Photo by Vonecia Carswell on Unsplash

By Cathy Houlihan

Cohousing. No, it doesn’t mean a hippie commune or a kibbutz, and it doesn’t mean cohabitating with a roommate. The concept originated in the ‘60s in Denmark with the new idea of the bofaellesskab (“living community”), which was expanded upon by Jan Gudmand-Hoyer. In North America, the concept was introduced as “cohousing” by two American architects, Kathryn McCamant and Charles Durrett. It’s the idea of an organized community of private homes clustered around a shared space. The intent is to create a friendly, open neighborhood where children can run and play freely, and its residents can use common spaces to be shared for meals, meetings, and casual gatherings in the Common House.  

Touchstone is one such community. Just west of Ann Arbor’s city limits off Jackson Road, it sits on acreage surrounded by open fields and wooded vistas. Touchstone Cohousing calls itself “an intergenerational community that helps break down the isolation that can be typical of suburban developments.” Its residents are young families, single professionals, retirees, and octogenarians. There are almost 80 residents living in Touchstone. According to the community’s website (http://www.touchstonecohousing.org/), all Touchstone townhouse units have front porches and kitchens facing the community. Living rooms and most bedrooms have views of fields or natural landscapes. Some face a courtyard, so you can wave to your neighbor or watch your children play. It allows residents to balance the need for solitary time with the joy of group experiences. Great Oaks and Sunward are two other cohousing communities in the area as well. Ann Arbor is somewhat unique in having three communities all within the same zip code; there’s only one other place in Ithaca, NY that has a similar setup.

The communities evolve their own character and governance systems with a few common characteristics, and aren’t fully aware of how each may be similar or different. Touchstone and Great Oaks are 100% consensus-driven, but Sunward has a board with supermajority voting.

Cohousing has become an increasingly popular option for home buyers in Ann Arbor. There are 34 condos in the Touchstone community and twelve new units are under construction now. They hope to be finished in late summer or early fall. 

Pre-pandemic, the community encouraged new folks to learn about its unique lifestyle through its tours, meetings, and information sessions. This helped ensure the integration of like-minded people to support the community’s ideals and help foster social networks. Living in a cohousing community can relieve isolation and build friendships. Residents also find comfort in the additional safety provided by living in a dynamic, interactive setting that promotes social ties. During the coronavirus, you can visit the website and take virtual tours to find out more information about living in the community.

Lee, who has lived in three units in the Touchstone community, puts it this way: “As a single woman, it gives me a strong sense of security knowing that I have neighbors who know and care about me. Someone is always willing to lend a helping hand and even a shoulder to cry on.”

Robin lists things that make her happy in the Touchstone community. “Spontaneous invitations for breakfast; a neighbor making me dinner and delivering it when I return home late from work; sitting around a bonfire roasting marshmallows; being able to say “Help, my computer’s down!” and my neighbor stops by. Or even just sending out a message asking for a walking buddy and receiving ten responses.”

 The residents stay connected through a group email list. Someone needs sugar, a few groceries, a prescription picked up, or help walking a pet? All you need to do is ask. Plenary meetings are held to keep people aware of what the community plans or what immediate needs have cropped up. There’s also a conflict resolution group to settle disputes between neighbors. Everyone pitches in by donating 10-15 hours per month to serving the community. There are meals to be cooked and maintenance to be done and grass to cut. One group focuses on the safety and play spaces for the children.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, Touchstone has tried to step up its efforts in response to the outbreak. They have set up shopping plans for multi-family grocery buying, which limits the number of people going into stores and assists seniors or the more vulnerable. Touchstone Cares, a group that sends out birthday and anniversary greetings, started conducting twice-daily check-ins by email or a FaceTime buddy for those living alone during the stay-at-home order.

Dee shared these thoughts: “I’m 76 years old and live alone with my cat (there’s a reason behind stereotypes!). Although I have lived in two different cohousing communities for 20 years, I’ve never experienced such togetherness here at Touchstone. We call it ‘physical distancing’ rather than social distancing, because there’s plenty of support socially.”

Even with the best of intentions, it’s not all an organic rose garden. Cohousing residents, like all Americans, have their own views on choosing their own level of risk or what freedoms are inalienable.

Lesli put it best: “Consensus takes time—lots of time. We tried to respond quickly when it was clear tensions were rising, but that earned some backlash from those who are more risk-tolerant and felt their voices weren’t being heard. But if there are two perspectives of status quo in these strange times—the ‘Way it’s always been’ view and the ‘strict alignment with the spirit of the Stay at Home, Stay Safe Executive Order’ view—it can fray relationships. Our kids share toys, the playground, and the basketball hoop. Adults share garden tools and outdoor seating. But COVID-19 has brought that lifestyle into conflict with what we call ‘physical distancing.’ We are working on it and hope to bring in an outside facilitator to help us navigate this challenge. Hopefully, we can develop an emergency response clause for our Bylaws.”

Touchstone had come to an agreement to decorate their internal roadways with bright outdoor paint and designs (all cars are parked on the periphery of the property). Markings separate pedestrian areas from the area for bicycles and scooters, and it includes exercise areas and a kid’s obstacle course. It also shows examples of six-foot spacing to help visualize physical distancing.

A dedicated group at Green Oaks is sewing masks for healthcare workers, and the Touchstone community invested in Zoom Room so that games, like Scattergories, can keep people connected. There’s even a BYO wine meet-up (physically-distanced and weather permitting) for sharing stories in the courtyard. A group of folks are also working on a physical-distanced day camp for the kids.

Touchstone and other cohousing communities appear to be a good place to shelter and stay safe during the COVID-19 pandemic. So many people are looking outside themselves and trying to stay focused on what matters—their families and neighbors.

“The simplest way to be happy is to do good.” — Helen Keller

Catherine Houlihan

BIO: 

Cathy is a 65 year old woman who has lived in the Ann Arbor area since 1963.  She has three children and three grandchildren.  The majority of her career was in the healthcare field, but after returning back to Ann Arbor in 2013, she now works as a marketing assistant for an engineering software firm. In her spare time she is a free lance writer and enjoys working on varied projects.

Her love of writing began when she was in high school and continued through college and her early years as a mother.  She has been published in Northern Spies a collection of short stories; a contributor to the centennial effort of the Oceana County Historical Society’s book Oceana County History 1880 -1990.  She worked at the University of Michigan Health Services in the Information Technology in the departments’ marketing team.


She has travelled extensively but says her favorite is her cottage on Lake Michigan.  A place that gives her healing and inspiration.