N Street: An Introduction to Cohousing and “Retrofit” Cohousing

[This is the first of a series of four articles on N Street, a retrofit cohousing community in Davis, CA. I visited there on October 1, 2007. The other three articles published thus far are: N Street: Kids’ Lives, N Street: Where Everyone Knows Your Name, and N Street: Making it All Work.]

N Street co-founder Kevin Wolf and a young neighbor named April on a trampoline in the N Street communal back yard

Cohousing is probably the most innovative solution to the problem of lack of community in America today. Members live in a complex of houses, townhomes, or apartments with shared resources. The most prominent of these shared resources is a common house, where members share community dinners a few times a week. Most inhabitants rave about the wonderful community bonds in their communities, and can point to real benefits in their everyday lives. (To learn more about cohousing, visit The Cohousing Association of the United States’ web site.)

Unfortunately, however, two decades since cohousing was introduced in the United States, roughly .003% of all Americans – fewer than 10,000 – live in cohousing.
The primary reason why cohousing has not spread to a significant proportion of the American population is that in its pure form, cohousing takes a tremendous amount of time and commitment. As defined by cohousing pioneers and architects Chuck Durrett and Katie McCamant in Cohousing: A Contemporary Approach to Housing Ourselves, cohousing inhabitants must cooperatively participate in the design and building of their cohousing community, and then they must move from their current homes to this new community.

Furthermore, because such a community needs a fairly large amount of land, these communities are usually far from large city centers, so people usually have to move far to live in them. So, for instance, there are no pure cohousing communities on the entire San Francisco peninsula. The closest are in the East Bay.

“Retrofit” cohousing, while not the pure form of cohousing, provides a model that can potentially be applied to any existing community in the United States. Any of us, in our own neighborhoods, could very well try to implement individual things that N Street has done to increase community and improve our kids’ lives. I visited what many people consider to be the leading example of retrofit cohousing, N Street in Davis, CA, recently.


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A street called N Street and the houses on it existed long before N Street cohousing co-founder Kevin Wolf and his next-door neighbors decided to start having regular potluck dinners back in 1986. The map above denotes the present area of N Street cohousing with the house symbol.

Those two houses tore down the fence between their back yards, and as more houses joined, more fences were torn down. Most of the houses involved, at least initially, were rental houses where the inhabitants had to negotiate the tearing down of fences with owner landlords. Kevin recalls, “We told the landlords we’d carefully take the fences down and save all the wood, and if things don’t work out, we’d put it back up again.” Today, N Street cohousing has 17 contiguous houses without fences, plus two houses across the street.

When the first cohousing book came out in 1988, they got the idea to rotate responsibility for preparing dinner among families rather than potlucks. Then, in 1990, as more families joined the group, they had two weekly communal dinners in a garage. Today, N Street has a common house with a large dining room where they have about four community dinners a week, plus a kitchen, a TV room, a foosball table, and a two-bedroom apartment upstairs.

In retrospect, Kevin notes that the two crucial steps that N Street families took toward becoming a vibrant retrofit cohousing community were having communal dinners and tearing down fences.

In the upcoming three articles on N Street, I’ll discuss the lives of children there, the social ambiance there, and some details about how N Street operates.

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4 Responses to N Street: An Introduction to Cohousing and “Retrofit” Cohousing

  1. Simon Firth says:

    Mike — This is a really interesting model of living and one I’d like to hear a lot more about. I’m especially interested in the retrofit idea as that strikes me as far more practicable than planned cohousing.

    Two questions occur to me that I hope you might address in later articles. One is what effect this kind of ad hoc cohousing has on property prices. Does it lower house prices because fewer people want to move into a street that’s full of believers in co-housing? Or is it the opposite?

    Secondly, I’d like to know how this works in the face of the truism that ‘good fences make good neighbors.’ I’m guessing that there are some clear rules about respecting privacy that successful co-housing set ups work with. Can you tell us more about those?

    Thanks!
    Simon

  2. Mike Lanza says:

    I’m glad you find N Street interesting. I *certainly* do, and could write a lot more about it. Regarding your specific questions, certainly, Simon, I’ll make sure to address those two questions in the article on “Running N Street.”

  3. Kevin Wolf says:

    Hi Simon
    Kevin from N Street here. I think the phrase “good fences make good neighbors” comes from rural areas where a good fence kept your cow and animals out of the neighbor”s fields. All throughout the midwest, there are many neighorhoods that never have had fences. In California, six foot tall fences prevent neighbors from seeing each other. Maybe the phrase should be “tall fences make anonymous neighbors.”

    Property prices seem to be better in the neighoring blocks. A number of the houses have been bought by friends of the community or community members who couldn’t buy internally. We also have improved the safety and neigbhorliness of our neighborhood as we are active in the neighborhood council and provide stability in a predominantly rental neighborhood.

  4. matthieu says:

    Hi, we just published a documentary on the cohousing phenomenon. It won an award at the 34th Ekotopfilm festival 2007 and was designed to show what is cohousing “from within” as a complement to the existing books.
    The trailer can be watched at http://notsocrazy.net/video.html
    Enjoy!
    Matthieu
    Director of “Voices of Cohousing”