Demystifying Co-Housing

When I first moved to Portland, we found a townhouse in tight quarters – in-fill development in the heart of NE, right off of MLK Blvd.  We lived on a “woonerf”. Yes, a woonerf! It’s a shared street designed to:

allow drivers, cyclists, pedestrians and runners to share the same space, making the street much more welcoming and appealing for all. Instead of dividing a street with barriers like curbs, sidewalks and bike lanes, woonerfs open up the street and allow for every use simultaneously. Cars are forced to drive slowly—with traffic lights and stop signs nonexistent—ultimately allowing pedestrian and cyclists to rule the road.  

Read more here:

Our woonerf was serpentine in shape, so it had the added feature of a few turns to slow motor vehicles all the more.  It was a great introduction to Portland. Our street had the feel of a communal courtyard. I could even open my front door, holler across the way, and be heard by my neighbor, Cathmum.  We got on quite well: our kids were similar ages, our partners had similar work schedules and even played basketball together. Our two households had many family dinners: I could make one part, she’d make the other.  We could eat together and visit while kids bathed. We were lucky. It was happenchance: we found community in our housing situation, which was certainly helped by the woonerf design that stitched our households and lives more closely together.

Imagine setting out with the intention to find this very type of housing and community.  It exists: people who come together to form community, to support one another when they can, and to live their own lives independently in a lovely condominium community.  Recently, Cathmum and I had the chance to sit down and chat with Adesina Cameron, who moved to the Portland area from the San Francisco Bay Area where she lived next to Temescal Commons, a nearly 20-year-old community of 8 housing units and 23 residents.  Just outside of Portland, Adesina found Cascadia Commons, a community of 26 housing units across 14 buildings.  Here are som excerpts of our conversation:

So, what’s it like, aesthetically and technically and logistically, to live in this “co-housing community”?

At its most basic construct, the community is 100% like living in a condominium development.  Legally, Cascadia Commons is structured as a condominium. My condo is my condo. There really are no strict regulations or rules about our units: Inside of it, I can make improvements, changes to the layout, etc., just like any other condo.  It’s a really lovely development, so we have a waitlist of over 100 people hoping for the opportunity to buy a unit, which range from 1- and 2-bedroom flats to 2- and 3-bedroom townhomes.

We have a Homeowners Association (HOA) with a fee, that helps to cover our building and grounds maintenance. Our shared space includes a playground, a commercial kitchen, a library, a work-from-home office, a couple of guest units for visitors, and a yoga room.  These are amenities many of us would seek out at a condo development. We also have a community garden, and a small plot of our own land near our home that is shared with one other neighbor.

What brought you to explore co-housing?  What were you hoping to find?


We moved from Portland to the Bay Area in 2009.  When we left, Portland was still affordable. When we wanted to return in 2015 when my daughter was 10 months old, it felt unaffordable.  Condo units in some of the co-housing communities felt financially accessible.

I was moving to be near my mother, who was aging.  I was raising a young child, while working. My baby didn’t sleep, and I felt like my visions of “home” could not be actualized.  That old adage, “it takes a village” could not have felt more true and intense in that moment. I felt isolated with my care responsibilities.  I needed some support beyond my four walls. Back in the bay area, I lived near a co-housing community that seemed so vibrant and tightly knit. I sought this out when I moved back to Portland because I needed this intergenerational living where we could support each other when needed.  For me, I needed a ready-set community that I could join in my time of need. And, in return, I was also prepared to contribute to this community to support it, too, when my time came. It’s about give-and-take, ebb-and-flow. And, it’s really a beautiful thing.


Is co-housing best suited for extroverted and outgoing people?


Co-housing is full of introvert/extrovert couples.  My husband loves his privacy; he needs privacy. He comes and goes as he likes.  He doesn’t do stuff all the time with the rest of the community. I like to engage with the community, so I do get out there.  You really can be private if you want, you can have it at any level you want. It really is like living in a multi-unit community, whether condo, a townhome development, or an apartment complex: if you want to meet and get to know your neighbors, then you can!  If you don’t want to, you don’t have to.


So, does the community eat meals together every day?


When Cascadia Commons was created twenty years ago, almost all the residents ate together almost all the time.  Over time, as diets and schedules changed, participation dropped off. Maybe it was too much of a good thing?

