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Sustainable Space: Cohousing Takes Root in Connecticut

Today, owning your own house is a key part of fulfilling the American dream. The Industrial Revolution saw the rise of the nuclear family and single-family homes. But two communities in Connecticut—Atwater Resources Cooperative and Rocky Corner Cohousing—aim to upend the traditional formation of neighborhoods. Cohousing aims to turn back the clock to a style of living that was ubiquitous during the Middle Ages but isn’t as widely seen today.

Atwater Resources Cooperative (ARC) began when Adam King ’88 and two of his friends, Adam Wascholl and Bill King, bought a house together on Atwater Street eight years ago in Fair Haven, and other people they knew bought a house down the street. The cohousing idea originated at an Open Space Event hosted by a local bioregional transition group on how to live more sustainably. One answer proposed was cohousing.

While cohousing might not seem all that different from living arrangements we consider standard, proponents emphasize the ideology behind the system as a distinguishing factor. Dick Margulis, president of GreenHaven, a non-stock Connecticut corporation involved in building Rocky Corner, calls the ordinary American method of purchasing a home completely backwards. It makes no sense, he told The Politic, to identify first how many bedrooms and what school district you want a home in before deciding who you want to live around. “Then you move in, and the next day you find out your next-door neighbor is a drug dealer with a rock band,” he said. Cohousing flips the process upside down—first you decide who to live with, and then where and how.  

“We ask people to go through a self-selection process,” Dick Margulis said. “For some people, their home is their castle. Cohousing isn’t like that.”

One of the largest motivators for cohousing in Connecticut and nationally has been the desire to live more sustainably. Founders of Rocky Corner have studied the idea of Transition Towns extensively, which are communities that attempt to increase self-sufficiency to prepare for peak oil (when oil production inevitably starts falling), climate change, and economic instability.

To that end, Rocky Corner has hired consultants to make their homes both more environmental and sustainable. Their engineers used the principle of Low-impact Development (LID), a standard in the United States and Canada that centers on managing stormwater runoff.

“[LID] has been honored more in the breach than in the execution in Connecticut,” Margulis said. Rocky Corner will be one of the first developments of any kind in Connecticut to adhere to the standards. The designs will conserve and help recharge groundwater. Many residents are taking classes on permaculture, self-sustainable agricultural systems, to prepare for the large-scale community gardening and composting that Rocky Corner will be doing. And shared walls between different family homes will cut down on heat loss and therefore energy use.

These designs will take shape this spring, as construction begins at Rocky Corner in Bethany, Connecticut, a 20 minute drive northwest of Yale.The 33-acre property is a former dairy home. The community will have 30 individual homes and a 4,500 square foot common house that will contain a garage, sewing room, craft shop, large kitchen, and more. It will be the first housing of its kind in Connecticut.

But Rocky Corner isn’t the first attempt at cohousing in the state. Terry Halwes was a founding member of a previous cohousing community, Atwater Resource Cooperative, and one of the few still living on Atwater Street today.

He told me that at the early planning stages for Atwater cohousing, many—particularly King and Wascholl—had bold ideas for their community.

“Adam [King] had people talking about Alternative Economy models originally,” Hawles said in an interview with The Politic. The Alternative Economy refers to any economic system that rejects the currency model and replaces it with bartering or sharing for the exchange of goods and services.

“We soon realized that was too restrictive,” he said.

Atwater residents aimed to practice communal living, which included growing most of their own food in a community garden. But Halwes told me that the community spent so long renovating their run-down houses that nobody had the time, energy, or money to work on a garden or other cohousing initiatives.

ARC, in some senses, was doomed before it got off the ground, in part because of a mismatch between King and other founders’ ambitions and the feasibility of their economic plans. One pitfall of moving into an already established residential neighborhood is that fellow residents got caught up in ARC’s ambitions without asking for it. Articles profiling the community in 2010 and 2011, including one in Yale’s The New Journal, documented this tension and some of the resentment neighbors felt towards what they perceived as an intrusion and tone-deafness by newer residents.

