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Resident dishes on life in Vancouver’s first cohousing development

Two years in: Consensus building, shared space and four group meals a week

Almost two years ago, residents of the city’s first cohousing development — Vancouver Cohousing — moved in. Located in Kensington-Cedar Cottage on East 33rd near Argyle Street, the building, which took years to develop, features 31 units. While residents own their own strata units, they also operate collaboratively to maintain the building and have strong social relationships reinforced through shared meals several times a week.

We caught up with one of the residents, Ericka Stephens-Rennie, to find out what life has been like in the close-knit community. She lives in a two-bedroom home within the complex with her husband and two children.

How is everything going at Vancouver Cohousing? Has there been a learning curve in terms of living as a group in this manner?

It's going well. We battle the same kinds of challenges as other strata developments, and we have the benefits of strong relationships with each other that support our decision-making around these challenges. We've learned over the past five-plus years that our community makes better decisions when we don't rush things. For some of us, slowing down is one of the harder things to do (me included!), and so we've tried to build community processes that help with that. We used consensus decision making for nearly all decisions during development, and now we're figuring out ways to give small teams authority to act in ways that are "safe enough to try, and good enough for now."

What’s been the biggest challenge and the best thing about cohousing?

For my husband and me, I think it's been having two kids in an 850-square-foot, two-bedroom apartment. But that's a challenge I know we share with families who don't live in cohousing, too. We couldn't afford to buy anything bigger than this. But because it's cohousing we have amazing benefits like a kids’ room, craft room and yoga studio, so a lot of our kiddos’ play can happen in these other spaces that are still "at home." That, and the amount of toys we don't have to have because we can share with our neighbours (duplo, scooters, play kitchen, etc.) Another best thing has been getting to know all of the neat and very tangible skills my neighbours brought with them. I had no idea I was moving in with absolute experts in permaculture, woodworking, composting, food safety, etc. When we were designing and building, those weren't skills that came up a lot, and it's been a beautiful surprise to again find that my community has just the things it needs to get the work done.

What do you wish you knew before that you’ve learned as a resident of a cohousing community?

How to cook eggplant without making it soggy (thanks Lorne!). Perhaps, more importantly, cohousing is teaching me how to ask for and receive help. I've never been very good at that, but I have a lot of opportunities to practice here and, similarly, opportunities to practice reciprocity.

Has the consensus decision making been working well? 

Yes, still working well, although, as above, we've been experimenting with what decisions need to be made by our community, versus what decisions can be made by smaller teams. We meet a little less as a whole community, including taking summers off from community meetings. But small teams meet on a host of different community priorities (maintenance, finance, landscape, cleaning, meals, kids’ room, etc.)

How about the group meals?

Going strong at four meals a week (three dinners, one weekend brunch) for almost two years now. We don't do meals on holiday weekends, but often end up having a potluck anyway. In cohousing, you have to cook and clean once every month, but you don't have to attend the meals. Most meals seem to have 35-plus people attending them, and there's a wide variety of foods served for, on average, $5 an adult and $2.50 for kids.

Have you/or do you do anything to reach out to the wider community in your neighbourhood?

We have neighbourhood block parties inside our courtyard a couple of times a year and have been able to do some neat things thanks to Small Neighbourhood grants (e.g. a bike maintenance workshop, kids tie dye day, barbecue, etc.). Some of our nearby neighbours have been guests at community meals, potlucks and parties. And then, of course, we just live here... as in the 31 households here shop locally on Victoria Drive, take walks, play with our kids in the parks and at the community centre, and participate in local actions to make our neighbourhood better. Right now, for instance, we're starting work to put pressure on the city to put a crosswalk across 33rd Ave between Victoria Drive and Dumfries to make it safe for everyone in the neighbourhood. (If anyone is interested in joining us, they can email [email protected].)

[email protected]