Seattle's Child

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co-housing circle of neighbors

Christine Wolf and Chuck Harrison (front right) with their son and some of their Duwamish Cohousing Community neighbors. Photo by Joshua Huston

Where we live: A circle of neighbors

One family’s experience living in a co-housing community

Christine Wolf’s abode feels like a 2024 version of a Norman Rockwell painting: If she needs a can of coconut milk for a recipe, she simply emails her neighbors, and multiple cans will inevitably show up on her stoop.

Is this Mayberry?

Wolf shares her 900-square-foot duplex with her husband, Chuck Harrison, and 7-year-old son, Jamie. And her description of her family’s community sounds downright Mayberry: Picture some neighbors chatting from their idyllic porches while others tend their gardens nearby. And the best part of living in the Duwamish Cohousing Community in West Seattle? Isolated as a community, the residents were able to socialize during the COVID lockdown.

Built-in community helps in challenging times

Wolf is convinced the community felt less of the pandemic sting because each home has a porch and a garden, close enough together to stay connected and feel supported during those hard months but spaced out enough for social distancing. It was easy to chat with neighbors while still staying safe. 

The desire to build community is at the heart of the co-housing development, and that goal is reflected in its design. The 23 multi-house units all face one another, their windows looking toward their neighbors’ rather than outside the community. 

The Common House

A central part of this co-housing development is its ‘common house.’ The larger community-owned home functions as a shared space for everyone who lives in the development and their guests. At the same time, Wolf’s living room, like all individual homes at Duwamish Cohousing, is small — designed to encourage families to spend more time in the common house. When Wolf’s family members or others visit, she opts to use the common house so her family can enjoy their guests in a larger space. 

Lots of room to roam

What’s it like living in such a confined space with a young child?

Wolf and Harrison have found ways to maximize the family’s relatively tight quarters. By installing a secure net on the loft level of their home, they essentially created another story where their son can hang out. And while having an energetic 7-year-old may deter some parents from moving into a small home, Wolf says one of the many perks of her co-housing community is the relatively enclosed parameters. She doesn’t fear fast cars or her son wandering too far. A wetland lines the community on one side, so he can’t go far in that direction. 

‘It’s kind of like having cousins’

There are several children at Duwamish Cohousing. A big benefit of community living is having playmates right next door. As Wolf puts it: “There are different kids from the community they can play with. It’s kind of like having cousins.” 

Wolf also feels safer parenting in a closed community where the houses face each other. The structure encourages community, which means multiple sets of eyes are on Jamie as he wanders the communal areas. When adults are not outside, when the mood strikes him, he will check in on his neighbors by knocking on their doors. 

Sure, conflicts happen

Like any close-knit relationship, the community is not without its conflicts and hurdles. Wolf would not put a lack of space between neighbors on a list of co-housing cons. But she admits that if there are neighbors who aren’t getting along, there’s no place to hide in a co-housing community. 

When issues do arise, however,  members of the community often come together. Especially when it comes to making a decision about their property. For example, the homeowners association (HOA) fees feed into the shared aspects of the property, such as the common house. Similar to a condominium, the owners are responsible for what is inside the walls of each house, while the HOA takes care of the grounds and the outside of each building. This means deciding how the HOA fees are distributed and used are community decisions. 

Consensus model of decision-making

“We don’t have a management company that runs it,” says Wolf. “We all run it together. We’re all members of the board. We all make decisions with the consensus model, which can take a long time to do. It takes a lot of communication. We all attend the board meetings every month, and there are committee meetings.” 

A major hit to the community during the pandemic was the loss of community dining in the common house, gatherings that are central in many co-housing communities. Thankfully, Wolf says, Duwamish Cohousing households are slowly returning to regular, shared meals. 

Finding new ways to support each other

Wolf wants to see more shared child care among her community members as Duwamish moves forward into the future. In fact, homeowner families are working on a rotating child care plan to allow parents to enjoy regular date nights. Jamie has a disability, which Wolf says discourages her from relying on other parents to babysit as much as she would like. But she remains hopeful for the future. 

As it stands, members of this co-housing community are leaning on one another and discovering they have most of their community needs met.  

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About the Author

Joan King

A national Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) conference presenter and consultant, Dr. Joan King has a BA in English with an emphasis in Creative Writing, an MA in English, and a Doctorate in Education. Her articles regarding Asian American voices have been published in TinyBeans.com, Mochi Magazine, Memoir Magazine, and Writerly Magazine.