Susan Booker wanted to live in a place that would allow her to be active in her neighborhood as she grew older. As she did her research, she found herself immediately attracted to Wild Sage Village, a senior cohousing development in Boulder, Colo., where residents help design the project and create a community.

"It's exciting to be a trailblazer, exploring new ideas about the issues that come up as people age," says Booker, a local librarian. "We are planning a community that will allow us to live in our own homes well beyond what would ordinarily be possible."

It represents an unusual approach for the United States, where residents and neighbors are better known for fighting multifamily developments than for creating them. But cohousing, which has been popular in Denmark since the 1960s, is gaining popularity in this country as developers look to build higher-density projects and aging residents try to maintain a community-focused lifestyle. Of course, the stats still remain small for such alternative communities: Advocates estimate there are about 100 cohousing developments in the United States and Canada.

SERENE SETTING: The seniors who collaborated on the ElderSpirit Community helped select this Virginia site, shown here in two phases of construction.
SERENE SETTING: The seniors who collaborated on the ElderSpirit Community helped select this Virginia site, shown here in two phases of construction.

Built on the ideal of collegiality and cooperation, cohousing developments feature 20 to 30 rental or for-sale units built around one or more common areas, such as a kitchen/dining hall, garden, game room, workshop, or prayer structure.

Cars are relegated to the backs of structures, or underground, to encourage walking and impromptu interactions. To further encourage social encounters, residents of these "intentional" communities often participate in several group meals and other activities in the common buildings each week.

As more and more baby boomers like Susan Booker segue into senior living, demand for high-quality housing that allows them to age in place and remain active will be greater than ever. Smart developers who create innovative multifamily housing alternatives in the cohousing model will prosper and profit.

Multiple Upsides

While cohousing is alternative, both for-profit and nonprofit developers alike embrace the model because the financial risk is lower and the number of funding options is higher than traditional development.

Nonprofit developer Trailview Development Co. offset pre-construction debt of its rental and for-sale cohousing community with home sales of $1.5 million and membership fees.

"All the homes were sold, and most of them rented before we started construction," explains Dene Peterson, project manager for the ElderSpirit Community in Abingdon, Va., a town of 14,000 people in southwest Virginia.

The project has 29 privately owned one- and two-bedroom attached homes and 16 affordable apartments, a common house, and a spirit house for worship.

The project received federal and state grant money for its income-restricted units. Ten of the apartments are for residents earning below 50 percent of the area's median income. The remaining six are for those earning below 80 percent of that figure. "The state loved the innovative aspects of the project and gave

Another upside: an easier entitlement process. Drawn-out public hearings and large-scale change requests can add significant costs to even the simplest project. But cohousing developers say it's easier to get approvals for their projects than for traditional single-family or multifamily development.

"Planning departments look at cohousing pretty favorably because of the social benefits and because we have future community members already with us," says Jim Leach, president of Wonderland Hill Development Co., the Boulder-based creator of Wild Sage Village. "It's easier to get neighbors to approve because they know who's going to live there–and that takes the fear away," he adds.

That also reduces the neighborhood-based obstacles that are often spawned by multifamily projects.

Planners also like the cohousing model because of its density (nice for urban infill situations) and its innovations (most projects incorporate some tenets of green building). Many developers also make the communities mixed-income, which further enhances the value and appeal to municipal leaders. Wild Sage Village, for instance, features 10 market-rate condominiums going for $350,000 to $700,000 and six permanently affordable, partially subsidized units priced at $100,000 to $150,000.