Not Your Grandmother’s Commune
Photography by Jeffrey Mabee
Sharing, Caring, and Co-Housing in Belfast
“Can I borrow a cup of sugar?”
This calling card of neighborliness represents the dream of village life nursed by many recently singled, retired, or uprooted urbanites longing for community. The 20th-century quest for individuality and ownership (detached home, fenced-in yard, one garage holding multiple cars, and a chicken laying eggs in the stylish coop out back—or at least cooking in the pot at dinnertime) has given way to the 21st-century struggle for many who sit alone behind our picket fences.
Enter the idea of “co-housing.” Also called a “living community,” this notion of semi-independent life centers on living intentionally and sharing resources with other folks for a kinder existence. Co-housing took root in Denmark in the 1960s and was then promoted in the U.S. in the late 1980s by architects Kathryn McCamant and Charles Durrett.
Communal living both wears a halo and carries a stigma. The haloed version connotes friends living together, maintaining some autonomy but working harmoniously due to shared values, purpose, labor, and resources. The stigmatized version conjures sweaty work crews, bottomless vats of lentils, and brainwashing in desolate chambers where Kool-Aid is served.
Co-housing is a different animal—one that preserves independence and privacy but places a focus on shared common spaces, agreed-upon core values, some collective responsibilities (collaborative, not compelled), and shared resources when it makes sense. And the opportunity for this hybrid living situation is growing. There are hundreds of co-housing communities in rural and suburban areas from Maine to New Zealand. There are urban co-housing developments in Chicago and New York City.
Inside the co-housing governance structure, a parent association (often an LLC) owns the land, infrastructure, and buildings. Residents “buy” the interior housing units. They can alter the inside of their dwelling, but cannot change their building’s structure, façade, or landscape. Most co-housing developments require signing a pledge to live peacefully and productively with neighbors and follow mutually agreed-upon etiquette. Many are built with the goal of managing and sharing resources with an eye toward sustainability and encouraging—if not requiring—conservation practices like recycling, composting, food production, and “green” energy choices.
One such community, The Belfast Cohousing and Ecovillage, sits two miles outside the town’s bustling center. Designed by GO Logic, the community is built on 42 acres that were once part of the Old Keene dairy farm. Surrounded by bespoke grey-shingled residences (several clad with solar panels), small blooming flower gardens abound, and many residents throw off a vibe that combines California casual elegance with Yankee grit. The net zero factor and Scandinavian aesthetic play heavily into many residents’ choice to live here, but atits heart, the Ecovillage isn’t as much about housing as it is about learning how to live together and get along.
Technically a condo association, the Ecovillage is home to residents who commit to a shared mission of living “lightly” with an emphasis on sustainable lifestyle choices, collective food production, shared community chores, and offers of neighborly assistance. According to Wendy Watson—one of the village’s original residents, a staff member at Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association, and my tour guide—on the ground this looks like “watching after somebody’s child after school, watering a neighbor’s garden while they are away, taking a neighbor to a doctor’s appointment, [and] helping out with an emergency.”
Residents own their homes and can sell or rent them on the open market, but they are limited on the profit they can reap. Each household is responsible for its own finances and welfare; however, people do look out for each other—up to a point. “Some people come here imagining it’s going to be like a big group therapy session, which it’s not. We take care of each other here, but everyone also has … busy, independent lives, as well,” says resident Brian Hughes; he and his wife Jenny Siebenhaar drive the collective farming and community-supported agriculture (CSA) scheme of the village.
Currently, there are 75–80 people living in the Ecovillage, in 36 housing units clustered on three central acres, with ages ranging from 5 to 85. The intergenerational aspect is enlivening. A young girl on her bike circles the village on the main pedestrian walkway, stopping to say “Hi!” and ask questions of everyone she meets. Kids play outside as older folks walk their dogs. A woman sits working on her computer in her yard, a dog at her feet. Wendy tells me, “Her dog has been very sick; we are all hoping he makes it.” A dad comes by looking for his daughter; Wendy directs him to where she was last headed. The friendliness is palpable, but not cloying. It feels like a neighborhood of yore where citizens are out and about, aware, but not nosy.
The surrounding acreage is cultivated farmland and open green space. The CSA program grows crops that townspeople and residents can cultivate and consume if they choose. An acre plot of potatoes, planted by residents, is earmarked for the Waldo County food banks. . Residents join the “Chicken Circle” to exchange bird care for eggs, and there is talk of getting goats to complement the chicken presence. When I ask about dogs (the source of many a rift in other neighborhoods), Wendy smiles knowingly and explains that the village’s pet policy was instituted early on in its 10-year history. Dogs must stay leashed while inside the housing area, but they can run free outside the residential perimeter.
Due to the pandemic, most indoor events have been cancelled, and the Common House (with its large kitchen, children’s playrooms, guest rooms, and shared laundry facilities) stands uncharacteristically empty. In more normal times, it is the central gathering spot for shared suppers, concerts, cooking endeavors, and weddings. Residents still gather outside for stargazing and solstice celebrations, and all practice social distancing.
When I ask about the challenges of living in this utopian intersection of blooming flowers, bounteous vegetables, caring people, and collaborative labor, Wendy and Brian quickly point to mutual decision making woes in an age when it’s hard for two people to agree what to watch on Netflix. “We have a book of commons that we go by, and for the most part, everyone here knows that there is a lot of give and take in a collective,” says Wendy. They listen a lot and encourage folks to talk directly with each other if a concern arises.
“We sometimes get to the point where we need restorative circles, but for the most part, the people who like living here want to make it work. They are willing to give a little to help the community thrive,” she says.
Another challenge is grappling with privilege in a world where social equity is scrutinized. The Belfast Cohousing and Ecovillage is not overpriced, and there is no racial or social barrier to becoming a resident, but it’s not affordable to many. For now, the solution is for residents to give back to the larger Belfast community in ways they can, like growing potatoes, offering CSA shares, and investing in a communal herbal and medicinal garden.
A more subtle but lasting gift is the preservation of open space and the ethos of generosity and compromise felt throughout the grounds. This Ecovillage stands as a model of how individuals can make something larger than their own vision work initially and last long after they move on. In these derisive times, co-housing’s halo is shining in Belfast, Maine.
Genevieve Morgan is a Maine-based writer and editor and host of the Spectrum Cable TV show, “The Writer’s Zone." She is also an author, most recently of The Kinfolk (Islandport Press/2016), book three of The Five Stones Trilogy.