Conservatives Should Take Another Look at Cohousing


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


  1. Not familiar at all with this concept, but how does it sustain itself over time? Sounds like a group of young hipster liberals in a college environment live together (and away from all the dirty deplorable types who might live in the area), so what happens in a decade or two when the original group starts to move on? Where’s the connection to physical place that might lead to long term stability? We’ve dissolved so much of that in the last couple generations, but this seems like functionally a class based grouping system that goes along with disastrous recent trends rather than fighting against them.

    • Hi Brian, I’m the author of the piece and am happy to engage on this a bit. Maybe the confusion is in that I mentioned nearby Chapel Hill and Durham have a few of these communities and also have universities. I probably should have been more clear that my point was that college towns are often liberal, not that it’s something attracting mostly college students. I’d say agewise they appear to be a bit on the older end (middle aged to retired), but I see a lot of cohousing communities where they target young families instead or are very mixed in ages.

      I think you’d be pleased with their focus on “connection to place” and “long-term stability,” both of which you mentioned. In terms of how they sustain themselves over time (your initial question), I think the aim is to attract people who plan on staying put in an area and want to plant deeper roots. They also are interested in extended families and friends groups so real community and connections are deepened. Some seem to accomplish this and have been stable in population over decades, but I’m sure it’s different for others. There are likely those that think they want this lifestyle for a while, but then change their mind, decide to move, don’t like their neighbors etc. My main point is that this arrangement does not seem to entail anything that is by-nature progressive and that conservatives may benefit from living in deeper community as well. Thanks for interacting with the piece!

  2. Well, Brian, since you are not at all familiar with this concept, perhaps you’d like to look into how it works. It may be that you’d find answers to the questions you raise (which, of course, those in co-housing communities are aware of and deal with), and that you could step back from your instant judgmentalism.

    • Gosh Andy, maybe I did in fact google the names of the places mentioned in the article and read about them and now I’m asking for clarification and asking some specific questions.
      Did you ever think of that Andy?
      Or do you feel proud of yourself and your instant judgmentalism to attack instead of trying to contribute, Andy?

      • Sorry, Brian! No, I actually didn’t ever think of that, because I took you at your word that you “were not at all familiar with this concept.” That communicated to me that you were, in fact, engaging in instant judgmentalism to attack instead of trying to contribute.

  3. Brian’s point is partially supported by David’s April FPR article that he links to. For example, this quote from David’s earlier essay, which focuses on common interest as historically the cause of forming a community, not the result:

    “We may be able to build Mayberry architecturally, but if it didn’t arise from a real community pursuing a real common good, it would only be a theme park—just a soulless Frankenstein’s monster of urban form.”

    It’s possible that cohousing as described here relies on a coherent catechism, which progressives now feel (or at least believe, based on inculcation) and co-religionists traditionally assumed as axiomatic. Those who actually practice “diversity of thought” probably want more privacy, or at least a cordial environment that will tolerate disagreement — what used to be sine qua non for an American university.

  4. Andy’s post adds nothing and is little more than a personal attack. If you’re going to allow that but not my response then you’re really just demonstrating you have zero interest in allowing dialogue or discussion.

  5. Haha; I remember getting the memo to NEVER admit to “not being familiar” with anything while online.
    But Brian’s questions were good ones. In particular, the questions about the “long term connection to the place” as well as the long term impact of each member’s personal growth or development.
    Since over 50 years ago I wrote a plan for a similar conservative community-based ghetto but followed up on that with my wife and I moving over 37 times during the subsequent 50 years, I can attest to the fact that people’s goals change.
    I should add that, due to our active faith, we now feel “part of” neighborhoods in many states and several countries spanning several continents. Also, due to global telecommunications (I helped launch the Internet is a microscopical way), I continue to interact as a neighbor with people and welcome strangers into this community more easily than if this took place in a cohousing locale.
    Nevertheless, I just this week developed yet another iteration of my cohousing schemes with a view towards developing an integrated student/senior/family neighborhood suitable for my next couple decades.
    Hmmm; I should also add that I’ve seen cohousing in action in lots of places–during my career as an Air Force officer. Just sayin’

