Creating community

Now forming: An eco-friendly community where neighbors know one another by name, share meals and care for their homes and children together.

This ad may sound too good to be true. But Nick Meima says this is what cohousing is all about. He is anxious to show visitors the 40-unit development in Ann Arbor where these ideas have been playing out for three years. And he’s busy recruiting residents for three more developments.

Cohousing — which originated in Denmark — means neighborhoods where people jointly purchase land, design and develop individual and family dwellings, and work together to care for them and for one another. In the past decade, cohousing has flourished, with dozens of communities springing up around the country. In Michigan, Meima is the pied piper for the fledgling movement.

The dream

For years Meima, 49, lived in a typical Ann Arbor neighborhood, where he tended to his own home, mowed his lawn, and felt little connection to those around him.

Meima, who ran a home health care business, watched his neighbors go about their busy lives the same way, maybe nodding or waving hello as they passed from their cars to their homes.

“The isolation continued every minute,” he says.

Meima was desperate to cultivate a community, but had no idea how or where to begin. By chance, about a decade ago, he came across a book called Cohousing by Kathryn McCamant and Charles Durrett, an architectural team who introduced the concept to the United States. Meima flipped through the pages and knew immediately that this was what he wanted. The inclusion of people of all ages and backgrounds especially appealed to him. But his favorite description of cohousing was by one resident who was quoted as saying that it “sometimes takes two hours and two beers to get from his car to his front door.” Unable to get his wife interested in the idea, he put it on hold until the couple split in 1993.

“When I got a divorce I asked myself, ‘What do you want to do now?’ And instantly it was, ‘I want to create a cohousing community,’” recalls Meima.

Determined to see his dream to fruition, he started talking to friends and neighbors. In May 1994, he invited the Cohousing authors to Michigan for a workshop which about 30 people attended. About two-and-a-half years later, 10 or so people who attended the Cohousing workshop and 26 others who later got involved broke ground on Sunward, Michigan’s first cohousing community, about ten minutes from downtown Ann Arbor.

“And 18 months later everybody was in,” he says.

Building consensus

Getting Sunward off the ground was not easy. Meima, who doesn’t come on like a slick salesman, but has a calm, gentle way, pitched the idea to friends. Some were instantly interested. Others referred him to others who liked the idea. He also ran ads in local papers describing cohousing. Within about 18 months, 36 households were committed to the concept and put up the funds.

Putting together the multimillion-dollar housing development near Jackson Road — where units cost between $90,000 and $220,000 — took nearly four years.

A founding principle of cohousing is that every voice is heard. Issues are hashed out — from where to plant a tree to what color to paint a house — until a consensus is reached. If someone is not happy with a proposal, they are required to offer alternatives.

“In the end, it has to be something that the vast majority feel positive toward,” says Meima.

The Sunward residents had to jointly answer such basic questions as what kind of community did they want to create, what would it look like and where would it be. They had to interview and select builders and architects and secure financing, tasks none of them had experience with.

As the process continued other issues arose.

Where would the cars go? After much discussion, Sunward was laid out so that cars are parked on one end of the community and homes are on the other, making the living area quieter and reducing the chances of children getting hit while they play.

How would Sunward be landscaped? A debate ensued about pesticides. In the end the community decided against them, planting flowers and prairie grass rather than lawns.

How would they make the housing user-friendly for disabled and elderly residents? They reserved space for four small (between 500- and 600-square-feet), specially designed units to be added in the future.

Even whether to carpet the community house — where meals, meetings and social activities are held — became an issue. Some residents were allergic to the chemicals contained in carpets. After researching the subject, the group agreed on a natural-fiber flooring.

Twice every month residents still meet to hash things out. Though the process is sometimes heated — like when folks argued over whether Sunward would allow pets — residents say it is helps them grow and forge deep relationships.

“You have to learn to deal with people after a confrontation,” says Ali Melaina, a 28-year-old massage therapist who lives at Sunward with her husband Marc. “That’s not always easy.”

But Melaina says that the consensus process — and living in a small community — has helped her consider the group’s needs, not just her own.

“I love to talk,” says Ed Herstein, who has a unit to himself. But the consensus process helped him “learn to shut up” and listen.

Herstein also says Sunward enables him to know all his neighbors, compared to when he lived in a condo for 20 years and barely knew a soul. But it took a friend who lived at Sunward to convince the 57-year-old retired technology consultant to consider cohousing. He feared it would be a cult, where everyone would have to adopt the same ideology.

“What it is, is a group of very nice people who enjoy each others’ company,” says Herstein.

Cats and kids

A large metal bell rings outside the common house where some residents prepare dinner four times a week for the community. Every household is expected to contribute about eight hours each month taking care of the grounds, homes and other duties. Some residents contribute by cooking.

