There are communitarians and individualists on both the left and right. Those on the right—staying true to the Burkean concept of “little platoons”—more often focus on building strong families, churches, and civic organizations and less on cooperative living arrangements. But there are also Anabaptists, monastics, Benedict Option devotees, and, of course, Front Porch Republic readers who are more receptive to intentional communities.
One promising trend that conservatives in general appear to have overlooked or rejected, though, is cohousing.
Unlike experiments with utopian communes, cohousing does not require sharing property (or romantic partners). Everyone owns their own home and vehicles—although streets and parking tend to be consigned to the periphery of the developments to enhance the walkable village feel.
The idea for cohousing emerged in the 1960s, at the same time as all those free-love communes. But instead of originating from American hippies, it came from Danish families and retirees who weren’t satisfied with the living-amongst-strangers model that was their cultural norm, as it is now for us. It has since become a fairly mainstream way to live there, with hundreds of these communities having popped up across Denmark, and now also in surrounding countries. It has more recently seen a boom in popularity in the United States. In 2021, FPR contributor John de Graaf directed a documentary describing the growing phenomenon.
In many ways, a cohousing development is just like a typical subdivision, with an HOA, some common areas, and a bunch of privately owned houses. But those who live in the community are generally family and friends, or at least have agreed to the shared statement of values and have gone through a trial membership before being allowed to buy in.
Just in the Durham-Chapel Hill area where I live, there are around a dozen of these communities (Arcadia in Carrboro, Village Hearth in Durham, Elderberry in Rougemont, Common Ground in Efland, Soltera in Durham, Bull City Cohousing in Durham, Weaver Water at the Eno, and Pacifica in Carrboro, to name a few). The “statements of values” of nearly all of them are fairly left-of-center. And this is not just because they are in Durham and Orange counties, where major universities like UNC Chapel Hill and Duke University reside.
Bloomberg News published an article a few years ago titled, “Cohousing’s Diversity Problem,” which highlighted the issue: “Despite its potential, the cohousing movement is overwhelmingly un-diverse: 95 percent of cohousers are white, 82 percent identify as Democrats, and 66 percent hold a graduate degree.”
In an informal survey, an insider emailed the listserv that includes people who live in many of the 160 or so cohousing communities and reported back: “Asked to characterize the range of political opinions in their group, virtually all respondents indicated a left-of-center orientation.”
Basically, American cohousing inhabitants are wealthy, white progressives. But it doesn’t need to be. There’s no reason why a cohousing community couldn’t have a conservative, rather than progressive, statement of values, or just be a collection of right-leaning family and friends who have some basic goals they want to share in common.
Angela Sanguinetti, director of the Cohousing Research Network at UC Davis, and Kathleen Hibbert, a social ecologist at California State University, did a study to find what was causing conservatives to avoid these housing arrangements. They tried to present cohousing as “pocket neighborhoods,” but that didn’t sway conservatives. What they did find was that “the most cited perceived benefits of cohousing were social interaction, relationships, and support, while lack of privacy and personal space topped the list of drawbacks.”
Even if describing them as “pocket neighborhoods” doesn’t solve the issue, I do think part of it is the name. Cohousing sounds a little bit like we’re going to all live in one house and be roommates. In fact, for this reason it’s often confused with “coliving,” where people do share a house and try to build a small community.
As the study suggests, there are many things that conservatives saw in this paradigm that looked attractive (especially social interaction, relationships, and support). As digital technology isolates many of us in our home, education, work, and social lives, having a living arrangement that facilitates actual face-to-face engagement could be invaluable. What little study has been done on whether cohousing achieves this overwhelmingly suggests it improves both physical and mental health. That’s not surprising considering studies on happiness and health in general show how damaging isolation can be and how beneficial relationships are.
The two “perceived drawbacks,” lack of privacy and personal space, are likely what makes conservatives keep their distance from these neighborhoods. The model is very flexible, though, so a community of conservatives who come together voluntarily for many things, but also respect the sanctity of each other’s homes and time, is more than possible. You don’t have to share tools or enforce “community work hours” if you don’t want to. If some want to collaborate on a homeschool co-op, and others on some gardening projects, and others on childcare or eldercare, that would likely be enough social capital to keep the community engaged. And if a couple others prefer to not be involved in every little social activity, that’d be fine too.
The idea that this is being framed as a “new” idea at all also likely turns conservatives off, especially since it clearly is not. A bunch of people living near each other and not being complete strangers is the norm historically. Our current way of living is the odd one.
Think of the cohousing brand as analogous to what might happen a century from now, if marriage rates continue to fall: Someone might came up with the idea of “corooming,” where two people commit to sharing a bedroom, sexual exclusivity, raising children, and splitting chores for the rest of their lives. They might see it as a brilliant idea that would solve a lot of their social problems—and it would—but most human beings across history would laugh at the idea that this universal human institution (marriage) had to be introduced as a novel model.
“Cohousing” feels about the same. People from every other time and place would likely say, “Yeah, you mean like a village or a city neighborhood?” But that should be all the more reason to bring back the arrangement. Maybe we can just call it something else, like, “Living with family and friends in a neighborhood designed to encourage the building of social capital, relying on them in real and tangible ways (rather than just manufacturing reasons to occasionally interact with them), and overcoming the isolating dynamics of modern life.”
This arrangement is also much more realistic for most people and less extreme than joining a religious order, a commune, or another more all-encompassing intentional community. This can simply be a neighborhood with an HOA where everyone has their own hobbies, jobs outside the community, and, yes, even privacy if they want it.
That said, some family, friends, and members of my congregation (though not all would describe themselves as “conservative”) are considering establishing our own cohousing community. Reach out if you want to know how it goes or to share about your own interest or experience in similar projects.
Image credit: “Houses at Auvers” by Vincent Van Gogh via Wikimedia Commons