As progressive homebuyers long for greener and friendlier 'hoods, Arizona's "co housing" communities are catching on. Just don't dare call them "communes."
BY JIMMY MAGAHERN
Published by: Phoenix Magazine, December 2007
They don’t watch “American Idol” out in Wind Spirit. In fact, out in this tree-covered desert oasis located about 100 miles east of downtown Phoenix and 17 miles south of Globe, there’s not even a broadcast TV hook-up – and that’s just how its media-shunning residents like it, thank you.
But every Tuesday morning at 10 a.m., a different kind of voting contest goes down at the secluded sanctuary, one with every bit the tension and drama of the TV singing competition.
There, the core members of the “intentional community” – a kind of updated version of the 60’s commune, right down to the shared organic gardening, joint labor contribution and, in Wind Spirit’s case, even the converted school buses and junked RV’s many of the residents occupy – gather in the group’s shared kitchen to decide which would-be hippie gets the boot this week.
“We take a look at everybody we’re having a little problem with and rate them on a scale of 1 to 5,” says Brian Malis, a burly, bearded 33-year-old who first came to Wind Spirit straight out of college in 1995, just shortly after its founding.
“5 is perfect. Those are the people that everybody agrees is awesome,” Malis says. “Next comes acceptable, then questionable – ‘I got my eye on them,’ you know? A 2 rating is, ‘I’d rather they leave, but it’s not an emergency.’ And a 1 is, “I want them out now! That person’s got to go!’”
You wouldn’t think people would be battling to stay in Wind Spirit’s psychedelic buses and minimalist huts, which can make the accommodations on Lost look like Richard Branson's Necker Island.
But thanks to a synergy of trends that has more and more Americans going green, downsizing their consumption and craving group interaction beyond their cell phone circles, communal living is enjoying a comeback. And Wind Spirit, a veritable Garden of Eden where residents eat from over 60 varieties of fruit and nut trees, build their own shared facilities – and telecommute via satellite wi-fi (despite the lack of TV reception) to earn the dirt-cheap $100 per month dues – represents the new model commune at its most basic.
“These are our compost outhouses,” says Malis, pointing to a pair of wooden structures suspended over organically treated trash barrels, the contents of which residents take turns mulching back into the earth. “There’s one for sitting and one for crouching,” he says. “Surprisingly, most people prefer the crouching.”
Granted, not everyone heeding the call is built for the drastic life change offered at Wind Spirit, which hosts mostly a seasonal population of college-age free spirits in search of a tribal and back-to-nature experience.
Thankfully, a more upscale variation on the intentional community, called “cohousing,” is now enjoying a fresh momentum in the U.S., after floundering on the fringe for well over a decade. In cohousing, a concept pioneered by the Danish in the late '60s, that same communal vibe is sweetened with the basic niceties of the modern condominium – and reined in by the realities of grown-up economics.
Take Milagro, a picturesque community of 28 townhomes clustered together in the gently rolling foothills of the Tucson mountains, and one of three flourishing cohousing neighborhoods around that city.
As at Wind Spirit, Milagro’s residents own their living spaces but are encouraged to use the land’s “common house” for group activities and community meals, which everyone is expected to take turns preparing and are typically offered about three times a week. But instead of schoolbuses corralled around a funky kitchen with a hodgepodge of mis-matched stools, Milagro’s villagers wander out of their two- and three-story adobe brick homes (valued at $350,000 and up) to what looks more like an exclusive resort clubhouse, with a small library, a big-screen TV and a mountain view of 36 acres of pristine desert land set aside as a nature preserve.
There’s also that same back-to-the-land mindset up in Milagro. But to offset the water waste caused by flushing their non-compost toilets, Milagro villagers harvest the rainwater lapping off their fashionable sage green metal roofs into corrugated metal cisterns that feed the lush, colorful landscaping flowing between the homes.
