Lawrence and Douglas County

Lawrence and Douglas county

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.

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.

September 7, 2009


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

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

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

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

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.

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.

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.”


jumpin_catfish 8 years, 8 months ago

Kum-bi-ya my lord kum-bi-ya, I shouldn't make fun but the hand holding thing is a little silly, no its a lot silly. I'm not up on this but are taxpayers underwriting any of this or is it completely self-sufficient? I know a few of my neighbors but do I really trust any of them in this day and age, I don't think so.

alm77 8 years, 8 months ago

What a fantastic thing! It seems like they've struck a balance between the tiresome commune and the all too common "who's my neighbor?" syndrome. In our neighborhood, I'm the "busybody" and don't mind being so. I'm the one who watches the neighbors house while they're gone, lets everyone know if there was a crime reported in the neighborhood and lead the kids in trash pick up on occasion. I know a lot of my neighbors and they all know me. Borrowing sugar is just the beginning for us.

youarewhatyoueat 8 years, 8 months ago

It's a co-op, not a project. None of the co-ops in town are taxpayer funded. I heard the cost of moving in was just a little cheaper than getting a house in the suburbs. It's for families who don't want to live in the 'burbs, not families who are below the poverty line. At least, this is what I heard.

It takes a certain kind of person to live co-op style; I lived in one on and off for years. It's definitely not for everyone, but it's a great idea.

OldEnuf2BYurDad 8 years, 8 months ago

I've heard of this kind of thing in Europe. I think this sounds GREAT. We've LOST our sense of community in the U.S. (if we ever had it). I bet THIS group of families has very few instances of mental disease.

conservativepunker 8 years, 8 months ago

What if the collective can't agree on something? Is there a Kommisar to handle things?

chocolateplease 8 years, 8 months ago

This appeals to me in many ways. The sense of community, sharing of seldom-used items like lawn mowers, sharing some meals, etc. However, I have questions about this type of community, not having experience with it, and suspect (wrongly?) that it could become oppresive for some, given how people are different.

I wonder how well certain kinds of differences between community members are tolerated, and if that tolerance is promoted within the community. It's interesting (ironic) to me that some super "progressive" people, while tolerating different races, sexual orientations, alternative lifestyles, etc. quite well, have little respect or understanding for those with different political or religious points of view from their own and can get quite volatile about it. Even I suffer from this tendancy. For example, what if I lived there and was a person who chose to eat factory farmed meat, shop at Walmart, supported completion of the SLT, as well as outsourced manufacturing to China? Is there some kind of screening process for ideology of people who move here? Just curious.

rhpenner 8 years, 8 months ago

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BigPrune 8 years, 8 months ago

Something about this reminds me of a place in the '60's called "The Ranch." It was far out because it was an old movie set. I'll never forget Charlie throwing some wild parties. He was all about trippin' and listening to the Beatles, and he loved a good orgy now and then.

jafs 8 years, 8 months ago

As far as I'm aware, there is no taxpayer money going to help fund this situation.

There are usually screenings, to make sure new residents would be compatible - any community of this kind works best when there are some sorts of shared values. This particular community is particuarly interested in communal discussion/working through of any issues.

It's surprising how many "intentional communities" exist in this country, and that there is such a range of type/outlook. If you're interested, google it.

geekin_topekan 8 years, 8 months ago

Me Mum lived in a co-housing community in Mad-town. Although I spent little time there from what I was able to gather, the people were content, well-to-do, and selective. Ownership required a personal interview and the average price per unit was around $200,000.

It appeared to be mostly professionals. I guess students couldn't swing the two hundred grand even though it was very close to the UW campus. Community meals were not a daily occurrence however, potlucks were frequent and usually involved a guest of some sort.

Maintenance of the grounds was a community effort and I remember a very lush, green environment.

What I really dug about the place was the security that the community provided for mom. Perhaps the security was my peace of mind but, whatever the case may be, I was happy for her and grateful for the community in which she lived and loved.

On those occasions when I would visit I would stay in the guest room which was located in the commons building. It provided a room w/shower and kitchen and residents could reserve it on a first come,first served basis.

Looking back at her co-housing community, the words happy, secure and clean come to mind. It is not a hippy freebee dig which the paranoid party seems to imply whenever they hear the word "community". It was homeowners sharing in property and responsibilities and reaping the benefits that extended family and friendship provide.

psst 8 years, 8 months ago

I looked in to buying one of these a while back. They have a very nice layout with prices in low 200,000s (maybe lower now?). I spoke with some of the people living there- the neighborhood seemed low key, you participate when you want but help take care of the community. The community was made up of professionals with families. Would have loved to have bought there but ended up moving to KC.

Clickker 8 years, 8 months ago

My cousin lived in one of these for a few years and loved it. Cost about $200k, and as a professional, he thought it was great , he told me he could basically hang out and let a few of the others do all the real work. He was a little lazy so it worked perfect.

supernik 8 years, 8 months ago

i think this is great - a bit pricey but it seems cool!

Zachary Stoltenberg 8 years, 8 months ago

I live a few blocks from here and was glad to see new development coming to east Lawrence. As an architect I was impressed with the design/layout but was disappointed at the price. It seems a little inflated and is probably the reason half the units are un-rented/un-sold. It's definitely a niche and I would have liked to see something smaller to start with so there weren't so many vacancies. Best of luck to the developers and thanks to those that live there for enriching part of the East Lawrence Neighborhood.

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