Stewart said. “One of the ways we hope to deal with conflict is that the community is guided by the values the starting group established. If you like those values and you think you agree with them, this might be right for you. If you don’t, then it probably isn’t.”
Annie Russell was a founding member of the Wild Sage multigenerational cohousing community in Boulder, Colo., as well as Silver Sage, the senior cohousing community where she now resides. For a decade, she has coached cohousing groups around the country during their development process, and she’s seen things go terribly wrong.
“The biggest social pitfall is that people are afraid to speak frankly to each other,” Russell said. “Instead of addressing the problem, they bottle up their feelings in an attempt to avoid conflict and it turns into a much larger problem as resentment builds.”
Russell said she strongly recommends written agreements that outline how community members will treat one another and what they’ll do when the system breaks down.
Those plans may include mediation or even financial sanctions.
But never mind the potential clash of opinions, and forget that Oakcreek’s founders are development rookies. Durrett, the country’s most experienced cohousing guru, said the Stillwater project has become the example.
“This group knows how to work together,” he said. “Consensus works well in Oklahoma.”
Fourteen of the 24 units are sold, and contractors put the first coats of paint on this week. Darlington and Stewart will know all their neighbors before anyone moves in, and at least one new friendship – theirs – has already been bound by the new community.
“This is not about building houses,” Darlington said. “This is about making the kingdom of God more real in this world. In a million years it’s not going to matter if there were 24 homes at 1800 N. Husband, but the world’s going to be better because we did something right.”
Oakcreek Community co-housing project near Stillwater reaches
halfway point for build
BY MICHAEL OVERALL World Staff Writer
Wednesday, March 21, 2012
STILLWATER - The architect's drawing shows a line of traditional cottages, their friendly front porches facing each other across a narrow pedestrian path, with no automobiles in sight. A year ago, the drawing hung on a wall in a mid-century, ranch-style house - all that the Oakcreek Community had to show for itself.
Now you can look out the window and see that same row of cottages, albeit with unfinished roofs and unpainted walls. As construction approaches the halfway mark, Stillwater's experiment with "co-housing" has become more than theoretical. "In a side-by-side comparison," says Oakcreek homeowner Nadine Olson, "you can see it coming into being exactly as we imagined it."
Sunday, December 4, 2011
Stillwater cohousing concept wins praise
Kay Stewart, left, and Pat Darlington stand in what will become the kitchen of the common house. Members plan to cook for each other, and share meals there, four nights a week. Photo by Jim Beckel, The Oklahoman
Pat Darlington's “aha” moment was when she and her siblings, after taking their dad's car from him, asked his neighbors in his upscale retirement community in Florida not to drive him to the Buick dealership. His neighbors were relieved because Darlington's dad had been driving over lawns and once hit the side of his garage.
“Why didn't anyone call us?” she asked, and learned no one wanted to intrude.
That's when Darlington, a widow and longtime Stillwater resident whose three of four children live out of state, went looking for a better retirement option for herself. She found it in a $4.8 million-dollar senior cohousing community she and others are developing in Stillwater for seniors 55 and older.
Oakcreek in the New York Times
Ms. Darlington, 60, returned to school to become a licensed therapist after her husband died in a car accident in 1994. A year in New Hampshire as an intern, and dealing long-distance with her aging father, who was in Florida, convinced her that she did not want to grow old in a place where she lacked close ties.
“I really didn’t want to leave Stillwater,” she said. “It’s difficult to recreate yourself someplace else.”
A few years ago she attended a seminar about co-housing — communities designed to make it easy for residents to socialize and share services and meals if they choose to — and quickly decided she wanted to create such a place for herself and others in Stillwater. The first friend she asked to participate declined, but a mutual acquaintance jumped in and helped Ms. Darlington with recruiting. They formed a company to develop the project in 2009 and now, with 11 of 24 households committed, expect to break ground this fall.
Oakcreek has an existing home that will be used as a central common house, with new, smaller houses clustered around it. The common house can be retrofitted to include a caretaker’s apartment, in the event residents need help with grocery shopping or other daily activities as they age. Developing from the ground up was time-consuming, she said, but it means the community will be as the residents themselves want it. “If we bought into something,” she said, “it would be someone else telling us what old people like.”
Kay Stewart Interviewed by Linda Cavanaugh
KOFR Channel 4 in Oklahoma City
September 27, 2011
Studio Tulsa KWGS August 8 2011
Rich Fisher interviews Pat Darlington and Chuck Durrett
Podcast: Comparing Notes on Cohousing
Oakcreek in the Tulsa World
Community Puts Residents in ChargeCarl and Judy Jones listen to Kay Stewart (center) explain how residents will own and operate Oakcreek.