Still, for all their apparent differences, there’s one thing Milagro and Wind Spirit share: a strong cooperative spirit forged by the participation of its members. In today’s cohousing, just as in yesterday’s commune, residents are expected to keep up the landscaping, clean the common facilities like the group kitchen, laundry room and workshop, and attend frequent meetings to keep the place running by group consensus.
It can require more work, as well as more mingling, than the communal living newbie bargained for – which is why Brian Malis feels even his wealthier kindred spirits to the south should adopt the weekly ratings game Wind Spirit plays with its questionable community members.
“Unfortunately, what happens in some cohousing communities is they get into survival mode, where they eventually begin to let in anybody who can afford to live there – and that can be a community destroyer,” he says.
“Because as soon as the harmony goes, it’s not fun anymore. One bad apple can spoil the whole vibe.”
As a young couple, Tanya and Tyler Jarvik lived in a traditional apartment complex in the college town of Davis, California. But they envied the families living next door in Village Homes, a seventy-acre subdivision that, while not technically cohousing, was designed to facilitate neighborly interaction and encourage green-friendly practices – two cornerstones of the cohousing model.
“The kitchens were in the front, facing each other, the garages were in the back, so there were all these pedestrian-friendly walkways and community fruit trees and stuff,” says Tanya. “Plus, we had a child, and we were always having to schedule play dates and drive him somewhere. Over there, the kids had great, safe community spaces to play in.”
The Jarviks eventually began looking at Tucson, where the three cohousing neighborhoods – Milagro, Sonora and Stone Curves – were already filling up. They found Milagro too expensive, and the population too old for their needs. “Most of the people there are retirees,” Tanya confides. “And no one wants to be the first with kids to move in there, because there’s nobody else for them to play with.”
Sonora, which ties with Prescott’s Manzanita Village as the state’s first cohousing communities (both opened in 2001), turned out to have the most families with young children. But the Jarviks opted for the newer Stone Curves, just up the street, where they figured they’d have more of a say in how the community developed by getting in on the ground floor.
“The notion of beginning the whole thing with everybody else is a key part of cohousing,” Jarvik says. “The idea is to be partners in its development.”
Since settling in two years ago, the 33-year-old mom says she’s come to love the feeling of living in a tight-knit community that embodies the whole “It takes a village” approach to childrearing. “It’s great to live in a place where the kids can run around and play and you don’t have to worry about them.” Also, while cohousing tends to be more expensive per square foot (part of the buy-in cost, and monthly HOA-type fees, involves paying for those common facilities), Jarvik insists she ends up saving money through the property’s energy-saving features as well as by utilizing the community’s pooled resources.
“People will swap with babysitting, and take turns carpooling to school,” she says. “Or somebody will say, “I’m going to Trader Joe’s. Do you want me to get you anything?’ Plus, people chip in money for the group meals and volunteer to cook, which usually wind up costing less than $3 per person. Sure beats going out to a restaurant!”
The only downside, Jarvik says, is finding privacy in such a friendly village.
“People begin feeling they can knock on your door any time, day or night – and these places do tend to appeal to the slightly eccentric!” she admits with a laugh. “Like my neighbor, who’s 80 years old and has taken to watering his plants with diluted urine. It’s like living with this huge extended family – with the one weird aunt, the slacker nephews and the odd uncle who’s the life of the party. At some point, you have to draw boundaries.”
Or blinds. “We have a signal now. If your front blinds are closed, that means don’t come knocking.”
Worse than the neighborhood oddballs, however, are the new families who buy in not knowing what cohousing’s all about.
“We had some people who moved in thinking they didn’t have to consult with anybody about what they did in their little back yard,” Jarvik says, referring to the minuscule patios where residents, who all share the same water bill, are encouraged to grow desert-friendly plants. “Before long, they were wanting to plant palm trees and bougainvillea and talking about watering the community lawn every day to make it ultra green.”
Cohousers can be notoriously tough on residents who don’t “get” the mission statement. No one in the community has any stated authority; issues are resolved in weekly meetings by a simple “majority rules” consensus. But when a bad apple rolls through the community garden, it doesn’t take long to rally the troops to weed it out.