  6. Blushing over the intentional communities so briefly mentioned in the lede paragraph really does this topic a disservice and leads to the wrong conclusions about these communities among readers of this piece. The topic is far too large for Mr. Larson to cover in a single article.
    However, there is much to be gleaned from the Anabaptists and their ability to maintain community longitudinally. I find the documentaries about them to be either outright prejudice against them or at a minimum, coming at the telling of the story with an agenda (especially from those who parted ways with the community). I have found the only way to know the truth about life in these communities is to spend time with the people of these communities. Largely because these communities feel no urgent needs to ensure everyone around them understands their community. It’s simply not a priority. Talk with a father in these communities and at the core of his hopes and dreams for his children are no different than ours.
    Often outsiders attribute Anabaptist community tenacity to an authoritarian approach, which is simply not accurate. Much could be written about why they seem to work. But, one little indicator that these communities work is the number of boomerangers who return to the community after leaving it for a time. Yes, we can find those who leave any given community with a negative story to tell, but the “success” of the Anabaptists cannot be argued away; and, I suspect cannot be understood unless one lives among these communities.
    I am personally familiar with families from Amish and Mennonite communities. I’m also relatively familiar with a large Hutterite community in South Dakota. Though I dare not write that those communities with which I’m familiar represent the whole, my experience with them, partly based on hundreds of intimate conversations and a few business dealings, along with careful observation, is more than positive. These are a combination of faith-based and agriculture-based communities. But agriculture needn’t be at the heart of a community. I believe it can be replicated in suburban and urban settings if there is the other element, a central core of commonality of “why” there is a community in the first place.
    Though the Bruderhof are not mentioned here, I believe they are an attempt to adopt principles from what many refer to as the “first century church.” And where this scares many off is the sharing of community assets, including financial assets. From the Bruderhof website, you see a compelling argument: “None of us owns anything personally and everything we need — food, housing, health care — is provided for us. We believe our way of life is a compelling answer to society’s problems, with its emphasis on wealth and self and its resulting isolation, conflict, and inequality.” Ailments I believe Mr. Larson alludes to for some of the reason in support for living in cohousing communities.
    This topic is worthy of entire publications, blogs, podcasts, conferences, etc. Most of us know that WB addressed this in many of his writings, both fiction and non. The very forces WB brings up as the cause of many of societal ills are the very bulwark of how we build our lives here in the West — we cannot do without our phones, streaming services, nor a myriad consumer items, I cannot see these new communities becoming anything as prevalent as the Anabaptist communities, and thus nothing more than a novelty.

    • Dan,
      Thanks for your comments. I definitely did not intend to give the impression that I wanted to create the be-all-end-all article summarizing all models of intentional communities. I only wanted to look at one type (cohousing) and ask why conservatives seem not to have noticed it yet while it’s picking up steam among progressives.

      I also did not intend to dismiss Anabaptist communities. I actually agree completely that we can learn a lot from them. I even wrote an article on that very topic for Crisis Magazine, if you want to take a look.

      I also interviewed Bruderhof for my Youtube channel and agree they have an interesting model we can learn from. Not being Anabaptist myself, but Catholic, I don’t agree that other attempts at communities of these kinds are novelties or futile. People of other faiths have, and can again, live a more locally grounded, community-focused lifestyle. Part of my point was that the term “cohousing” unnecessarily assigns a new name to something many communities have always done. I’d say many Anabaptist communities (as well as Orthodox Jews) already meet the definition, because they live walkable proximity, foster community with a common ethic and goals, and each member owns their own private property (but attempts to be very generous with it to other members). Bruderhof would be more of a commune than a cohousing model, since they do not own their own private housing/cars/etc.

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