No one is required to take part, but those who do pay about $3-$5 a meal. On a Sunday night in June, pasta with a spicy red pepper-and-scallop sauce was served. Sautéed tofu was available for vegetarians. Each dish was accompanied with salad, melon and vanilla ice cream with fresh fruit for desert.

The sunny kitchen contains eight tables where groups of six or so gather to eat and chat. Large windows encase the second floor which is lined with balconies. The common house is a quick walk from the rows of lovely pastel-colored homes; up to five homes adjoin one another, townhouse-style. Skylights brighten each of the one- two- and three-bedroom homes, which range from 800 to 1,600 square feet.

On this warm, clear day, the community looks and feels like a summer resort. Poppies, daisies, lavender and dozens of other flowers trim most front yards and run along the paths that lead to the strawberry field, pond and vegetable garden.

The homes sit on 10 acres and are surrounded by another 10 acres of woods that buffer highway noise and other development. It is hard not to be instantly delighted by the landscape and the residents.

“I just love it,” says Connie Plice, a 70-year old resident and retired elementary-school teacher. She tells a favorite Sunward story about caring for her neighbor’s two cats. When one got loose, she put out the word that if anyone found it to please put it back in the friend’s house. The next day, there were three cats in the house, she laughs.

But she says cohousing does have some drawbacks. Plice complains about some of the cluttered yards where kids’ toys, bikes and yard tools sit. Without garages or sheds there is little storage space.

Another problem, says Plice, is that there is little diversity in the community. Though Sunward welcomes all people, most residents are white, college-educated, middle-class families, couples and seniors.

Property values have increased since the community went up in 1998 — some units now sell for as much as $300,000 — making Sunward out of reach for lots of folks. Association fees, which cover maintenance and other costs range from about $80 to $140 a month.

About five people have moved since Sunward went up three years ago, but the majority of them had to relocate with new jobs, says Meima.

His 16-year old stepson Kevin Fahey is not as enthused with cohousing as his mom and Meima. He complains about having to carry groceries from the parking lot to the house, misses having a garage and says that everyone knows everyone else’s business. His mom, Allison Welles, who met and married Meima at Sunward, moved to the community when she divorced, wanting to simplify her life. She understands that it is hard for teens who want little to do with anything that is different from the norm.

J.D. Lindeberg says he loves raising his 5-year-old daughter at Sunward.

“It’s great for kids. The worst that could happen is you’ll get run down by a bike,” he says, as a couple kids roll by on theirs.

But he does wish that the community was closer to downtown. He hopes that the city will run a bus line to the neighborhood, especially since two more cohousing communities are going up down the road from Sunward.

“Life’s work”

After Meima helped establish Sunward, he decided to help others create cohousing communities.

“I had a passion about it … and J.D. does too,” he says.

Meima and Lindeberg, who works with him, set up a business called he Cohousing Development Company. Lindeberg likes the unique lifestyle because he says it makes good use of land that is overburdened with sprawl.

“It’s part of my life’s work,” says Lindeberg.

The company acquires land, secures financing and take care of the nuts and bolts of a project. This frees up residents to focus on what kind of community they want to create and other issues. And it saves time.

Meima says that Great Oaks, which will have 36 homes, took only a year to plan before breaking ground. Honey Creek, which is not as far along as Great Oaks, also will have 36 units. Both will sit on six acres each about a quarter mile down the road from Sunward.

Meima says that 25 to 40 units is ideal because it makes the project affordable yet maintains a sense of intimacy among residents.

Meima takes the new residents through the same process he and others experienced at Sunward. Prospective residents are not screened through an application process, but are required to attend a couple meetings so that they understand all that is involved in cohousing before deciding to move in.

“It’s a self-selecting process,” says Lindeberg.

Meima and Lindeberg also are building a project in Lansing and are considering cohousing projects in Royal Oak, Ferndale and Detroit.

In fact, cohousing developments are going up all over the country. The first community was established in Davis, California in 1991, says Zev Paiss, executive director of The Cohousing Network. The Cohousing Network, which is based in Boulder, Colo., provides support services to co-housing communities throughout the United States.

In the past decade 46 more cohousing projects have formed across the country — with about half springing up the past two years, says Paiss. The recent surge in cohousing, he says, is due to people who created the first ones have the experience and skills to help others do the same.

“It shortens the process quite a bit,” says Paiss.

And to hear enthusiasts like Meima and Lindeberg tell it, cohousing may be the way of the future.

For more information on Great Oak Cohousing in Ann Arbor, go to or call Nick Meima at 734-663-5516.

Ann Mullen is a Metro Times staff writer. Send comments to [email protected]
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