Imagine financing and building a new home. Now imagine getting unanimous consent from 30 or so of your neighbors on everything from the size of your home’s yard to its type of water heater.
Meet the 32 members of Newberry Place, who did just that. They’re partners in a form of communal living called cohousing. Pioneered in Denmark and introduced in the United States in the 1980s, cohousing developments have been built in 85 locations across this country. One of the newest and Grand Rapids’ only such development, Newberry Place began as the dream of six Calvin grads. Six years, hundreds of meetings and half a million dollars later, they are living in their dream.
Development Turned on Its Head
At first, members of the group talked about buying houses close to each other, in the same neighborhood, and trying to do more sharing. Then they heard about cohousing.
“The cohousing model addressed so many of our concerns about the disintegration of communities,” said Lavonne Zwart Schaafsma. “It’s a village format, and it just grabbed us!”
When it came time to turn excitement into money on the table, three couples were ready: Steve Faber ’97 and Nora Lagerwey Faber ’98, Marty Morgan ’98 and Kristin Brower Morgan ’98, and Phil Schaafsma ’91 and Lavonne Zwart Schaafsma ’91.
Over the next four years they visited existing cohousing projects and held meetings to find other people interested in joining theirs. They looked at property, talked to neighborhood associations, and worked through the design and financing of what became a $4.5 million development.
“The cohousing model addressed so many of our concerns about the disintegration of communities.” — Lavonne Zwart Schaafsma At every stage they held voluntary “cash calls.” Those serious about the project had to come up with money—a total of $450,000—to move it forward.
“We had to ‘pay to play,’” said Steve Faber, “meaning that people making decisions about the community were those who planned on living with those decisions. If you don’t have money on the table it’s just talk. It weeds out the dreamers from those willing to make sacrifices and take risks for the group.”
This is the usual development model turned on its head, Faber noted. Instead of building the physical community first, cohousing builds the people community first. “If you have to raise half a million dollars together, you’re going to build a lot of community.”
In November 2006 the people community of Newberry Place broke ground in Grand Rapids’ Belknap neighborhood for their physical community. By late January of 2007, 32 adults, from 20-somethings to those over 60, and 16 children, newborns to young teens, had moved in.
A Sustainable Village
With a kitchen, large dining room, smaller dining area, living room and children’s playroom, its design fosters gatherings of all sizes, planned and spontaneous. Three evenings a week members eat a common meal there. Daytimes, stay-at-home parents talk there while their children play. A shared piano, TV, and cabinets of games and art supplies draw people to spend some of their free time together in the common house.
This carefully thought-out design makes visible the group’s purpose statement: “We believe that people who have connections to others in a community live richer and more fulfilling lives.” They believe that community must be built literally, in bricks and mortar, and that, in the words of Marty Morgan, “The standard housing options isolate us. Our cars bring us into our garages without interacting with our neighbors.”
For all the value they give to interacting with each other, the people of Newberry Place also value private spaces and built those, too, into the development. Though some of them share walls, each home is a separate unit and has its own small yard. Homeowners make their own choices about furnishings, colors and most amenities. There is no common purse, and at any time a resident can sell his or her home to any buyer.
“We didn’t want to do a short term burn-out model of communal living,” said Zwart Schaafsma. “Cohousing is sustainable. People stay because private space is balanced with community space.”
Jim Lucas ’79 came to Newberry Place with a dozen years of experience living in a Christian community that he called “too intense to maintain over a long period.” Now, he said, “I’m a few years older. I need my private space.”
“Diversity is a strong, central value for all of us,” said Tom Bulten ’87, “so we needed to be as open as possible to people’s different faith expressions.”
That’s not to say everyone would feel at home at Newberry Place.
Membership becomes a matter of self-selection, Bulten noted. “Besides five core values, we have bylaws and a ‘book of agreements’ that describes the decisions we’ve made over four years, and that defines our culture.” Prospective community members must agree to all of these.
“It’s not just a house, it’s a way of living we’re buying into,” said Zwart Schaafsma.
That way of living includes efforts to reduce their environmental footprint. Designed for energy efficiency, Newberry Place homes exceed the federal Five Star energy rating by 50 to 65 percent. The development is an easy walk from public transportation systems. And residents recycle and share household tools and cars.
Primarily, though, Newberry Place living is “about being neighbors to each other,” Faber said. Being neighbors means sharing not only things, but chores, too, from mowing and shoveling to bookkeeping and cooking. By being good neighbors to each other, Newberry Place residents hope they can be better neighbors to the larger community. Zwart Schaafsma explains: “If someone else is cooking your evening meal, you have two hours freed up to go to a neighborhood association meeting or be part of a social justice mission.”
The nitty-gritty of working out all this neighborliness happens in regular meetings of the whole community and its several task forces and committees. All decisions affecting the group are made by consensus. “What I love about this group is that we’re all willing to have the tough conversations and work it out together,” Faber said.
Some decisions made by and for the group are of little consequence. Others challenge members’ core values.
“For me, coming to a consensus on our design while watching the bottom line was a really difficult, challenging process,” Bulten said. “Some of us held strong values for economic and ethnic diversity. When we saw the prices of homes here escalating, we knew we were pricing ourselves out of that diversity. We do have diversity in age and life situation, but we hope to find ways to bring economic diversity to the community in the years ahead.”
“Everyone has a dream home,” Morgan said. “We found that many fantasy features go out the window when you build with others. Also difficult for Kristin and me was the financial burden put on us. We had always tried to live under our means. What this home cost us is a big compromise.”
“We couldn’t think of a better way to spend our money and time than to help create this kind of community,” Marty Morgan said. “It’s the kind of place we want for our children.”
Added Zwart Schaafsma, “It’s a legacy that will outlast us.”
— Gayle Boss is a freelance writer living in Grand Rapids.
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