Everyone, rightfully so, has their own rhythms.  Some of our community members like to eat at 6:30pm, but I’d starve if I had to eat at 6:30pm.  Plus, for those of us with young children, earlier is better since we have those early bedtimes.  It also has to be the right food, easy, nutritious, and crowd-pleasing.

Right now, we have about half of the community that participates in a meal plan twice a week.  The cost works out to be around five dollars a meal, which is a great deal. Sometimes, residents will just bring their dinner into our communal eating area to eat together.  Honestly, I love the experience of sharing in making and eating a meal together. It’s surprising we don’t do it more.


OK, so how can we learn more, experience more, and know more about what it is truly like to co-house?


This is a unique time for Portland.  We are hosting the national association of co-housing in a couple of weeks, from May 30th to June 2nd, 2019.  Community for the Health of It! – if you’re willing to invest in registration – will have some great speakers and topics to learn more about the world of co-housing.  But, there will be tons of free events too. Some great ones to check out include:

We are excited to see more families interested in joining our communities.  If you’re curious, come out and visit with us in a few weeks! See you all there –

The Door-to-Door Saleperson

It was a no-school/no-work day in our family.  It was a great day to sleep in and catch up on more intensive chores like digging out the depths from under the bed.  I had unearthed a lot of dust with all the tidying and I was just starting my detailed vacuum job when I heard a knock on our door.

In our new house in a new neighborhood, we get a lot more knocks on our door than before.  We have a lot more foot traffic.  When I opened the door, a youngish man in a tie stood with a slip of paper with the statement "We will Deep Clean & Dry Foam one room – NO CHARGE".  He explained he was showcasing the Kirby, that he wanted to demonstrate what it could do.  

He caught me at the right moment, just as I had been sweating for a couple of hours already cleaning and vacuuming, just as I was lamenting the condition of our carpet in the entryway and just as I was getting ready to ask a neighbor to borrow (again) her industrial carpet shampoo machine to deep clean the entryway.  When this man, with his trainee, offered a free deep clean in 30 minutes, no obligation to buy, I was sold.

Continue reading “The Door-to-Door Saleperson”

Halloween: stay in your ‘hood or commute to another?

On our neighborhood yahoo-group, I recently asked the question: "how many trick-or-treaters should we plan for?"  As I am one year new to this neighborhood, I didn't want to be left with a million bags of extra Twix (what will YOU give out this year?).  Goodness knows I still have a few baskets of candy from last year.

Schools might ban costumes, but many families will still head out into the night to enjoy the fright of the ghouls and gobblins begging for candy.  A neighborhood long-timer emailed: "do your kids a favor, take them to the other nearby neighborhoods to enjoy the decorations and sights!"  Last year, our first in our new neighborhood, indeed we went out-of-bounds.  We went to the neighborhood about a mile away (maybe less), which is well-known to be the place to go for any holiday.  Every single home on that street invests countless hours of planning and concocting the most elaborate displays.  Many, many families commute to that area to gawk.  Lines from the front door trail to the street, just to see first-hand the great work of those residents.  It was stressful.

To me?  The crowds are not worth it.  What's wrong with our own neighborhood?  So what if our houses aren't as big or decked out?  Residents who have been around for a few years say: "no one has come by in the past three years" or "a bowl of my jumbo Snickers were untouched all night".

There's still something to be said for staying in your own neighborhood, though, right?  In the name of getting to know others, in the name of community building, in the name of building momentum?

I just asked the kids, "Do you want to stay in our neighborhood to trick or treat this year?"  They didn't respond right away.  They thought hard about it, but they ended up saying: "No."

Your take?

International Walk & Bike to School Day – 2012

It is right around the corner, next week.  I thought I'd put a little plug out there to get us thinking about how we'll be getting to school next Wednesday.  It's International Walk & Bike to School Day.  

Last week at our local city council meeting, the mayor proclaimed October 3, 2012 "Walk and Roll to School Day 2012" in Alameda, and my family was there to acknowledge and receive the proclamation.  As part of my "thank you" comments, I highlighted the top three reasons I believe so whole-heartedly in walking and rolling to school.

