Cohousing Communities

Cohousing is a concept that has been around for a long time, but in the Yukon it’s starting to gain interest as an alternative living arrangement for people of all walks of life. Many groups of people are tired of living paycheque-to-paycheque just to cover rent; cohousing can provide a solution.

To clarify, cohousing is not a group hippie commune where everyone lives in one big house like one big family, though those models certainly do exist. Very simply, the concept describes a group of people sharing land and resources – and there are many different models in many different communities.

According to the Canadian Cohousing Network, cohousing communities have been operating since the 1960s in Denmark, arriving in North America around 1988. There have been approximately 160 cohousing communities completed in North America since 1991. The website states that, “Cohousing groups are based in democratic principles that espouse no ideology other than the desire for a more practical and social home environment.”

One popular model in the south sees residents retaining their own individual homes, trailers, or tiny homes, which are gathered around a common building with shared amenities, like a kitchen, dining room, playroom, office, rec room and laundry. Each home is self-sufficient, but resident-cooked dinners are available to those who wish to participate.

In Canada, there are communities scattered throughout the provinces; while most are concentrated in British Columbia, the idea is spreading, and has taken hold with several groups of Yukoners. There are several development applications in progress, from a downtown group-living condo proposed by the former owner of the Alpine Bakery, Suat Tuzlak, to a multi-residential village-style proposal headed by Bob Sharp for the Hamlet of Mount Lorne.

These groups face many technical, financial, and bureaucratic hurdles, one of the most daunting being that, in many zoning areas both in and out of city limits, the territorial government only allows two dwellings per parcel of land.

Nevertheless, some groups are finding ways to work within those parameters. Alison Reid has been a resident of the Ten Mile Co-Housing group, located on 10 Mile Road in the Lake Laberge area, for the last 10 years. The group’s eight-hectare property is on rural residential zoning RC-1, about 30 km outside of the city, and is subject to the two-dwelling limit.

“Because of the zoning, it’s not multi-residential, we all own a percentage of the whole property,” Reid explains. The six current members reside in a two-bedroom bungalow and a common house with private spaces upstairs. The main floor of the common house has a living room, dining room, kitchen, bathroom, guest room pantry, and laundry for everyone’s use.

For Reid, the appeal of group living is predominantly financial.

“For me as a single person, [cohousing offers] affordability. I have a small private space upstairs, but because I have access to the downstairs, that makes it possible to live very comfortably,” she says. “It’s this rural lifestyle that I really like, that I probably couldn’t maintain on my own the way I can in a group. It makes it possible for me to live my preferred lifestyle because I have the support of five other people.”

While the residents of 10 Mile all lead fairly separate lives, they do collaborate on activities like gardening, with everyone planting, maintaining and harvesting fresh produce. They also work together to run the external wood boiler that heats both buildings, a task that would prove onerous for one or two people, but becomes less of a chore as a group.

“Beyond that, depending on our individual interests… some of us like to go hiking and canoeing, so it’s really easy to organize those kinds of trips because we bump into each other, or just playing scrabble and chatting… those things are informal but also very easy,” says Reid.

She acknowledges that the idea of sharing space might be outlandish to some Yukoners, who are accustomed to acres of forest and not a soul in sight.

“I think that a concern that people express about subdivision or this kind of living is concern about density problems, who’s living there, traffic, noise complaints… There are no guarantees, but we have developed ourselves around values that aren’t around noise or disturbing our neighbours and sharing resources.”

The sharing of resources is important; it’s what makes a cohousing community efficient – and environmentally sensitive.

“We have what would have been five separate households, and we have one vacuum cleaner, one washer/dryer, we organize a carpool, tools, all those kinds of things,” Reid says.

The resources that 10 Mile shares are not just material, either.

“We also work together on projects – things that I certainly couldn’t do by myself but there are usually enough hands and skills here that we can do various projects, repairs, ourselves. It also makes it easier for us to garden and produce more food. It addresses some pretty basic social needs: affordable housing, increased food security, as well as it has the potential for offering a chance to age in place.”

The latter point is one that many may not think about, but as Reid describes, one member of the community is considerably older than the rest, and is able to live independently with just a small amount of help from the group.

“I think that that makes it possible for her to imagine staying here longer than she would have been able to if she’d been living by herself,” she says.

After a decade of functional community living, Reid would like to see the group expand, and the land put to more efficient use. She has been in contact with the Yukon Lands Department regarding the possibility of increasing the dwelling limit without subdividing the land, but has yet to see any concrete progress.

“I think it would be nice to have the option of developing a hub for a few tiny homes out here,” Reid says. “It seems like a good way of increasing density without compromising privacy and the benefits of the rural lifestyle.”

As Reid and her cohousing community have discovered over the last decade, the benefits of rural and community living are many, and relatively easily attainable; cohousing models offer accommodation and community to people from many different income brackets, and seem to address social issues beyond the financial. For many residents, cohousing offers a way to connect with their neighbours. It’s a model of retaining autonomy while gaining community.

The concept and subsequent practice has encouraged a new way of thinking, placing emphasis on environmental and community values. The website sums it up this way:

“Cohousing offers hope in our often dissociated society. Through cohousing, we can build a better place to live, a place where we know our neighbours, a place where we can enjoy a rich sense of community and contribute to a more sustainable world.”

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