Eventually, the eco-oblivious family packed up their Hummer and moved out of Stone Curves to a more mainstream ’burb.
“It was hard on them, because they ended up feeling resented by everyone else,” Jarvik says. “But things are much better now. The family that moved in totally gets what cohousing’s about, and they’re just wonderful.”
For the past 15 months, Christian Nys has been busy turning a former crack house in central Phoenix into a point of pride for the green community. Replacing the dead lawn and rubbish in the front yard with fresh bananas, collard greens and Armenian cucumbers and dumping the cracked shingles on the roof in favor of a purified rainwater-collecting covering, the property practically bursts off its blighted stretch of Pierson Street just west of 7th Avenue like a colorized Oz tornadoing through a black-and-white Kansas dust bowl.
Now, Nys is trying to persuade some friends to turn the other fifty-year-old tract homes on the street into similar permaculture paradises. And he’s already got a bunch of them onboard.
“Chris lives there,” Nys says, pointing to the equally tropical-looking house next door owned by Chris Carlile, his business partner in Planet Harmony, LLC, a green consultancy start-up. “His ex-girlfriend Maria lives next door to him – she’s still not sure about all this. And another friend, Tom, lives next door to her. We’re trying to create a little collection of people that kind of support each other in this crazy vision.”
If Nys’ vision for the Pierson Street Ecohood comes true, he’ll have created a kind of retro-fitted version of cohousing that’ll be the closest thing Phoenix has to what’s going on in Tucson. Already, he’s got a bustling community of eleven people sharing the four houses clustered together on the block. Nys himself lives in the tiny guestroom behind the converted crack house, where four people split the mortgage equally for each bedroom, sharing the kitchen and the greywater-equipped bath. Carlile has another paid-in border, Nys says, “and actually another guy who’s camping out in back.”
“It’s kind of like cohousing already, except it’s a condensed version, because our common house is the same house where most of the people live.” Why Phoenix has yet to catch up with Tucson on the cohousing tip is an ongoing puzzler to the several local groups who’ve been actively recruiting members on gathering places like ic.org, the principal intentional communities website.
“Phoenix is a strange place,” Nys says. “We’re so accustomed to consumption – particularly of the diminishing desert surrounding us – that this idea of sustainable living in such a small space is a hard sell.”
In such a cultural climate, Nys points to Gilbert’s Agritopia as a commercial development that actually reflects some of cohousing’s most attractive features – historical-district design that fosters neighborly interaction, an organic farm-based focus and lots of common gathering spots – without requiring its residents to mow the community lawn or go to all those self-governing meetings.
But ironically, the one other Valley development that most resembles a thriving cohousing community is a gated mobile home park for seniors in Apache Junction.
At Eastgate, a tidy complex of 131 immaculate-looking units spread out over wide, Disneyland-clean streets and featuring common areas like a rec room and swimming pool, retirees own and run the park themselves, as opposed to paying rent on their lots. Residents make their own rules, keep the clubhouse clean and attend to the landscaping themselves.
Best of all, monthly dues, which they also set themselves, amount to a mere $58 – a steal over the $500-per-month rent charged for lots at comparable Mesa parks.
Larry Vipond, the 79-year-old retired banker who started Eastgate with four other mobile home owners about 13 years ago, has never heard of cohousing and doesn’t care much for the tag “commune.”
“I suppose you could call it a cooperative,” Vipond says. “But we’re really just a bunch of seniors who realized we were being skinned alive by the mobile park owners and decided to build our own.”
At this intentional community – another trendy term Vipond has no use for - you’re more likely to catch residents playing shuffleboard than partying on the patios. Still, in concept and spirit, Eastgate’s seniors are kindred brothers and sisters to Wind Spirit’s modern day hippies.
“We’re living fat and sassy!” Vipond says, with a chuckle. “We’ve found an inexpensive way to live first-class, and we think it’s the greatest thing going.”