ZACH GRAY / for the Tulsa World
By MICHAEL OVERALL World Staff Writer
Published: 3/28/2011 2:21 AM
STILLWATER - The door is unlocked, with cookies and coffee waiting on the table, along with a bottle of red wine. .... Read more from this Tulsa World article
Elder Cohousing: A new option for retirement - or sooner
from: AARP Bulletin | January 31, 2011
Sally Abrahms, a writer from Boston, wrote this article as part of her MetLife Foundation Journalists on Aging Fellowship in partnership with New America Media and the Gerontological Society of America.
Pat Darlington, 59, realized that when she got older, she didn't want to live like her 83-year-old father. It struck her when she was visiting him in Florida and realized he should no longer be driving, only to be told his neighbors had come to the same conclusion long ago. Why hadn't they let her know, the Oklahoma psychologist asked? "We didn't want to get involved," they said.
Their hands-off attitude became the driving force behind Darlington's decision to help create Oakcreek Cohousing Community in Stillwater, Okla. Across the country, senior cohousing, like the one Darlington is planning, is turning into an increasingly popular option for boomers and older adults. In these communities, a group shares a property, lives in condos or attached homes clustered together, and shares some weekly dinners, outdoor space and facilities.
On the grounds is a common house, a feature of all cohousing projects, containing a kitchen for preparing communal meals or potluck, a dining and living room, and other rooms, depending on what the group wants. Options might include a media room, an office, a workshop with a kiln, or a fitness or art studio — but the common house always has two or three bedrooms for guests and caregivers, should aging residents need them.
The social interaction often extends beyond the property. If someone wants to go to the movies, for a hike or to the theater, they can send out an e-mail or ask around. There's always an instant buddy, or the space to be alone.
People in Darlington's world are buying into the concept of elder cohousing. So far, at Oakcreek, 12 one- and two-bedroom houses costing $150,000 to $265,000 have been spoken for by residents ages 57 to 84; the group needs to find another eight people to commit to houses so it can break ground this June.
When she reaches her dad's age, Darlington expects to be surrounded by loving, supportive neighbors. She hopes never to be in assisted living or a nursing home — or at least to stay at home as long as possible.
Darlington has seen, firsthand, the life she doesn't want. "I have patients with a ton of money, long-term care insurance and round-the-clock caregivers, and they sit in their lovely homes bored and lonely," says Darlington, a widow whose four children are scattered around the country. "I saw my dad isolated in his own house and that is not how I want to spend the rest of my life. When you go to a financial adviser, you're told to have a diversified portfolio. Cohousing is my social portfolio," she says. "Some people say, 'Why are you doing this? You're only 59.' I want to invest in relationships now so that when I need help, I will already have them. We have choices and don't have to do 'aging' the way it has always been done."
Not that trailblazing boomers, now in their 50s and 60s, would settle for the status quo anyway. They watch their parents decline in institutional settings or cut off from society and vow not to wind up like that. "People are creatively and proactively saying that there are options that might be better," says California architect Charles Durrett, who, along with his wife, Kathryn McCamant, brought the idea of cohousing from Denmark to the United States in the late 1980s. "The trend of senior cohousing is just getting started."'Senior' housing appeals to boomers, too
Don't be fooled by the word "senior." Many opting for this arrangement are in their 50s, 60s and early 70s and often still work. They're in good health when they move in. The plan is that when they get sick, there will be lots of helping hands, which will supplement, although not replace, professional help if needed.
Multigenerational cohousing, where families with young children live with residents of all ages, has been around awhile; there are more than 100 of these mixed-age communities nationwide. But senior cohousing (often age 50-plus) is the new kid on the block. So far, there are five such projects, in California, Virginia, Colorado and New Mexico, with 15 more being planned.
Both kinds of cohousing, intergenerational and senior — sometimes called elder cohousing — are attracting boomers. At Silver Sage Village in Boulder, Colo., just two of the 16 units have turned over since it opened three years ago (one death, one change of heart), and they've both been snapped up by couples in their early 60s. The rest of their group ranges from their mid-50s to their 80s. Having a broad age span ensures that people will age at different times, and there will always be those who can work, whether it's preparing a meal, tending the common garden or sitting on a committee.
Less is more
Many boomers are empty nesters ready to downsize and age in place. They like the balance between privacy and rich social interaction, and the idea of going green — both environmentally and fiscally. Cohousing residences are typically 60 percent smaller than an average new American home, occupy 30 percent less land and use 50 to 70 percent less energy for heating and cooling than a resident's previous home. Having houses attached preserves outside space and reinforces a sense of community. The 20 to 30 units might be lined up on both sides of a walkway with their front porches facing one another, for example, or maybe grouped around a courtyard. Sharing resources reduces individual costs.
