Shared experience: Co-housing community taking off in Lawrence

Seimoah Skeeling Adamson, 21 months, plays in the courtyard of the Delaware Street Commons while resident Rich Minder looks on. The Commons promotes an intergenerational community where families interact daily.

The kids sprint outside to ring the dinner bell; it clangs loud enough for everyone to hear. Soon, people pour into the common house, crowd next to each other and hold hands in a circle.

The cooks announce what they’ve made: salad, Moroccan peanut stew, zucchini bread and chocolate cake with strawberries on top. When they’re finished listening, they break the circle and everyone grabs a dinner plate.

For the 41 people living at Delaware Street Commons — a co-housing complex at 1200 Del. — this ritual occurs at least twice a week. Vicki Penner, a group organizer, says shared dinners are one aspect of community living that makes Delaware Street Commons different from suburban life.

“Eating together is one of the ways we build relationships with each other that is more than your typical neighborhood,” Penner says. “This is a form of intentional community. When you live here, you’re saying, ‘I’m willing to get to know my neighbors and care about them.'”

Delaware Street Commons opened in 2004 with just a few families. Now there are 19, and interest is growing.

Delaware Street Commons residents, from left, Paula Shaver, Charlotte Pessoni and Heather Putnam, fill their plates at the weekly Sunday potluck.

Co-housing catches on

Co-housing got its start in Denmark nearly a century ago. In 1927, a group of 27 families decided to develop an alternative to suburban life. They wanted to create a community where neighbors talked freely with each other and interacted through structured activities, like shared meals. Throughout the 20th century, co-housing developments sprouted in the Netherlands.

Eventually, the idea spread to the United States. The first co-housing homes popped up in the 1990s, according to the U.S. Cohousing Association. There are now nearly 115 nationwide.

Delaware Street Commons is the first of its kind in Kansas. The houses are clustered next to each other, facing a pedestrian walkway that residents must amble across to get to their homes. The walkway keeps the atmosphere open, enhancing chances for social interaction. And according to Penner, Delaware is the kind of place where it’s still OK to ask a neighbor for a cup of sugar.

But members share more than cooking supplies. In most modern neighborhoods, 22 homes means 22 lawn mowers. At Delaware, there are two. Some members even share laundry facilities.

The communal meal brings together Commons residents, friends and family, and prospective residents.

There’s also a community garden. Its vegetables often pop up in potluck dishes, shared meals and gifts for neighbors.

Dinner is served in the common house every Wednesday, and members take turns cooking. Individuals shoulder the cost of the meal they make, but they eat for free otherwise. Each person only has to cook every six weeks.

“We have a shared dinner during the middle of the work week, so people don’t have to worry about cooking, except when it’s their turn,” Penner says.

Penner’s 9-year-old son, Joey, says eating in the common house is one of his favorite things about living at Delaware. He likes to eat and talk with everyone. Joey only has one gripe — there aren’t enough boys.

Automatic playmates

Twelve children live at Delaware, ages 18 months to 12 years old. For fun, the younger children cruise across the community sidewalks on their bikes. The older ones play with each other in the newly built treehouse, or hang out at the common house. No matter what they do, though, their parents don’t worry.

“We know all of our neighbors really well,” Penner says. “When I let my kids go outside, I know that there are a lot of extra mamas, aunts and grandmas looking after them.”

Karen Kerin moved into the community with her husband and 4-year-old daughter, Summer, in November. Kerin felt spurred to move into a co-housing facility after having her first child. Suburbia was too isolating, she says.

Picking out a place wasn’t easy. The Kerins looked for months.

“It’s a courting process, like picking a spouse, only it’s a bigger enterprise,” Kerin says. “We wanted a place where we could all agree on certain things that are important to us.”

Shared responsibilities

Joey wanted a treehouse. He told a few people, and before he knew it, he got his wish. The children picked out the design. Some people bought supplies. Others did heavy labor. Then the children put the final touches on the paint.

At Delaware, members try to make each others lives easier.

“When we moved in here, there were four people outside ready to help unpack the truck,” Kerin says. “At least you know here you have to work through things, like you do with a partner or a spouse.”