Cohousing in Vancouver: Living outside the box

What if I told you that you could get more house than you pay for?

Vancouver cohousing: the Cedar Lodge project.

When I was younger, I shared a Brooklyn brownstone with several friends (and, later, strangers) in a collective-housing experiment that had gone horribly right. 11 people shared three full flats and a half-finished basement.

The basement had no kitchen. My flat had no door. I would routinely find our basement-dweller midway through a pack of snack crackers as I came home from work. She’d look up, wide-eyed like a raccoon caught in the act of ransacking a kitchen.

Then again, we all shared a single Internet contract, as well as a single Netflix account. I got used to finding extras from the downstairs neighbours’ baking sessions in the hallway outside our front… well not door, but doorway.

This was my entry into the world of collaborative housing, and, if you’re very lucky, you could get a crack at it as well.

Kensington-Cedar Cottage, Vancouver's first cohousing project, has found a home on 1729 33rd Avenue near Victoria Drive. A growing affordable-housing trend is now coming to Canada's (and North America's) most expensive city. Meanwhile, the rest of us are just now learning what “cohousing” means (and what it doesn’t mean).

Cohousing has been around since the 1800s, building on the basic concept of more people equals lower housing costs. The current version of cohousing got its start in Denmark during the 1960s.

While we will pat ourselves on the back as innovators, Vancouver is relatively late to the game on this trend: over a hundred collaborative housing developments can be found across North America already. In fact, there are already several cohousing developments in the Lower Mainland: North Burnaby is home to Cranberry Commons, a 22-unit townhouse complex just off the SFU express bus route. Its founders envisioned a community, rather than a bunch of folks in stacked condos, ignoring each other.

Katy Weston, who is part of the Vancouver Cohousing group, showed me around Cranberry Commons. To be perfectly honest, I was a little disappointed: Based on my own personal experience, I was hoping for more of a commune.

Instead I saw what looked like a typical modern townhouse complex; albeit one built around a common open space, complete with barbecue and children's play area.

Six others already exist across British Columbia, including Quayside Village in North Van and Windsong in Langley. More are on the way. (Yes, some of these cohousing complexes have names that sound very hippie. Is that any worse than condo buildings with names like “Dolce” and “Elan”?)

How does cohousing work?

As I began researching this article, the memory of finding my downstairs neighbour devouring my groceries loomed in the back of my mind. Hence the surprise (and slight letdown) when I found out the real deal with Vancouver Cohousing and their project.

The difference between modern cohousing and, say, turn-of-the-century New York City tenements is that collaborative housing units are purpose-built. We had to take an existing space and adapt to it.  Cohousing developments are the opposite of that: the architect designs the structure based on its future residents’ needs and wants.

As Christina Girardi, also part of the group behind Kensington-Cedar Cottage, told me, “It’s easy for people to get together, and it’s easy to avoid each other.”

Cedar Cottage will consist of 31 self-contained units. Each unit will have up to three bedrooms in townhouse format. The units will share a collective kitchen, dining room, storage, workshop, and guest bedrooms.

To clarify, each unit will also have its own kitchen as well as living and dining rooms, but with extended access to the shared spaces. Vancouver Cohousing recently updated its FAQs to address this common misconception.

In other words, you don't just get a townhouse, but also access to a much larger shared area, with amenities that might otherwise be unaffordable.

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