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Cheesecake Cohousing, Mendocino, California

original article in « Life Edited »

cheesecakeAs folks head into their sixties, seventies and eighties. There is and will be a dire need for compact, amenity-rich, affordable and social housing for today and tomorrow’s older adults. The oddly named Cheesecake Cohousing Consortium in Mendocino, CA provides one example of what that could look like.

Cheesecake’s origins started in the late 80s when eight lifelong friends, in their 50s and 60s at the time, decided to build a vacation retreat that would ultimately become their retirement community. As they purchased the land and designed the space, they picked up a few more people, making a mix of single and coupled adults. The ultimate design, completed in 1993 by Fernau and Hartman Architects, features three buildings totally 5K sq ft of interior space and 3K of exterior spaces, which include verandas, dog trots, tent decks and a central pavilion.

cheesecake2While the compound has private quarters for all members (kitchens and some bathrooms are shared), the community supports one another, as reported in a story by The Monthly in 2004 (next article below)

One 84 year old member said, “When it’s good, it’s so good…And when it’s bad, it’s so bad, the angst and argument we have with each other. But we have a conviction to work it out—and we will.”

The Times also got into the expenses of living there, reporting that “buying into the community costs about $25,000 upfront, plus a continuing $500 monthly fee and an $11 daily charge for food staples, electricity and Internet use”–a pittance of what it cost to live in most assisted living homes.

Contrary to popular notions, the AARP/Harvard report found that most older adults do not move out of their homes when they can no longer maintain them. Instead, because of the costs and burdens of moving, they stay put, often becoming increasingly isolated as well as cost and physically burdened by their upkeeps. If more sensible, transitional, social–and let’s face it, beautiful–housing like the Cheesecake Consortium were available, we imagine many older adults later years would be a bit more golden.

Common Ground | By Lauri Puchall

Cohousing, too, is « cooperative » but the physical housing itself is unique. The classic footprint is a tight cluster of homes or units surrounding a common building that’s shared for dining and other activities. The model comes from Northern Europe, where inter-generational cohousing took off in the late 1970s. Today, seniors make up 20 to 40 percent of residents in 15 Bay Area cohousing communities. With a rapidly aging population here–the Bay Area is projected to become the oldest region in the state by 2040, with 41 seniors per 100 working-age adults–interest in mixed-age or seniors-only cohousing is sure to grow.

Seniors, who often become less mobile as they age, need social connections and engagement close by. « No retirement condos for them! Twelve old friends chip in and buy a mansion, » reads the dust jacket.

The term « cohousing » was coined by architect Durrett and his wife Kathryn McCamant in a 1988 book of the same name. Durrett’s newest title, Senior Cohousing: A Community Approach to Independent Living, focuses on the history, group process, design, and benefits of cohousing communities for those 55 and over.

McCamant and Durrett’s Cohousing Company, originally located in Berkeley but now based out of Nevada City, California, has designed over 30 intergenerational cohousing communities. But most are based on a Danish model and resemble small villages with row houses surrounding a common house. They include, on average, 20 to 35 units, each with its own kitchen and full bath. The common house contains a kitchen, dining room, and other spaces for group meals and shared activities.

Typical of most cohousing arrangements, it is intergenerational, with 25 children under 15 and other residents ranging in age from their 30s to their early 70s.

Residents manage the property themselves through committees. As with any large group, there are some members who don’t always meet their group obligations, such as attending mandatory meetings and performing the required three hours a month of physical work. The cohousing agreement, explains Ferro, lays out the requirements for members, but doesn’t specify consequences for not meeting them. In spite of the challenges, Ferro appreciates the built-in social life and the weekly potlucks.

Neighbors help each other adapt to changing life circumstances, like illness or the loss of a spouse. The mutual support is akin to how extended families operated in previous generations and still do in other cultures.

