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How much of co-housing is shared space is up to residents. Author provided (no reuse)

Co-housing works well for older people, once they get past the image problem

Housing Australia’s ageing population in homes that are affordable, accessible and sustainable presents a major challenge, particularly in a time of rising housing costs.

Older people want homes where they can feel comfortable and independent, and which allow them to remain connected to their family and friends.

However, many fail to anticipate the health and financial challenges that can diminish their housing choices as they age. With an emphasis on social interaction, environmental sustainability and accessible design, co-housing can provide an attractive housing option for seniors.

We set out to explore the potential of co-housing for seniors, in newly released research funded by the NSW Department of Family and Community Services and Office of Environment and Heritage.

How does co-housing work?

Co-housing is well established internationally as a housing option but relatively new to Australia.

Co-housing, or co-living, arrangements aim to mix private and shared living spaces in a way that meets the need for both privacy and a sense of community and support. Germany’s Baugruppen model is a prominent international example.

Despite huge diversity in the size, density and design of co-housing, there are some common characteristics:

  • First, the future residents are typically involved in the design process to ensure the final building meets their needs.

  • Second, the design includes some mix of private dwellings and shared spaces, and encourages community interaction. Shared spaces can be as minimal as a garden or laundry, or as extensive as a common kitchen, lounge and guest facilities.

  • Third, residents are usually actively involved in the governance of the property.

What did the research look at?

Through initial interviews with stakeholders, we identified three different co-housing options that look particularly promising for seniors in Sydney:

  • Deliberative development, where the building designer actively enables participation by future residents in the design of a multi-unit building that they will eventually live in. Breathe Architecture pioneered this approach with The Commons in Melbourne, and Nightingale Housing is helping the idea to spread. While not aimed specifically at seniors, this model has great potential to deliver co-housing for seniors.
Projects like the Austin Maynard Architects-designed Nightingale 3.0 development on Sydney Road in Melbourne’s Brunswick are changing the image of co-housing. Austin Maynard Architects, Author provided
  • Co-operative tenancy, where residents form a housing co-operative to manage their tenancy of a building. Common Equity is the leading proponent of this model in New South Wales, with 39 housing co-operatives established. This model is particularly attractive for private tenants, who are especially vulnerable to financial problems and social isolation.

  • Small-scale co-housing, where an existing single dwelling is renovated to accommodate one to three dwellings. The Benn family home is a great example. This model is appealing as a way of downsizing, or assisting children with their own housing challenges.

Barriers to acceptance

We tested these three models in focus groups with seniors and found that co-housing has an image problem. The participants were keenly aware of the housing challenges that co-housing seeks to overcome. However, when we started to discuss co-housing, their thoughts immediately turned to hippies, communes and share houses.

This is unfortunate, because there are modern co-housing options that are perfect for the mainstream. These examples feature great design and balance between privacy and community.

Many seniors are wary of shared spaces, but well-designed elements such as a vegetable garden can reduce living costs and social isolation. Andrew Wuttke/NIghtingale Housing, Author provided (no reuse)

We found that awareness of co-housing and its potential benefits was low. In particular, seniors resisted the idea of sharing living spaces.

Some said they had “done their time” and wanted to maintain their independence. They were worried that others would not “do their bit” to maintain the shared spaces. Others liked the idea of increased social interaction but were less enthusiastic about being involved in ongoing governance of the property.

Participants were quick to identify potential barriers to co-housing. These included local planning restrictions, securing finance, or impacts on their pension eligibility.

It is tempting to conclude that co-housing is a nice idea that lacks a market. A common refrain in our focus groups was: “It’s a nice idea, but not for me.”

However, in all these groups we found a small number of participants, perhaps 10-20%, who were enthusiastic about the idea. A market of 10-20% could make a very significant contribution to meeting our housing challenges.

We also discovered many groups that are working hard to establish co-housing, like the AGEncy Project in Balmain. The market could be even larger if co-housing could overcome its image problems.

How to win converts to co-housing

We propose the following steps to start realising the potential of co-housing for seniors.

First, more people need to know that co-housing is an option. Raising awareness about co-housing and busting some of the myths about it are high priorities.

Our small contribution is a set of three factsheets on co-housing for seniors. More demonstration projects are also badly needed, so people can see what it is actually like to live in co-housing.

Second, more needs to be done to link up the growing number of people who do want to live in co-housing. One of the biggest challenges is finding a group of people who have similar housing needs and aspirations.

Web platforms offer great potential here and some attempts to develop such platforms have already been made. For example, the Henry Project is working on a Co-Living Network platform.

Third, governments can do to much to support co-housing and overcome existing barriers. For example, governments can provide financial support or access to land for demonstration projects. They can also ensure that planning regulations allow co-housing developments.

Finally, existing seniors’ housing providers can adopt the core ideas of co-housing in their developments. Retirement villages and aged care facilities typically include shared living spaces. Participation in design and governance is perhaps less common.

For more information about co-housing for older people, read our research factsheets.

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