Cohousing gaining popularity among seniors

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Susan Sussman, from left, Neysa Nevins, and Gloria Hoffman are members of Wissahickon Village Cohousing, a group seeking a senior-friendly home.

Gloria Hoffman and a dozen of her longtime friends in Mount Airy are on the hunt for a dream house where they all can grow old together.

Seniors increasingly want to age at home but also in a community, among friends who know one another well, want to socialize, and even cook together as a family.

The Golden Girls concept isn't new, but its popularity is growing as housing prices recover nationwide and assisted-living options price out some senior citizens.

Hoffman is a founding member of Wissahickon Village Cohousing (www.wvcohousing.org), a group of retirees, and some middle-aged folks with children, seeking a senior-friendly home. They are open to moving into a private house, a converted condominium complex, or even new construction.

"We are aiming for about 20 families, but as time goes by, some people drop out and make other arrangements," she said.

The group socializes regularly and even has a community garden.

"We have a lot of the 'co' already, but not the housing," said member Elayne Blender.

Initially, the group planned to move into developer Ken Weinstein's converted Mount Airy Presbyterian church and school complex, with about 18 units. But when the price initially quoted rose by about 30 percent, they split amicably.

"The lower level of the building was to serve as a sort of 'cafetorium,' a place to eat together, play, meet, and socialize," Hoffman said.

Wissahickon Village Cohousing is now working with a real estate broker, Mark Cohen of Long & Foster, to find its dream house.

Senior cohousing is similar to standard cohousing, "an intentional community of private homes clustered around shared space," except that is designed by and for seniors to assist them in living independently for as long as possible, according to the Cohousing Association of the United States.

"There are 55-plus retirement communities that are socially connected but not spiritually like the Wissahickon group, because they share similar values as well as a common space," said Cohen. "They are friends who share a common outlook on life."

But as with many real estate deals, there are stumbling blocks: Some Wissahickon Village Cohousing families can afford $150,000 units, while others can afford $300,000 units or even something pricier.

A few other cohousing communities are in various stages of development: Altair Ecovillage in the Kimberton-Phoenixville area, Three Groves Ecovillage in Chester County, and Mount Eden Ecovillage in Warren County, N.J.

"Our dream is to build in clusters 35 privately owned, modest-sized homes focused around the community center and pedestrian walkway," said Joel Bartlett, project manager for Altair Ecovillage. "We have the land under agreement and the resources committed," but are still negotiating with the local planning commission and developers.

Altair Ecovillage also wants sustainable, energy self-sufficient homes, and will host a site tour Saturday that's open to the public.

"Also, we have to make decisions about how to live together, like pet policy, is it vegan, and who can move in and bring their gun collection," he said with a laugh.

"Our model is different from Wissahickon because we have control. We have hired an architect, a land planner, a contractor-developer, and a Realtor," Bartlett said. "The Wissahickon group was developer-driven."

In recent months, Wissahickon Village Cohousing has looked at a house on Lincoln Drive that could be split into apartments plus a common space. Another building they looked at "had too many steps. For seniors, that's not good," Hoffman said.

Cohen, the group's real estate broker, also has toured the North Broad Street area between Temple and City Hall, although many in the group prefer to stay around Mount Airy, he said.

"The process is wonderful, but it's complicated," he said. "It's like marrying 20 couples instead of just one."

The first Wednesday of the month, Wissahickon Village Cohousing hosts regular informal information sessions so new members can drop in, ask questions, and learn more about cohousing.

In any cohousing situation, everyone has to agree on the site, the prices, how the common areas will be paid for and used, and, of course, the timeline.

"For older people, time is always ticking. All of those things have to click," Bartlett said.

In the end, Cohen said, "Maybe the living situation is less important. It's just nice to know you have friends around you or friends to whom you want to lend a hand. Nothing can replace that."

earvedlund@phillynews.com

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