“You wanna know what cohousing’s about?” asks Don Arkin, affectionately known throughout Sonora Cohousing in Tucson as “Git ’er Done” Don. “Here – grab a corner of this solar panel and help me move it to my backyard.”
Enlisting the help of neighbors Scott Bird and Hari Nam Elliott, two Sonora residents who a minute ago were shooting the breeze in front of the 36-unit complex’s common house, Arkin leads the impromptu crew through the lushly landscaped walkway between the condo-like homes to the shared workshed – the favorite hang-out spot for the community’s men.
“That’s what happens around here,” quips Bird, one of Sonora’s cofounders, who renovated the two-story 1940’s adobe house that was originally the sole property on the land to include a dance floor and a trapeze. “If you stand around for too long in one spot, somebody puts you to work!”
Between hauling the giant panels, Elliott, a transplant from another cohousing community in California, describes the all-for-one spirit that defines cohousing.
“You don’t want to force people to participate in things,” says the former nuclear chemist, his long graying hair tied back in a ponytail and stuffed under a wide brimmed hat. “You want people to be there because they want to be helping and they want to be sharing the social activity of cooking together, cleaning together and building together. But if they don’t want to, that has to be okay.”
Fortunately for Sonora, most of its residents like doing things together, although Bird says a few members had to drop out before the right mix began to gel. Today, Sonora’s population is the envy of Arizona’s cohousing scene, exuding an extended-family feel that’s evident when Bird and Elliott take a short-cut through the children’s common playroom and are playfully admonished by a throng of youngsters for invading their zone.
Still, an odd thing happens each time Arkin, Elliott and Bird take a panel from the shed to make the five-minute trek to Arkin’s back yard. They lock the door, a seemingly unnecessary step in such a close-knit ’hood.
It’s only when you look over the fence into the lower-income apartment housing that borders Sonora and learn that a few thefts occurred in its building phase that the padlocking begins to makes sense – sort of.
“The stealing happened enough that people started to feel uncomfortable with the rest of the neighborhood,” explains Gail Loveland, who lived with her husband Jim Flood for three years in Sonora before the couple moved to another cohousing community in Colorado Springs. “And they also became uncomfortable with the local schools. Most families there ended up sending their kids to private or charter schools.”
Even Bird and Elliott admit that for all the good vibrations they feel around Sonora, the feeling ends at the property’s borders.
“I don’t feel connected to the people in those houses,” Bird says, pointing to the row of small homes just across the street from his own. “Or the people in these apartments. I like to think good things happen in the outside world because of us being here. But not the immediate outside.”
For Flood and Loveland, that’s become a troubling part of living in cohousing. Despite all the progressive politics of the residents, most cohousers are still predominantly middle-class, college-educated, and white.
“I remember when we were at Sonora,” says Flood. “There were some kids over from the apartment complex that kind of fit the Section 8 profile. They were playing with the Sonora kids, and some of the families there were up in arms. They did not want them there at all.”
That’s when Flood and Loveland first began to see flaws in the whole communal living concept.
“When I read about cohousing,” Flood says, “one thing that excited me was the idea that once a cohousing structure got into a neighborhood, they were able to branch out and do stronger things for the bigger community around them. Because cohousers are generally more sophisticated – a lot of highly-educated people with some noble ideas about strengthening social connections. But that turned out to be an expectation that didn’t pan out.”
Currently, Flood says he and Loveland are looking at Wind Spirit as a community more in tune with their ideological leanings – although the former New York City sheet metal worker admits he’s got a few reservations about those compost outhouses.
“Yeah, that’s gonna be a little strange,” he says, with a laugh. “But really, we all poop all the time, and to flush it down with five or six gallons of fresh, clean, treated water does seem quite wasteful.”
In the end, Flood says, he can deal without indoor plumbing as long as there are no well-defined fences around the community.
“Wind Spirit has neighbors from a different spectrum, too – they’re farmers, and generally more conservative. Somehow, we’ll have to bridge that divide.
“But it all comes down to, where does your community end?” he asks. “What good does it do to create this perfect little world, if it ends just outside your gate?”