  1. It creates community.  The moment we set foot out the door and head toward school, we see neighbors, wave "hellos", and exchange "good mornings."  In my 1+ year in my new neighborhood, I have never met as many families as I did in the first 5 days of walking to school.
  2. Increased physical activity can improve concentration.  Even when I have to sit through long meetings, leaving the room to do 10 jumping jacks can help me return with more focus.  A walk or bike ride to school can have the same effect on our kids.
  3. It reduces the number of vehicles at the school and reduces risk of accidents.  Cars, glare from the sun, kids walking (sometimes darting), opening doors: it all gives me the heebie-jeebies.  YIKES!

No doubt, many of our schools have traditions and ongoing walk & bike efforts.  But, what if we don't? Where to start?

Continue reading “International Walk & Bike to School Day – 2012”

Etiquette on Multi-Use Paths

Now that summer is out and outdoor recreating is in (not that it was ever "out"), we find multi-use paths packed with walkers, runners, bikers, starting-to-bikers, toddlers, roller-bladers, skateboarders, dogs, squirrels, birds, and many other users.  There are clusters of middle- and high-schoolers, there are amblers with headphones on, there are darting animals, children.  Bodies travel at different paces – fast, slow, medium, stopped.  On a warm weekend day, the multi-use path can be an obstacle course.

Even the widest of paths aren't as wide as a car lane (11-12 feet across).  More typically, the path might be 7 or 8 feet across, just enough for two way cross traffic in single file.  Collisions and brushes with others can be frequent if you are walking/riding/skuuting 2+ abreast.  Weaving in and out of bodies takes skill, whether on foot or wheels.

How do we encourage the kids to "share the path" responsibly, reasonable?  My tips include:

  • walk/ride to the right, always.
  • 2+ abreast is ok, so long as there is no oncoming traffic
  • "single file!" is what I utter loudly when we spot oncoming traffic, and my kids immediately pull ahead of me and I drop to the rear position, and we will go in single file to allow enough width for passing
  • use the bell!  whether on a scooter, bike, jogger: we ring, ring from a distance behind and call "on your left" as we pass
  • ride straight, as much as possible, unless you are on a super-wide path.  
  • for the learning pedalers, learning scooters: walk/ride behind, to be able to call out and ask the little ones ahead to stop, pull to the side, or ride as straight as possible.
  • be defensive.  as with driving, we have to anticipate the unexpected: a dog on a long leash speeding ahead crosswise along the path, leash obstructing; a toddler darting out from one side of the path to the other, maybe chasing a leaf, squirrel, bird; an early bike-rider swerving considerably as you try to overtake/pass.

With a few close calls in just the past couple of days, I thought I'd collect your thoughts on how we can manage the multi-use paths safely, responsibly, and teach our kids to do the same?

Summer Street Fairs: sometimes just a pain?

A sign of the summer approaching is when you start to see event listings of street fairs or other al fresca fetes occuring on a more regular basis.  Among my favorites in Portland include the Mississippi Street Fair and the Hawthorne Street Fair.  With the advent of Portland's Sunday Parkways, now in its fifth year (wahoo!), some street fairs coincide with the neighborhood's street closure to corroborate the energy and excitement of a street fair coupled with a Sunday Parkway route.

In our new neighborhoods in the East Bay Area, one way we've been started to get to know our new environs is to spend some time at some of our local street fairs.  In the past month, we've gone to the East Bay Bike Coalition's Happy Hour (a street party in Old Oakland celebrating Bike to Work Day), the 12th Annual Park Street Spring Festival (right in our own Alameda's downtown), and First Friday at Jack London Square (a collection of performances, food vendors, artisans, pop-up boutiques on the waterfront, an event that coincides with Oakland's First Friday Art Murmur).

What I love about street fairs is seeing the people in my neighborhood, other families, shop owners, performers, food purveyors.  I love to support craft producers; I love to mingle with others in a dense, closed-off area, let the kids do a little exploring on their own.  The energy is real: other people in the crowd welcome meeting and making a new friend; there is an air of community spirit and comaraderie.  

