What kind of movement leads its hopefuls toward a 90% failure rate?

I question the sacredness of: “A cohousing community must be designed by its future residents.” Eventually every community will be populated by residents who had nothing to do with the design.

The paradigm of having amateurs get together with good intentions and try to develop a settlement of 30 houses fails far too often. Conventional wisdom says the failure rate is 90%.

There is a huge demand for cohousing and I wish cohousing developers would understand: “Build it and they will come.” Chuck Durrett won’t hear of it. “That’s not cohousing” he says.

Well, since 2014 we’ve had a Meetup group called “EcoVillage New Jersey.” It has over 800 members. They are clamoring to live in an intentional community. They come to meetings, they give some volunteer time, they give some money. They don’t know how to make a $10 million real estate development come to fruition. And so, despite all the interest, there is not yet a single cohousing or ecovillage-living option in the entire NJ-NYC metropolitan area of 20 million people.

Have we really tried? I and/or friends have been involved with the following:

. Mount Eden Ecovillage
. Wissahickon Village Cohousing
. Three Groves Ecovillage
. Concord Village Cohousing
. Bucks County Ecovillage
. Rocky Corner Cohousing
. Towaco Ecovillage
. plus groups of folks with high hopes looking seriously at parcels of land in Andover, Jersey City, Clerico’s Farm, Hillsborough, Trenton, Waterford, and Hopewell.

Some of those initiatives got pretty far and raised expectations . . . but none came to fruition.

The paradigm of “Build community first and then buy land and build on it” actually results in interested people coming in, trying to bond, getting impatient, needing to get on with their lives, and leaving. What I’ve observed (where successful projects do eventually come to fruition) is that until there is something really tangible (a purchased property plus some viable funding to actually build something) people come and go. Usually they never do raise the needed money. Developers can do that. Few groups of common people can.

Clustered housing. Cars parked on the periphery. A wonderful Common House. Shared amenities. The promotion of a cohousing ethos. The essence has been clear to me since I visited the first neighborhood of the EcoVillage at Ithaca in 1996. I’ve wanted to live that way. I’ve disseminated videos like this one far and wide:


People constantly respond that they’d give anything to live that way. As coordinator of the Meetup they say to me: “Please tell me when this becomes available in our area.” Well, it never yet has.

In a discussion about this on the national cohousing list-serve someone asked me: “Has the group hired a cohousing project manager?”

I answered: We had that in mind. We never accumulated enough money to do so.

Money. We asked for grant-writing expertise but no one came forward. We held fundraising social events and raised as much as $500 on a given night. We hosted Chuck Durrett for a “Getting It Built” workshop and made a little bit of net profit after paying his fee and renting a venue.

Naturally, we periodically tried to directly solicit funds from members. The results were: a thousand dollars from a couple of households, $500 from a couple of households, $100 from a number of households, $50 from many individuals. The balance in our credit union account got up to about $10K. That’s not enough to hire any professionals. When the pandemic hit we all but folded up and we gave that money to a non-profit that promotes ecovillages and bioregionalism. Personally, I started working with a group in another state (Altair in Pennsylvania) that at least had the resources to buy a parcel of land.

Despite all the longstanding interest and enthusiasm among the members of the “EcoVillage New Jersey” Meetup there are no prospects for a community to get built in our state. The task is daunting and expensive. A cohousing-sympathetic developer simply replicating Eno Commons or Cambridge Cohousing or Blueberry Hill or Eastern Village (etc.) could make a tidy profit and make a lot of people happy, but the movement seems to frown on that paradigm. One developer said if we raised $300K they’d talk seriously with us. As mentioned, we never raised more than $10K. The per-hour fees of the cohousing consultants were way beyond our means.

In the fall before the pandemic started our group, for inspiration, visited the Rocky Corner Cohousing project in New Haven, CT. Some inspiration. A year later Rocky Corner went bust and quite a few people lost a significant amount of money. Ditto with the Three Groves Ecovillage project. And others.