An agreement to help each other, but not to nurse one another through long-term illness, is a common approach for cohousing groups. « There is a lot of informal helping and social caring. In the case of illnesses requiring long-term care, relatives or the state would come in and deal with that. »

Members pooled their resources, paid cash for the land, and then got a two-million-dollar construction loan. They formed a temporary corporation to hire the contractor. Once the units are complete, a lawyer will transfer them to private ownership and residents will then form a homeowner’s association as required by the state of California.

Partner Ellen Coppack and her husband plan to pass along the investment to their children when they are gone, something they probably could not do had they opted for traditional retirement housing.

Residents made sure that the buildings facilitate bringing people together, and in fact they share a kitchen, sewing room, laundry, library, workshop, and gardens. Camp Cheesecake and Big Cheese (for older kids), annual summer programs for the grandkids and their friends.

In order to protect the group’s cohesion, Cheesecake is organized as a general partnership. When a resident dies or wants to leave, he cannot sell or pass his interest in the partnership on to anyone. Cheesecake pays the deceased or leaving partner, or his estate, for his interest in the partnership and then controls who, if anyone, replaces that partner.

Some cohousing groups, Blank says, have a screening procedure before accepting a new partner, but the vast majority do not. « Your interest and enthusiasm for being part of the community is what gets you in to a group, » she says. Some do require potential members to pre-qualify for a mortgage before they will be accepted, she adds.


Fellowship for Intentional Communities |
Cohousing Association of the United States | Joani Blank, information and tours |
Shared Living Resource Center | Ken Norwood | (510) 548-6608
Pleasant Hill Cohousing |
Cohousing Company | Kathryn McCamant and Charles Durrett, architects |

Cohousing: A Contemporary Approach to Housing Ourselves, 2nd edition, by Charles Durrett and Kathryn McCamant (Ten Speed Press, 1994)
Senior Cohousing: A Community Approach to Independent Living, by Charles Durrett (Ten Speed Press, 2005)
Collaborative Communities: Cohousing, Central Living, and Other Forms of Housing with Shared Facilities, by Dorit Fromm (Van Nostrand Reinhold, 1990)
The Last Resort, by Natasha and Emmett Eiland (Berkeley Hills Books, 2005)
Rebuilding Community in America: Housing for Ecological Living, Personal Empowerment, and the New Extended Family
, by Ken Norwood and Kathleen Smith (Shared Living Resource Center, 1995)

The Nursing Home That’s Also a Dorm

More retirement and nursing homes are asking college students to move in, an arrangement that benefits everyone.

Mentink is one of six students living at Residential and Care Center Humanitas, a long-term care facility in the riverside town of Deventer in the eastern part of the Netherlands. In exchange for 30 hours of volunteer work per month, students are able to stay in vacant rooms there free of charge.

Long-term care facilities in the country are facing problems of their own. In 2012, the Dutch government decided to stop funding continuing care costs for citizens over the age of 80 who weren’t in dire need. A large group of aging adults, who had once benefited from a free all-inclusive ticket to a home like Humanitas, found themselves unable to shoulder the costs.

The new ruling resulted in fewer people seeking long-term care communities, making it difficult for those communities to stay afloat. In order for Humanitas to survive in this new environment, it needed a unique selling point. One that wouldn’t cost residents any more than they were already paying.

“That’s when I thought of a group of other people—in this case, students—that also don’t have much money,” says Gea Sijpkes, director and CEO at Humanitas.

“If they could get a room in Humanitas, they wouldn’t have to borrow so much money for their study. At the same time, I have some young people in the house, which makes Humanitas the warmest and nicest home in which everybody who needs care would want to live.”

As part of their volunteer agreement, Mentink and the other students spend time teaching residents new skills, like email, social media, Skyping, and even graffiti art.

For the residents, the students represent a connection to the outside world. When the students come home from a class, concert, or party, they share those experiences with their elderly neighbors. The conversation moves from aches and pains to whether a student’s girlfriend will be staying the night.

In the United States, the Judson Manor retirement community in Cleveland started accepting students from the Cleveland Institutes of Art and Music several years ago. As at Humanitas, the students are integrated among the resident population and have access to all the same amenities.