There are, however, some trends in our street fair experiences that I do not enjoy.  Perhaps it takes us a while to mobilize, leave the house, and make it out to said street fair.  Once there, kids and adults alike might be irritatingly hungry.  Perhaps I haven't packed enough snack food to hold us over to find a proper meal or to wait the long lines at the food vendors.  The food vendor selection might not offer something everyone might want, and there might be complaints as a result.  There may or may not be easily accessible restrooms for our toddler who – when he has to pee – HAS TO GO right then and there.  Perhaps there are just too many people, that results in taking forever to make decisions on what to eat, what booth to visit, or where to situate.  There might be no water fountain in plain sight to refill the water bottles we emptied on the hot bike ride over.  The sun might be going down and suddenly our tank tops leave us shivering with goosebumps on our arms.

Street fairs are a summer right of passage, they are a beacon of the warm days to come, they are a sign of the long days of sunlight that are here.  We all love them.  But: do some of us hate them, too?

Seeking 100% Smoke Free Apartment

An urbanMama recently emailed:

Our family will be moving to the Portland Metro area and are keen to rent an apartment initially. We understand that Oregon passed a law last year stating that landlords need to disclose their smoking policies in writing. We also understand that just because an apartment complex is advertising itself as a "non-smoking" one, doesn't mean it is enforced. If any readers are currently living in an apartment complex which is advertised as being 100% smoke free and can vouch for it, please comment below. We are open to living anywhere in the Portland area which has access to public transportation. Thank you for your help!

Landmark high school reforms passes, closing Marshall, changing Jefferson

In a 4-3 decision last night, the Portland Public School board voted to close the three academies at the Marshall High School campus, a group of Gates Foundation-funded experimental small schools, at the end of the 2010-11 school year. The school had been in decline before the switch to academies, and in recent years, "falling enrollment and rising operating costs" — along with parents who were generally desperate to get their children in stronger "community schools," as the PPS buzzword goes — led to the near-inevitable decision. The students in those clusters will go to Cleveland, Franklin and Madison; the teachers will be distributed; the building will be closed.

Another decision, to change Jefferson into a "powerful focus school that offers students the opportunity to earn college credits even as they complete high school," is equally expected but far less understood (and voted for with a strong 6-1 margin). Northeast neighborhood parents, left with two options, Grant and a long-declining Jefferson, often chose Grant; the privileged students went to Lincoln; Jefferson was in dire need of a return to its relatively strong identity in the 80s and 90s as a performing arts school. 

Benson was already "saved," and Grant, despite early fears by parents and community members, was never really in danger (I submit that the idea was grandstanding by Carole Smith meant to soften the blow of her eventual decision; but that's entirely an unfounded conspiracy theory :). In light of our initial discussion when the first plan was released, what do you think? Is this the best option to fix an awkward-if-not-totally-broken school system? Could equity result if everything goes according to plan? How will your family be affected?

What’s the best neighborhood for trick or treatin’?

With our kids a bit older now, they are looking for adventure.  We love to trick or treat in our own neighborhood, get the chance to see and visit with neighbors.  Our of our kids, though, has asked if we could celebrate Halloween in another neighborhood, maybe where all the houses, almost uniformly, are decked out to the nines, complete with zombies that awaken as you approach the door or with a gaggle of witches sitting on the porch, stirring a pot of their homemade brew.  We're looking for an area that has great spirit, that is friendly and safe (of course), and that has lots of kids and families sauntering about.  Do you have a recommendation?  What would you consider to be the "best neighborhood" for trick or treating?

Playing in the neighborhood, unsupervised?

As I type, the kids are outside, playing.  I am working on the kitchen counter, and I have no visual on the kids. But, I can hear them shooting and calling to each other.  So, even if I don't have a visual on them, I feel ok about them playing out front, where I can still hear them.

Then, one runs in and says, "Mama, can we ride our bikes around the block?"  I say, "OK, just stay on the sidewalk, watch for the [one] driveway, and always stay together.  Go once around and come check in."  With my older kids now approaching 10 and 7, I think they are more than old enough to start exploring on their own.  When I was their age, I'd be out playing in the neighborhood all afternoon with no check-ins with my parents.

At a friend's house earlier in the summer, our kids were invited by the other kid (age 10) to go two blocks to the neighborhood park.  His dad gave him a timer, set it for 15 minutes, and asked him to come back when the timer went off.  I thought that was a novel idea.  I just might use that trick.

Do you have older children, starting to experiment with walking to the neighbor's house a block away, going to the park with a friend or sibling, riding bikes around the block?  What sort of parameters do you lay out for them?  How old were the kids when you started to let them venture out on their own?