Cohousing Better Together

Alte Schule Karlshorst
Alte Schule Karlshorst | Photo (detail): Eva Costa Cisnar

People who are not related to one another are opting to live in a community in which they share communal facilities with others. The author Franziska von Malsen lives in a shared apartment herself and in this article explains the concept known as cohousing which, though by no means new, is becoming increasingly popular in Germany and elsewhere.

I live with Salah and Louisa, though what makes people really prick up their ears is when I add that our living arrangement is a mixture of shared flat and family life. “What do you mean?”, they ask, and I explain that Salah, who turns 60 this year, is Louisa’s dad. The three of us share a three-bedroom apartment in Munich’s Neuhausen district. People find several aspects of this disconcerting: for one thing, that I live with a man who is twice my age, and for another, that Louisa, who will soon be 28, is living with her father again. Not to mention the fact that our communal living model is not merely a question of sharing a flat, nor is it simply family members living together, but is something in between.

In fact, most of my friends and acquaintances who find my lifestyle choice surprising at first spent many years living in shared student flats themselves, or indeed still do. My father was also taken aback when he learnt that I would be moving in with a family of “strangers”. Clearly, many still find the idea of communal living beyond one’s student days weird, though our family-style flat-sharing arrangement is actually a trend for which the Danes coined the term “cohousing” back in the 1960s. Strictly speaking, cohousing does not refer to sharing a single flat but means sharing a house or residential complex. On the other hand, the term encompasses such a diversity of lifestyle models that it can also be applied to our flat-share.

Splitting costs is just one of the reasons for cohousing, but not the most important

The shortage of housing and soaring rents are the obvious reasons for alternative living arrangements, especially if, like us, one lives in Munich, Germany’s epicentre of a property market that has spiralled out of control. I could never afford our pretty period apartment with its balcony and parquet flooring in this location if I had to sign a new lease on it that hadn’t already been running for 15 years.

People who cohouse are looking for more than simply lower rental or building costs, however. They want to raise their children together or at least to have uncomplicated childcare on tap – no matter whether this would involve a neighbour looking after their children or placing them in a community-run childcare group. They wish to live sustainably, and some are even keen to be largely self-sufficient, living for example in an eco-village. Others want to have their ageing parents nearby, but not necessarily in their own homes. Or they want to have a “surrogate granny” who will look after their children while they do the shopping for her. Multigenerational living is the term often applied to such configurations. In contrast to the communes of the hippy era, people in most cohousing projects base their communal living on private ownership – and on voluntariness.

We work in increasingly flexible constellations and yearn for a sense of community

In early 2014, the magazine of German weekly newspaper Die Zeit pinpointed 148 such alternative communities on a map of Germany. After Denmark, Germany is the nation with the second-highest number of communal living projects per capita. Michael LaFond, founder and director of Berlin-based non-profit organization “id22 Institute for Creative Sustainability”, estimates that there is something in the region of a thousand projects now – depending on one’s definition of cohousing – with two to three hundred of them in Berlin alone. If certain forms of housing cooperatives are included, the figure is likely to be even higher.

These days we live and work in increasingly individual ways and in increasingly flexible constellations and are constantly moving to new cities or new countries; we are not tied to a single plant or company for the many years or even decades that our parents and grandparents were. Our colleagues, and in some cases our friends, change every time we get a new job. Nonetheless – or perhaps precisely because of this – we feel drawn back into a community when it comes to where we live.

Although more and more people are interested in this lifestyle, many projects fail before the foundation stone has even been laid.

There are various reasons for this, explains LaFond, who lives in a cooperative housing project by the River Spree in Berlin’s Mitte district himself. For one thing, hardly any suitable plots of land are available in cities, or at least not anywhere close to the centre. “What is more, small, ideologically-motivated communities are simply never as fast or well-financed as private investors.” According to LaFond, a further problem concerns the transfer of knowledge. When it comes to architecture, building materials, alternative forms of financing or possible grants, the knowledge needed to implement a cohousing project has always been laboriously acquired by individuals in the past, meaning that every new group has to start from scratch.

After years of searching and experimenting, the family still lives alone

This is something Kerstin Kassel-Cati knows only too well. A mother-of-two, 50-year-old Kerstin and her husband invested a great deal of time and energy and spent years planning a cohousing project close to the village of Grafrath near Munich along with two dozen others. They had already found a possible plot, and the concept drawn up by the group contained everything that cohousing is generally thought to entail: multigenerational living, self-management, houses made of ecological building materials, communal rooms, a house for guests and so forth. Today, more than six years after the group’s first planning meeting, nothing has changed – the Kassel-Cati family still lives alone in a single-family house.

First, the group had problems acquiring the land. What is more, local residents voted narrowly against the project in a referendum. When the prospect of a new plot arose, some of the older members of the group changed their mind because they didn’t like its proximity to the main road. Finally, the Kassel-Catis and two families of friends embarked once again on a search to find like-minded people. Many were interested in the idea, but too few were actually prepared to get involved, meaning that it was impossible to stump up the building and land purchase costs. “People simply had different ideas and visions of what they wanted”, explains Kerstin. She says that the whole process was a painful one and that one day, when their children have left home, she hopes that she and her husband may be able to move into an existing project.