Co-Housing, Millenials, Retirees, and the Importance of Flexible Housing

I spend one week a year hanging out with Jewish hippies on a hilltop in New Hampshire at the National Havurah Committee‘s Summer Institute. It’s a really lovely space that largely exists outside the bounds of institutionalized Jewish community, a space that is truly cross-generational and empowers people of all ages and background (I run the kitchen, monitoring kosher and food need concerns) to lead, teach, and learn.

Part of what makes Institute tick is the series of workshops given by attendees on a wide variety of topics in which they have personal interest or expertise (in that order). On Tuesday I had the pleasure of attending a workshop on the topic of Jewish co-housing, a topic that seems totally stereotypical for a hippie retreat but is also of interest to me as a planner. Interestingly, attendance at the workshop was split just about 50/50 between people my age (twentysomethings) and people at or approaching retirement age, with virtually no one in between. And it was the older folks who tended to be more vocal, perhaps because the need for them is more urgent–many of us younger people like the idea of sharing housing with friends to some extent, but for those approaching an age where physical concerns and safety become paramount, having others around to help out becomes almost a necessity.

Several of the older folks in attendance did, in fact, express that they had planned to be dragged out of their own homes or apartments feet first when the time came, but had more recently come around to having more flexibility on the topic of housing as they aged. And while the older folks are Havurah are certainly a group that exhibits selection bias–these are aging hippies, after all, and they have, as a group, willingly handed over leadership to my generation, which is EXTRAORDINARILY rare in Jewish communal contexts–I found it a powerful demonstration of the ways people can come together across generations to work for better housing options.

And the key word there is indeed options. This was a crew for whom, for a variety of reasons, the “traditional” single-family home, and to a large extent the nuclear family model that underpins it, does not work. That the nuclear family is declining in America is conventional wisdom to the point of cliche, but most of the discussion about the future of American housing has focused on Millenials and our alleged desire for multifamily urban housing. But we’re not the only ones looking for options beyond the single-family home. Surely, many older Americans are stubborn and set in their ways (I have a grandmother who is very set on staying in her house despite a total inability to care for it, and, increasingly, herself); but perhaps there’s significant room to articulate a positive vision of flexible, semi-shared housing that is neither an increasingly unsafe residence nor a nursing home or care facility.

The discussion of Jewish co-housing was particularly poetic given an article I read later that night laying out the sale of Newton, MA’s historic Mishkan Tefillah synagogue to Boston College. The person who lead the session is actually from Newton; a widow, she had tried to attract various people to share her large, expensive house in that wealthy town, but had come to the conclusion that co-housing simply wasn’t going to happen in Newton. And here comes the news that a 300-family synagogue–significantly larger than the perfectly functional communities I grew up in–is selling their property because they can’t financially sustain it anymore. Why? Because the shul (Yiddish for synagogue) is shrinking and because the property they built on back in the day is 24 freaking acres. 

Map of the Mishkan Tefila property from the Boston Globe article.

Map of the Mishkan Tefila property from the Boston Globe article.

24 acres! Even the largest synagogue, with parking lots built to accommodate thousands of worshipers on the three peak days of the High Holidays, could only ever use a fraction of that space. The Globe article notes that the site came with significant legal restrictions on use, so using some of it for desperately needed housing might have been tricky, but I can’t help but wonder how things might have been different if places of worship–Jewish and otherwise, though the need for walkability is greater in an observant Jewish context–had thought more creatively about the future housing needs of their communities.

As I observed on Facebook in relation to the news a couple of weeks ago that Kehillath Israel–another Conservative congregation located in fairly urban, but still expensive, Brookline–is revamping their facility to accommodate senior housing, there’s a crying need for congregations to think about the housing needs of their membership. Suburban congregations whine constantly about how no young families move to the neighborhood–but the entire system of suburban homeownership is designed to benefit existing homeowners while pricing out newcomers. In towns like Newton (or Sharon, where my partner grew up), single-family zoning and the emphasis on homeownership make it virtually impossible to replicate religious–or any–community across generations. And it’s not all about some Millenial preference for cities or urban living; it’s about inflexible housing stock that can only accommodate one vision of familial, economic, and social being.

So yes, congregations like Mishkan Tefilah have doomed themselves. But those choices were made decades ago, in many cases right as the congregations moved out from the areas of first and second settlement. And that’s where we come back to the promise that I think our little hippie workshop on co-housing showed. There is a possibility of cross-generational cooperation on housing issues. There are common threads between what young people need (or want) and what older people need. There is a possibility of rebuilding aging and dying communities by thinking creatively about the founding assumptions that shaped them. All of this would require significant creativity and a willingness to take on conventional wisdom and fundamental assumptions about housing and family structure that I’m not sure everyone’s ready for. And surely, some people, and some communities, will prefer dying on the hill of the suburban model to living on a different model. But let’s not give up hope for reconciliation just yet.