There were tensions within Atwater, too. I asked Halwes about King, who was the focus of most press about ARC in its early days. He told me he’d rather not talk about him, but then added, “he was always more active on the media side than anywhere else.” Neither King, Wascholl, nor Rico live on Atwater Street today. The nail in the coffin came in 2012, when some of Occupy New Haven, a movement modeled on the national activism protesting wealth inequality, moved into the units on Atwater Street. “It was a minor disaster,” Halwes said, “because the people were not respecting the place.”

Today, it seems Atwater is finished, although Halwes maintains that some sort of community exist. Halwes told me he didn’t know how many people are in the ARC and gave the example of the family next door to his that was never involved in the original community but whom he might go to if he needed some sort of manual help, and he could return the favor by cooking them a meal. When I asked what made that any different from the neighborhood that I grew up in, where we each lived in our own homes but might shovel the snow off each other’s sidewalks as a nice gesture, he didn’t provide an answer. But, he added, “most houses on the block have never heard of the Atwater Resources Cooperative.”  

While ARC’s plans and membership have dwindled, Halwes still believes in cohousing and is actively working to make it a reality in the New Haven area. He and his wife were cofounders of GreenHaven, and remain invested in Rocky Corner’s success. They do not plan on living there because they prefer to stay in an urban area. After all, despite its claims of energy conservation, Rocky Corner is surrounded by farmland and most residents will need cars to get their kids to school, to reach the grocery store, and more. Halwes criticized this approach, as he believes cohousing should be more incorporated into an existing community and should be within walking distance of supermarkets, schools, and libraries.

Especially in cases like Rocky Corner, where it is not based in an existing neighborhood, cohousing can often be prohibitively expensive. The homes at Rocky Corner will range in cost from 108,000 dollars to about 413,000 dollars. GreenHaven applied for and received a 2.6 million dollars grant from the state of Connecticut to offer 13 of the houses as income-qualified subsidized, an achievement that is unusual in cohousing, which is usually attainable only for those wealthy enough to afford start-up costs.

Rocky Corner’s development did not happen without some bumps in the road. Initially GreenHaven applied for a cluster housing zone, larger than any housing lot in New Haven. The request, which would have opened up the rest of Bethany to similar development, was voted down after a contentious town hall. Local attorney Norm Prettis was one of the plan’s most vocal opponents. He directed The Politic to a blog post written at the time, where he wrote, “GreenHaven is nothing if not determined to change Bethany.” He warned of Bethany “going the way of Hamden, or Naugatuck, with tiny housing lots crammed one against the other, or condominiums dotting the landscape.”

Eventually GreenHaven’s proposal was approved because of the affordable housing units it included, which enabled it to overrule local zoning rules.

Cohousing communities are usually simple enough to join. Halwes told me that to be a member “you have to want to live there, and you have to be able to live there.” Given the higher commitment and presumably more cohesion that living in Rocky Corner entails, joining is more complicated—but only slightly.

Almost all the homes at Rocky Corner are spoken for, and there’s a waiting list for some types of home. Those interested have monthly meetings to plan and begin forming the bonds that will be more important once construction begins this spring and they take up residency.

Organizing Rocky Corner took time, largely because the system for getting a housing development approved in Connecticut is not designed for a system like cohousing. “It’s outside of the paradigm of what the housing market is,” Margulis said. It has been nearly ten years since the idea was first floated in those same Open Space meeting that Adam King and other ARC members attended, and Rocky Corner’s planning committees include several ARC transplants.

Cohousing asks its participants to sacrifice a degree of their autonomy. Cooperation is fundamental to the success of any community, but it’s particularly true when resources and space are pooled, as they were in the Atwater Resources Cooperative and will be at Rocky Corner. Cohousing evangelists promote it as some sort of panacea for economic difficulties and environmental dangers. Rocky Corner will begin construction soon, and it remains to be seen whether it will succeed in helping to revolutionize how we choose our homes or whether it will fall into the trap of becoming just another neighborhood.