In 2014 I met with Patrick Han, who was, at the time, the CohoUS representative in our area (he was based in New York City). I said to him, “It’s not looking as if just-us will be able to get together the resources to buy a property, obtain zoning variances, hire professionals, etc. to make a cohousing project come to fruition. But dozens surely would move in if a developer would take the lead.” He said: “That’s not cohousing.” I said, “I’m afraid it just won’t happen otherwise. We have no deep pockets or real estate construction expertise.” He practically screamed at me: “That’s not cohousing!”

Yeah, so, well now all the people who want it don’t have it.

* * * *

In 2015 we took encouragement from Katie McCamant’s launching of the 500 Communities initiative to train and deploy hundreds of cohousing facilitators nationwide. Exactly what’s needed! We were naive enough to think that, surely, within three or four years there would be one or several make-it-happen professionals in our area.


After an article about cohousing runs in the New York Times or there’s a segment about it on NPR we get dozens of calls. The resonance of the idea is undeniable. The recognition that cohousing and ecovillage living prefigure the pathway toward the necessary greening of our society is obvious to more and more people. But the paradigm of amateurs coming together to try to start bonding, then losing money and getting their hearts broken … needs to be addressed.

The movement needs green-conscious, communitarian-minded, social-change-oriented developers. Let them make their profits. Let us realize our vision of networks of eco-communities in every state of the country.

Someone wrote:

> A developer couldn’t just build and sell 40+ units
> arranged around a green and a common house
> to 40 individual households who all move in
> at the same time and expect cohousing to happen on Monday.

A cohousing community has, of course, more to it than just a green and a common house. What it is, what we’re talking about, is known worldwide by now, after forty years of the movement’s growth.

> It’s about the hours that that process requires to build
> a community of people who can work together to get
> things done. It builds a core that then can incorporate more people.

Great … if the core group has or can come up with the resources to get things done. If we want to generalize this beyond the affluent, well, how many groups can buy a parcel of land or purchase an old building to retrofit, then hire professionals to deal with zoning, engineering, legalities, site design, etc.?

And until there is something tangible that people can consider actually residing in (a specific parcel of land in a particular place with some floor plans, approximate pricing information, and a projected believable timeline for move-in) there is a strong tendency for “incorporated members” to come and go. Counterproductive is: As people come and go, they express preferences that ultimately don’t mean much because, in the end, they don’t purchase and move in, after all.

OK: Forty units. Ten occupied by the core group of households that endured throughout. Thirty occupied by folks who peripherally watched the process and liked what got constructed. Or who, living in California, saw an ad in Communities Magazine and, having family in Pennsylvania, decided to relocate into Pennsylvania cohousing. Thirty households who didn’t participate in the designing or the pre-bonding, but among whom the ethos of cohousing is understood and desired. The working-together and self-management among all forty households actually does mostly take place after move-in. Not all on Monday, of course. Over years.

Our movement needs to foster commitment-to-place and stability-in-place. The EcoVillage at Ithaca has such a solid ecological and social foundation that it should endure for seven generations, at least. After fifty years few founding-designing households will be left. So what. The idea is that the people who move in should know about cohousing, love cohousing, be prepared to commit to the community and the place. They bond into and become part of the self-governing community after-the-fact.

> I don’t know what would replicate that time and focus before
> suddenly taking charge of a $10 million housing complex.

Jack Wilbern suggested that a cohousing developer would need to be a special kind of developer, committed to “pulling together the project, finding the land and setting up the professional team — and the bone structure for a shared development LLC made up of themselves and prospective future residents.” Right.

If I was in my twenties I would aspire to establishing a cohousing development company. It would be green-conscious, communitarian-minded, and social-change-oriented.

Anyway, meanwhile, at the macro level we should be working on having government entities adopt legislation or local ordinances that foster eco-communitarian living options, as is being successfully done in Europe.

At the micro level and at the macro level … our movement needs this and humanity needs this.

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Steven Welzer

The editor of Green Horizon Magazine, Steve has been a movement activist for many years (he was an original co-editor of DSA’s “Ecosocialist Review”).