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Elder cohousing gains popularity in U.S.

Communities that are planned by residents who share values and a common vision are gaining ground nationwide as seniors look for alternatives to traditional housing and retirement facilities.

Although elder cohousing has yet to become mainstream, the concept of like-minded people planning communities that maximize resources has caught on in 27 states, said Zev Paiss, a Boulder, Colo.-based consultant who spoke Monday during the 14th Annual Affordable Housing Conference.

The conference, which runs through today at the Spokane Convention Center, was presented by the Washington State Housing Finance Commission and the state Department of Community, Trade and Economic Development in partnership with Washington Low Income Housing Alliance. It brought together more than 700 architects, lenders, planners, developers and representatives of nonprofits who came to the three-day event to hear about topics ranging from living green to farmworker housing.

Affordable housing is becoming a key concern as communities, including Spokane and Coeur d’Alene, wrestle with what to do when wages don’t keep pace with rising home prices.

In cohousing developments, living units are joined or clustered together. They share common space and recreational areas and are designed around pedestrians instead of cars. They’re intentional throw-backs to an era when people knew their neighbors.

Although residents share some resources, cohousing differs from communes because people don’t share finances.

“My focus really isn’t the house, it’s the people and the community,” explained Paiss.

Most of the units are energy-efficient, well-insulated for sound and accommodate wheelchairs, he said. A shared campus includes a common house, also wheelchair accessible, which serves as a recreation center and social hub.

Communities have the added bonus of being safer, Paiss said, because people know their neighbors and look out for one another.

“It’s kind of like an un-gated gated community,” he said.

Residents participate in the initial planning, which typically takes two years, Paiss said, and craft a vision statement for the future.

The concept originated in Denmark 15 years ago. Communities that have sprung up in the United States cater to families, seniors and other groups with shared values. Paiss said they tend to have 15 to 50 units and include commercial buildings that have been redeveloped.

Spokane Valley City Councilman Bill Gothmann attended the conference and said the developments would fall under the city’s Planned Residential Development zoning.

“I think it provides one other option for our building in the future,” Gothmann said.

Pat Stretch of Spokane County Housing and Community Development, which administers grants from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, thought cohousing showed potential for addressing affordability issues.

“I thought some of the ideas were very interesting.”