‘Densifying’ neighborhoods through co-ops, co-housing and co-living


I have been struck over the years at the depth of affection that former co-op members have for this home-sharing experience.

Ingham County Treasurer Alan Fox is typical. “My parents met as co-op members at Berkeley,” he recently wrote. Referring to a co-op in East Lansing, he continued, “I lived in Hedrick House for two years, and my son followed our footsteps to a co-op in Ann Arbor.

“The values my family has shared across generations — working for the common good, listening to and understanding others’ viewpoints, respect for all we come in contact with — were nurtured by all of our individual experiences in co-op houses.” 

Co-ops are just one form of “shared-use housing,” an admitted obsession of mine.  Forward-looking cities are gently “densifying” neighborhoods by encouraging boarding houses, granny flats, co-ops, duplexes, etc,. in areas previously zoned exclusively for single-family homes. In Lansing, there’s a demographic mismatch in which 83% of Lansing’s residential districts are zoned exclusively single-family while fewer than 40% of households are actually single families. The focus of this month’s piece is on co-ops and other co-living models — some of the most interesting and dynamic types of shared housing today.

Co-ops: Co-ops in the U.S. date at least from the 1800s, when companies in cities such as New York and Boston would actually build cooperative housing (of varying quality) for their workers.  

Most of Greater Lansing’s co-op experience has been with student co-ops, located primarily in East Lansing near Michigan State University. Since the ‘60s, thousands of young people have selected the generally more affordable and affable co-op life than other student housing options. Members in the 18 houses owned by Spartan Housing Co-op are expected to help run the five- to 20-member households, learning about maintenance, upkeep, household finances, co-operative living, shared ownership (yes, members are owners!), and shared governance. 

Young people are not the only candidates for co-ops.  Indeed, spreading rapidly across the country are boomer co-ops and senior co-housing communities. It seems that boomers are especially interested in living situations that combine privacy (one’s own room/bath/etc.) with lots of common space and a built-in social support system. As 75 million boomers consider how they can steer clear of nursing homes, co-ops and other forms of co-living space are attractive alternatives. Boomer co-ops have sprung up in Ann Arbor and Frankfurt; why not Lansing?

It bodes well that Spartan Housing Co-op (formerly Student Housing Cooperative Inc.) has expanded into Lansing in 2003, where they now manage two co-ops. Other Lansing co-living spaces include Genesee Gardens Co-housing on the west side, which is about to celebrate its 25th anniversary; and nearby Rivendell Co-op, which started even earlier.

Boomer or multi-generational co-ops in Lansing’s walkable, “15-minute neighborhoods” would be a hugely welcome addition to our housing mix, offering affordability, connection with others and and a sense of community. And, having several more co-ops in Lansing would also introduce an alternative ownership structure to people interested in experiencing ‘home ownership’ via this unique and shared approach.


In other parts of the world (Denmark, Sweden), co-living has been a significant part of the housing mix since the ‘70s.  

Inspired by co-housing in Europe, founders of the multi-generational Muir Commons of Davis, California, opened the first modern U.S.-based co-housing community in 1991.  Today, there are at least 165 co-housing communities in the USA and many more in the planning stages.  

Co-living initiatives can be the size of a large house, an apartment building, or a city block. Builder Dave Muylle’s Cottage Lane on Leslie Street, with cottages oriented toward one another and well-designed outdoor gathering areas, is an eastside version of a co-living community. 

Co-living can be five boomers sharing a large house. Or, as has been happening on the coasts in recent years, it can be a large apartment building that houses hundreds. Distinct from apartments or condos with amenities, “co-living prioritizes the shared spaces of the house or building, both in terms of how much square footage the shared space is afforded, and how it is programmed,” writes Diana Lind in her book “Brave New Home.”  “While hosting a concert or yoga classes would be kind of weird in a regular apartment, public programming is expected in a co-living space. Whereas most living situations offer plain shelter, co-living is intentionally focused on community building.”

Hannah Kopen, formerly of East Lansing, recently moved to Los Angeles and says of moving into a co-housing space, “This is the best and most affordable way to form community right away in a new city.” 

Is it any wonder that co-living apartments — with community as the selling point — are springing up in New York and L.A., drawing significant investment and emerging as a growing asset class?

While both co-ops and co-living are on the rise. there is a difference, as noted by Holly Jo Sparks, director of Spartan Housing Co-operative. “Co-living is about design and lifestyle intention; while cooperatives provide an approach to joint ownership, joint decision-making and control,” Sparks pointed out.

My hope is that this and previous columns on various forms of shared-use housing will help spark conversation about how we might embolden the city to create a more inclusive zoning code — one that would encourage the development of diverse housing options to address our housing shortage. We clearly need to do something!  The Michigan State Housing Development Authority’s new statewide plan says that strategies for addressing low housing inventory should include more “missing middle housing,” including shared housing of the sort addressed in these columns.  Ditto from an about-to-be-released regional housing study conducted by Tri-County Regional Planning.

In this town, your ideas and opinions count. Please do take a moment to share them with Andy Fedewa, Lansing’s principal planner, who is gathering feedback on the current zoning code. He can be reached at Andrew.Fedewa@lansingmi.gov. 

(Joan Nelson, the former executive director of the Allen Neighborhood Center, writes this column monthly.)


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