By Brian Goslow
Jean K. Mason, who turns 88 this month, is not only one of the Cambridge Cohousing community’s oldest residents, she is one of its most youthful, serving as its head librarian. That’s only appropriate, since she wroteThe View from #410: When Home is Cohousing about her and her husband’s experiences at the urban residential community.
They had been living in a large house nearby, their home for over 50 years, when the complex was first being discussed; Mason’s interest had been sparked by having learned about cohousing communities in Denmark. “We were thinking about the next step,” Mason said.
She was attracted by the multi-generational nature of the community. “That’s what I wanted all along and that’s why cohousing was appealing all along,” Mason said. “I didn’t want to go into an age-sequestered place. Lots of people don’t and lots of people do.”
The Cambridge Cohousing community (cambridgecohousing.org), located a short walk from the Porter Square MBTA Station, was officially dedicated in November 1998. At the time, 90 people had moved in.
The architectural and social organization of the community is designed to inspire and enhance the daily lives of its inhabitants with the goal of having “a mixed-income community where children, adults and elders of varying race, ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation and ability can thrive.”
Mason said the kids are fine. “Our oldest children, the youngest when we came, are now in college and graduate school,” she said. “It’s been fascinating to watch them as they develop.”
Last month, a new baby arrived in the community. “It’s our first in a while,” said Mason happily. “For a while, we were having a baby a year but it’s been a little bit since one was born. Everybody’s getting older.”
The Cambridge Cohousing property layout is intended to balance privacy with a wish to be with others and to help residents live independently as well as interdependently. Its two wings, CoHo East and CoHO West, have a four-story high combination of town houses and flats. They were built around a series of pre-existing houses; that’s not apparent as the architecture blends the old and new perfectly. According to the Fellowship of Intentional Communities (ic.org), there are 55 cohousing locations in Massachusetts, not all of which are multigenerational.
With some residents now in their 80s, the community has begun to discuss ways it can help them continue to live there independently. While Mason said, “We are not a place that’s going to be able to take care of people who are severely withdrawn or really disabled or have serious illness,” the community has been able to help some of its residents in their final days.
That includes Mason’s husband, Ed, who passed away a few years ago. “My husband was here for several years (after) he was not able to participate the way he did earlier,” Mason said. “Of course, I was here to take care of him. But he would have had to have round-the-clock care if I hadn’t been living here or he would have had to go to a nursing home.”
When she had to run errands, Mason would find residents to look after him. “Once I paid teenage girls (who lived here) just to be with him,” she said. “He had a tendency to fall, like older people do, so I didn’t want him to be alone.”
Another resident, stricken with cancer, was no longer able to use the stairs to his top floor living space. Luckily, a small first floor apartment opened up and the community pulled together to support him in his final days.
“He had hospice here and we were all in close touch and saw him in the hours before he died,” Mason said. “It was quite an experience; you had children running in and out to see him. It was a tremendous support for his family.”
Mason herself learned recently how quickly her neighbors are willing to help. She wears a Lifeline communication device — even though, she points out, “I’m healthy” — because she does have to use a cane for balance. Her first responders are in her building.
The system, though, is not foolproof.
“One time I came home and my apartment was full of people — my first responders were all here — and I hadn’t called them,” she said. “It is a wonderful place for that sort of thing and for emergencies in general. They know where things are in the kitchen; they know where the keys are.” The community property has two large outdoor public spaces. The Great Lawn includes newly installed seating beneath a shade tree, a barbecue area, sun seats and umbrellas and a play set for the younger residents. The community garden fills a major portion of the second public space; herbs, squashes, Swiss chard and a large pea crop are currently thriving.
“We have workdays in the fall and spring,” said Jim Foritano, 68, a semi-retired writer who lives at the complex with his wife, Madeleine Littman, 65, a working psychologist. They are original members of the community. “We have times when we’re motivated to make beautiful the things we’re near.”
The central meeting point is the Community House, which houses a working kitchen, dining room, library, mailroom, rentable office space and cozy gathering area that hosts a fireside reading series, craft projects, musical performances from folk to jazz to classical and talks by people from Peruvian sages to representatives from other cohousing communities.
The center hosts three weekly community meals. Monday is a pizza potluck while on Thursday and one weekend night, residents volunteer to create home-cooked meals. Individual dietary needs and food allergies are displayed in a nearby list.
“If you’re on the cooking team, you have to look at how to accommodate them,” Foritano said. “Sometimes you have a meat dish and a vegetarian dish.” All ingredients are stocked and kept fresh. There’s a good-sized kitchen available for food preparation. Residents participating in the community meal are expected to sign up for the cooking team or the clean up team every month; the cost of the food preparation materials is split among the diners.
Ten to 20 residents usually turn up, though the numbers have been declining of late. The food committee sent out a questionnaire in the hope of finding out why. “We decided to have random seating because some people didn’t feel as welcome as they could,” Foritano said, adding that the acoustics of the dining area made for a loud room and some of the residents had trouble hearing others talk.
“We’re looking for economical ways to damp the noise,” Foritano said.
The Community House’s basement contains a workout room with stair climbers and treadmills, a laundry and storage area, a place for bikes and kayaks (the Concord and Charles rivers are nearby) and a “Free City” where residents drop off their old clothing, magazines and cookware for other residents to enjoy. There’s also a large underground parking garage.
To encourage visitors, there are two adjoining guest rooms available for $25 a night to any resident that wants to host out-of-town family or friends; two off-street visitor parking spaces are provided.
As it nears its 15th year, the community is currently discussing repainting its buildings. Easels holding three proposed color designs ask residents to vote whether they have a “strong like,” “can live with” or “strong dislike” about the shades.
Foritano said the process would take time because it’s neighborhood voting and the community only meets as a full group monthly. “Like everywhere, we have activists and sometime activists and people who show up very rarely,” he said. “This place is meant to encourage activism; almost everyone shows up for the important meetings.”
The discussion on the repainting has engaged residents.
“When it comes to money, we’ve had to discuss how much we need to raise monthly fees to protect ourselves from breaking down,” Foritano said. Currently, the monthly condo fee is $500 and up, depending on the square footage of each apartment. “We predict in five years, we’ll need a new roof. We need to put money aside for a roof fund. It’s wiser to raise funds now and build up resources then to analyze it then (in an emergency situation). It’s an important issue to residents and those who are considering moving here.”
The Cohousing Association of the United States is sponsoring a New England Cohousing Workshop targeted at existing communities and those interested in developing a cohousing community July 13-15 in Albany, New Hampshire. Full details can be found at cohousing.org/node/4342.
As for Cambridge Cohousing, all of its apartment spaces are currently taken with a waiting list of “friends” who’d like to move there. With most recent prices ranging from $369,000 to $730,000 (and expected to rise due to the demand for housing in Cambridge), unit sizes vary a lot, Mason said. “A person might need a two-bedroom apartment and if that’s not available, they can be on the friends list a long time and not find anything. It’s just a matter of timing.” There are also internal sales to residents with family members looking to move in and swaps, where a downsizing family, for example, will trade their townhouse for an apartment.
Meanwhile, Mason is keeping herself busy; she’s currently taking a summer writing course at the Cambridge Center for Adult Education. “I’ve always been active and I probably always will be,” she said.