an ‘urban village’
‘Cohousing’ comes to Lansing’s Genesee
When Michael Hamlin first heard of “cohousing,” he didn’t
know what it meant. As a first reaction, the word made him think of
a commune, and he knew what that meant. Hamlin was raised in a commune
in Knoxville, Tenn., where his family lived together with four other
families in an old mansion. Having grown up with seven other children
in the same house, Hamlin said he was never really bored. “It
was a very idyllic childhood.”
Daniel Sturm/City Pulse
Future Bancroft Court residents brainstorm about building a new
cohousing community. (From left) Tamiko Rothhorn; Ben Townsend;
MC Rothhorn and daughter, Katarina; Gene Townsend; Michael Hamlin;
and Karen White.
the Michigan State University graduate student in physics happily recalled
those childhood memories. He sat with others on the porch of 738 Bancroft
Court in Lansing, throwing in his own ideas about how to best turn the
cluster of five houses at the edge of a dead-end street in the Genesee
neighborhood into a cohousing community. Of course, final decisions
about planning would be made in a non-hierarchical manner. A smoked
tofu salad rested on the table.
said he looked forward to helping with the foundation of Lansing’s
first cohousing community. Together, 12 Lansing area residents (eight
adults, four children) now make up the new cohousing network. After
a several-month search for a perfect location for their “urban
village,” in March 2003 they located the cluster of houses in
Genesee. In addition to the three houses the group (which is still discussing
a name for itself) already owns, they plan to buy two more within the
next few weeks. They plan to expand the Bancroft Court cohousing community
to the intersection with Leitram, and within five years’ time
to build the foundational framework for an “intentional community,”
as one member said.
Unlike this Lansing project, most cohousing communities are built from
scratch. Cohousing is generally understood as an alternative to the
suburban sprawl of single-family housing developments and to the anonymity
and self-sufficiency so many of us have grown used to. In cohousing
communities — of which there are about 50 in the United States
— residents collaborate to plan a pedestrian-friendly, neighborly
community. If you need to borrow a cup of milk you will never be brusquely
turned down, as might happen in a condo development. Developers of cohousing
often use environmentally friendly material and innovations, such as
solar panels. In the case of Bancroft Court, cohousing members are currently
discussing the adaptations they could make to their already existing
Bancroft cohousing community is looking for new members. If interested,
contact Gene Townsend,
each home is separate, members will have access to a common building,
where optional communal meals, a community library, meeting rooms and
rooms for child care are available.
Hamlin said what appeals to him the most was the idea of being neighbors
in an old-fashioned way. “You can walk across the street to borrow
sugar, or yell from porch to porch if someone wants to watch a movie.”
But unlike a commune, Hamlin said a cohousing community offered more
He recalled that living in a commune as a child wasn’t always
easy. “I remember there was a great deal of common space, and
I’m sure there were struggles that I’m not aware of.”
The four Knoxville families moved out when Hamlin was 13, when this
landlord put the house up for sale.
Whenever he and his peers from the old commune days visit their parents
in Knoxville, they wonder how their lives would have turned out if they’d
continued to live in the commune. Now Hamlin and his wife Zhewei Dai,
a graduate student in math originally from the Chinese city of Wuhan,
will be among the first people to move into the Lansing cohousing settlement.
“There is a pioneer awareness in the group because everybody knows
they’re making something that didn’t exist before,”
said Gene Townsend, another member of the group. Townsend, who is a
builder of environmentally friendly homes and lived in an Ann Arbor
housing co-op, said that the group began to get in touch with neighborhood
associations a year ago to locate a suitable spot. They were guided
by three questions: Are homes for sale? Is there an open space that
can be turned into a green space? And finally, are the homes’
porches facing each other? The neighborhood associations identified
possible locations in Lansing’s Renaissance Zone Neighborhood,
Allen Neighborhood and in East Lansing.
Although the initial search process was helpful, Townsend said the outcome
wasn’t ideal. “Basically the neighborhoods wanted us to
take over their blights,” he said. Some of the homes were uninhabitable,
and fixing them would have been too expensive. “Finally, we decided
that this was too much of a burden.”
Last fall they realized they did not want to wait any longer to make
their dream of cohousing a reality, said Townsend’s partner, Jessica
Yorko. Yorko, who works at the Michigan Department of Environmental
Quality in marketing and partnership building, said that they decided
to ask a real estate agent to find an area that offered as many habitable
homes as possible that were adjacent to each other. The Realtor discovered
a group of houses at Bancroft Court and Leitram in the Genesee Neighborhood
that were vacant, for rent and for sale.
Attempts to establish a cohousing community in Lansing started a year
ago when several people discussed participating in a new development
project of the Cohousing Development Co. The business planned to build
a cluster of 80 condominium townhouses near Aurelius and Cavanaugh roads
in southeast Lansing. But construction, due to begin in the fall of
2002, was delayed when the developer couldn’t find 28 interested
households. According to Nick Meima, a partner in the Ann Arbor-based
company, some potential members were unwilling to transfer their children
into the Lansing School District. Meima said they will now consider
beginning to develop as a cohousing community for seniors. If this is
successful, additional family units could be then added.
Cohousing from scratch would have been “too pricey” in the
Lansing market, said Kerrin O’Brien, a 36-year-old professional
environmentalist who participated in every step of the almost two-year-long
planning process. O’Brien said she will not immediately join the
Bancroft Court cohousing project, because she is pregnant with her second
child. Long-term, however, O’Brien said she and her family are
still very interested. “If a house comes up for sale in the Genesee
area, we will definitely consider moving in,” she said.
Although the first cohousing residents have already had their first
barbecue party on Bancroft Court, the process of moving in will take
place slowly. “It’s a case by case thing,” said Townsend,
who’s remodeling the future common house. He said establishing
the new cohousing community could take as many as five years.
At the barbecue, the cohousing group says they were warmly received
by at least 15 neighborhood residents. The high number of vacant properties
in the Genesee Neighborhood has been a problem since white-collar workers
from the government and Oldsmobile abandoned the neighborhood during
the 1980s. But Townsend said they chose Genesee for cohousing especially
because community members had worked so hard to turn things around.
Okemos resident Tamiko Rothhorn, who together with her husband bought
the house across the street from the common house, said it will be important
to remove the lead-based paint from the walls before they even think
about moving in. The Rothhorns have a 14-month-old daughter, Katarina.
Rothhorn, an Ingham County Health Department family therapist, said
she originally met most of the group’s members at the East Lansing-based
environmental educational center, Urban Options. When asked what cohousing
meant to her, she said it was all about sharing resources. “We’ve
talked about car-pooling. Since most of us go to the East Lansing Food
Co-Op, this would perfectly make sense,” she said.
Her husband, MC, a substitute teacher and community activist, added
that cohousing was all about balancing the private and the public spheres.
“Living in a cohousing community is not necessarily cheaper, but
it balances my resources,” he said. It would be much easier to
harmonize work and family life in a cohousing community. Rothhorn said
they live in Okemos, where everything is “very shopping oriented.
Also, everybody has a lawn mower. It’s not the kind of place where
I feel comfortable.” Rothhorn said as a new cohousing member he
will refuse to mow the lawn and instead plant trees, organize community
events and start a wildflower and vegetable garden.
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