By Lacey Sikora
The co-housing movement has been well-established in other parts of the world for generations and has been catching on across the United States in recent years.
A growing group of Oak Park residents are joining forces to make Oak Park the first co-housing site in Illinois. The path from conceptualization to realization may take a few years, but these community-minded residents say the benefits will be worth the effort.
Co-housing is an intentional community of private homes, clustered around a shared space. Residents have their own individual spaces and share a common house for community events and gatherings.
Oak Park residents Susan Stall and her husband, Charlie Hoch, say that their lifetime of experiences led them to be develop a co-housing model in Oak Park to provide affordable, diverse and multi-generational living for interested residents.
After forming the Oak Park Multi-Generational Co-Housing Group, the couple recently attended a co-housing conference in Boulder, Colorado, where they saw five different examples of co-housing communities.
While co-housing developments can consist of townhomes, condominiums or single-family homes, Stall said that most examples featured at the conference were attached housing units.
Rural areas might be conducive to the single-family home model, but she says that in Oak Park, space constraints call for a condominium development.
"Individual units would have all the amenities of a home, like a kitchen, and the distinguishing factor is the common house, which would be used for socialization, planned meetings and events like birthdays," Stall said. "The common house would include a large living room space, a kitchen and recreational spaces, which could include a playroom for children, as well as some sort of workshop room for arts."
Stall said co-housing is much more common in Europe, citing Denmark, where 8 percent of the population lives in co-housing. There are 165 co-housing communities in the U.S. now and 140 in the planning stages. This would be the first co-housing development in Illinois.
For Stall and Hoch, personal and professional experiences informed their decision. They lived in a commune in Santa Monica before moving to the Midwest.
Hoch is an urban planner and Stall is a sociology professor who once taught courses on housing alternatives. They were also influenced by their association with Arbor West Neighbors, a nonprofit organization that operates in Oak Park, River Forest, Forest Park and Austin.
"It began in Boston and was first formed with the idea to provide people the ability to age in place -- not so much in their homes but in their communities," Stall said.
Oak Park resident and urban planner Sanjeev Vidyarthi says his interest in co-housing is two-fold.
"One is driven by a philosophical commitment to community living," Vidyarthi said. "I teach urban planning and have lived in India and Europe, where I have seen this work historically.
"The second reason is more practical," he added. "Historically, planners have focused on building for one type of age group: singles, families, or old age. Here. We're bringing all of the groups together, which helps with the social component."
Calling co-housing very appealing from a personal level, he also notes that it will have wider benefits for the community.
"As society ages, as we live longer, we need to pay attention to aging gracefully and, in the places, where we live," Vidyarthi said.
Oak Park resident Sunny Hall says that multi-generational living, as well as economic and racial diversity are key to her interest in co-housing. For her, finding housing that reflects this uniqueness of Oak Park makes her want to stay here as she ages. She also points out that there are, "efficiencies in maintenance by sharing equipment and skills," which saves resources.
The Oak Park Multi-Generational Co-Housing Group is committed to being an intergenerational group and is made up of downsizers and families with children, as well as singles.
Emphasizing that a typical co-housing development takes years to go from concept to fruition, Stall says the group plans to have different sized units from studios to three bedrooms to accommodate different needs.
They currently have eight committed households and need approximately 20 to move forward to look for a site.
Jane Zawadowski, a single mother of three, joined the group based on her interest in being a part of a group with shared values and a sense of community. She envisions an enhanced sense of neighborliness, noting that through the development of the structure of the group, members will share a sense of consciousness about how to live together as a group.
Jay Miller and his wife, who raised their children in a co-housing development in Ann Arbor, Michigan, look forward to having a housing structure that promotes interaction with neighbors naturally, "as opposed to something you have to plan and work at."
The co-housing group has been meeting monthly in 2018, and Stall says that the core group of interested people are Oak Park residents who are committed to staying in the community.
"People are committed to living here, committed to paying taxes here to support the parks and schools," Stall said. "Oak Park has a shared commitment to integration and good schools and parks. "
Stall adds that the taxes may be high in Oak Park, and they have fielded inquiries about siting the development in another village, but explains that people have to accept the whole package.
"Oak Park has a commitment to diversity of all kinds," Stall said. "Because Oak Park is a leader in so many ways, having co-housing would be a feather in their cap."
When people ask where the development will be located within the village or what it will look like, Stall says it's premature at this point to look for a site.
First, the group has to form an LLC and create a membership. Later in the process, when members are committed financially, they can begin to look for a site that might include an undeveloped parcel of land or an existing development that can be reconfigured to accommodate the needs of the group.
The Oak Park Multi-Generational Co-Housing Group meets monthly at the Oak Park Main Library, 834 Lake St., and meetings are open to the public. Upcoming meetings will be Thursday, June 5 at 7 p.m. and Tuesday, July 10 at 7 p.m.
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