Durrett, author of The Senior Cohousing Handbook, estimates that an individual household can save as much as $70,000 (and gain a 4,500-square-foot common house) in a low-market, 20-unit cohousing community and $337,5000 in a high-market project. Of course, it depends on the condo, amenities and setup desired.
The nuts and bolts
The biggest draw, though, is that residents are in complete control. They make their own rules and reach decisions by consensus. They can decide to cook a communal meal or weed the shared garden themselves. Or the group might opt for potluck rather than take turns whipping up dinners, or choose to hire a gardener instead.
They can join at any stage, including after the project is completed, but those involved from the start usually find the land, and always work closely with the architect plus the developer, contractor, town zoning board or bank. An emerging field of cohousing specialists — architects, developers, consultants — is walking newbies through the complicated and time-consuming process of creating a community from scratch.
Susan Burwen, 64, says creating elder cohousing in Silicon Valley's Mountain View, Calif., is as demanding as any paid 40-hour-a-week job. The group wanted its site to be within walking distance of public transportation, restaurants, a performing arts center, a library and a farmers market, knowing that as they age, they will be driving less. (Cohousing residents drive 60 percent less than those in single-family housing.) In 2009, after a three-year hunt, Burwen found a little over an acre in downtown Mountain View with a farmhouse.
The farmhouse will be used for guests and eventually caregivers, and they're planning to construct a three-story building with 19 condo-style units designed by Durrett. Unlike most projects, where the common house is a separate building, theirs will be under the same roof as the residences. Gathering nooks, gardens and pedestrian walkways will be bountiful, as will the we're-all-in-this-aging-business-together spirit.
In the 1960s, as a newly married couple, Burwen and her husband, David, lived in a run-down Victorian near Boston with a bunch of students. "The key was that we all had enough private space and our own friends and we also had shared space and lots of wonderful, spontaneous interactions," she recalls. Now with their two sons grown, the Burwens are hoping to recapture that dynamic, without the shabby digs of yesteryear; units at Mountain View will sell for $750,000 to $1.25 million. They hope to move in two years from now. "We didn't know one another when we started and we are already a very bonded group," says Burwen.
One reason that neighbors-to-be meet at least twice a month to work on the project, as well as attend monthly potluck suppers, is so they know one another well before they move in. Those dinners include prospective residents who want a taste of the cohousing concept. If they decide it takes too much time (around two to three years) or involvement, or don't like the group, they don't commit; a few bow out along the way, or even after they've lived there.
"It's a self-selecting process," maintains DeAnne Butterfield, 59, who moved to Silver Sage with her husband, John Huyler, 65, three years ago, after their daughter graduated from high school. "We looked at each other and said, we don't need the space or upkeep of our 4,000-square-foot four-bedroom house. What are we doing here?" says Butterfield.
They both love their new community's diversity: Six out of 16 units are designated as affordable housing; residents are both working and retired, include a botanist, electrical engineer, grocery store clerk and city councilor. They have couples, widows, divorcees and never-marrieds. The community has Christians, Quakers — some Quakers consider themselves Christian, some don't — Jews, atheists and Buddhists.
Butterfield is on the finance and legal committee, while Huyler, a professional mediator, sits on community development, which covers interpersonal relationships.
Of course, residents can get on each other's nerves or have conflicts. And what if they do?
"We can always go home and pull down the blinds. But I think we're all committed to not burying our disagreements and issues," says Richard Brumleve, 72, who lives in a two-bedroom townhouse-type unit at ElderSpirit Community in Abingdon, Va. Among the 29 units are 16 rentals that fetch $360 to $505 a month. Owner units range from $150,000 to $165,000, but can be more or less, since the seller determines the price.
Brumleve, a retired English teacher who moved with his wife from Springfield, Ill., to Abingdon after reading a newspaper article about ElderSpirit, loves the discussions there on spirituality and aging. "We're not afraid to talk about preparing to die or illness or the lessening of our abilities to do things," Brumleve says. For now, like the others around him, he is adding to his abilities and has taken up watercolor painting. He shares part of a studio in the common house with a resident who is a professional painter.
The recession hasn't helped cohousing, since most of the projects are new construction, and banks are skittish about lending money. Some planned communities have folded and others have been postponed. It's hard to sell a house in this market to buy another. Cohousing consultant Abraham Paiss predicts that developers may begin initiating more of these communities. "I think senior cohousing is really going to grow in this country," says Jim Leach, president of Wonderland Hill Development Company, the largest U.S. developer of cohousing and a resident of Silver Sage.
"I realize that the more you get to know people and their lives," says Butterfield, who is Leach's neighbor, "the more you want to be with them. I think I can speak for everyone here. We treasure each other."
For more on senior cohousing, contact: