When East Windsor resident Steve Welzer was a kid, he lived in the Weequahic section of Newark. Welzer had his first taste of cohousing, an intentional community of private homes clustered around shared space, at the Weequahic Summer Camp, founded by the high school football coach.
“All the friends and cousins went to summer camp together for eight weeks, so we had a real sense of community there,” Welzer recalls. “The bunks were around in a circle, around a lake and village green, and there were no cars — and that’s really what cohousing is like. You cluster houses together and try to keep cars on the periphery.”
At camp Welzer loved group singing, and one thing he looks forward to if his dream of a cohousing community comes true is being able to sing and make music together. “I play piano and guitar and am in a band,” he says. “But today everybody’s scattered all over the place and it’s hard to plan a rehearsal together.” To make it to a music jam in Philadelphia, he says, he “has to hassle with rush hour traffic.”
Looking at the arc of Welzer’s life — his camp experience, his tight neighborhood growing up, his high-school kibbutz experience, topped by two months living in a commune — it’s not surprising that he founded Ecovillage New Jersey, an umbrella group that wants to foster a whole network and variety of cohousing communities across the state, in part by encouraging the formation of subgroups oriented toward a specific area or property.
EcoVillage New Jersey is offering “The Cohousing Workshop: Making It Real,” led by Charles Durrett of the Cohousing Company, on Wednesday, June 5, from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., at the Hyatt Regency Hotel at 2 Albany Street in New Brunswick. Attendance at the workshop is limited to 25. The public is invited to an after-party at the Blackthorn Pub from 5:30 to 8 p.m. Cost: workshop and after-party, $149; after-party only, $20. Cosponsors are Ecovillage Alliance; Lynn Gaffney Architect; Cohousing Opportunities Group; Princeton Integral Yoga Community Center; and Blackthorn Restaurant and Irish Pub. For more information and to register, go to www.ecovillagenj.org.
Now part of Ecovillage New Jersey, its Hopewell subgroup, and a cohousing group in Pennsylvania, East Windsor resident Rosemary Stupel’s interest in cohousing also grows out of her lived experience. “I feel like all of my adult life I have been very interested [in the principles of cohousing], in terms of interactions with people — cooperating and sharing life’s joys and sorrows,” she says.
In her 20s she and two others purchased what she now calls “mini-cohousing,” a house in New York with three apartments. One of the apartments was rented to a friend who couldn’t afford to buy.
One important plus of the living arrangement, she says, was “just being there for each other.” Citing the alienation in our society, where people’s lives are so busy — rising early, commuting, rushing to finish dinner, and then it’s bedtime — she points to a quite different experience “when you have people in your life who take responsibility [for each other] and cook together.”
Her son, Noah, had a buddy in the downstairs apartment who would introduce him as “my brother.”
“The general principle is to live in proximity like we did at camp and be able to do all kinds of cultural and athletic things together,” Welzer says.“The way we live now is so atomized, it is not so easy for people to get together to do these communitarian types of things.”
Cohousing is one of three potential models of communal living: “the original kibbutz model,” where everything is owned in common; the cooperative model, where residents buy shares in the coop but all the housing is rental; and the cohousing model, where people own their homes, pay a monthly maintenance fee like they would in a condo, and share the work of administering and managing the community.
Cohousing includes communally owned structures where people usually gather for two to four communal meals a week, hold meetings and other events or other activities, exercise, and do their laundry. Teams share cooking, serving, grounds maintenance, and finance, and this teamwork creates a “kind of interdependence that makes you know who your neighbors are and care for your neighbors. Proximity and interdependence are key to rejuvenating real community life,” Welzer explains.
Early on decision-making was by consensus, where a group is committed to finding solutions that everyone actively supports or at least can live with. But, he says, “the movement is in transition away from consensus. We want to be as democratic as possible, but you can’t have everybody making every decision when a community gets too large.”
In 1991, because Welzer was involved with the Green Party, he got mail from the group that had started to develop EcoVillage at Ithaca in New York. “I loved their literature and was able to watch from its inception,” he says. He got friendly with the developers and the executive director and says, “I loved the conception, and I knew I wanted to do that.”
Because EcoVillage at Ithaca was also committed to green living and sustainability, as are many cohousing communities, the Green Party sponsored a yearly trip there “to show Green Party members and others that that was how we wanted to live,” Welzer says.
Calling EcoVillage at Ithaca “a very advanced model” of cohousing, Welzer uses it to describe the possibilities of this form of communal living. Sitting on a property of 175 acres, the community has three clustered neighborhoods of about 30 houses each, in an effort to keep the population below 100, usually somewhere between 60 and 80. The property also has two orchards and a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) farm. “The rest is left undeveloped, pristine; they feel they are stewarding that piece of land,” Welzer says.
Cars are parked on the periphery, with only pedestrian pathways internal to the neighborhoods. Each neighborhood has a common house that houses an industrial-scale kitchen and dining room, childcare center, workshop, gym, and guestrooms. “The idea is that your residential house can be smaller — the idea is to have a smaller ecological footprint,” Welzer says.
The community uses solar power, and the presence of the common house means private homes tend to be a little smaller. Houses, which are often duplexes, have big southern windows to make use of passive solar heat in the winter; vine-colored trellises above the windows shade them during the summer. They also have car-sharing arrangements to minimize the number of cars.
PhD student Jesse Sherry from Rutgers University has found that these efforts result in the ecological footprint of EcoVillage residents being 70 percent less than that of typical Americans.
To counter the social alienation in our society, “the atomization of these nuclear families in private homes that kind of get isolated from their communities,” ecovillages are re-enabling “the old way,” where people who lived in villages “were more interdependent, caring for each other, and looking out for each other.”
Welzer maintains that when people have “a sense of place and a commitment to place,” an ethic of sharing is a natural outgrowth. And the physical environment can enhance that. For example, kitchens in cohousing homes are in the front, facing the central area where children play. “When people are in their kitchens cooking, there are a set of adult eyes watching the common area,” Welzer says.
Welzer personally sees no downsides to living in an ecovillage, but he did cite a couple of potential challenges. “Since you are living in fairly close proximity and do a lot of work together, you have to pay attention to the issue of privacy,” he says.
The communal sense of having “a kind of open-door policy” where “people bop in on each other,” has spawned a custom to guard against unwanted interruptions: If people are visible in their kitchens or are in front of their houses, that “signals you are in a social frame of mind,” Welzer says. If not, people can close their blinds or retreat to the small patio behind the house.
Generally residential homes do not have garages or a driveway, which may be a problem for some. Parking areas are on the periphery, often with large carts available to wheel groceries or large packages to the house.
For people who may be concerned about isolation from other nearby communities, EcoVillage at Ithaca serves as a counter example. First of all, Welzer says that many people who “gravitate to social housing are socially minded.” In Ithaca cohousing residents interact regularly with others in Tompkins County and are active in community affairs. The ecovillage often hosts meetings and benefit concerts for various progressive organizations in its common houses.
Welzer says that the residents “are not isolated at all and are very aware of that issue [the potential for isolation]. In some sense they want to be as self-reliant as they can but not isolated,” he says.
The ecovillage also partners with nearby Ithaca College’s environmental studies program, providing a venue for students to apply what they are learning in class to real-life problems. The college website states that courses are taught collaboratively between Ithaca professors and EcoVillage residents “to ensure that students receive the most relevant and practical education.”
So given this enticing lifestyle, why are people not flocking to join? Because it’s tough to find the right property, getting a variance is difficult, and gathering sufficient funding for a down payment is often well nigh impossible. “Only about 10 percent of the initiatives really come to fruition in the building of a real community,” Welzer says.
Welzer shares the experience of his own group, which had its eyes on a piece of land in Andover, New Jersey, whose owner was interested in having an ecological organization on his property. But he wanted a down payment of $500,000, and the group had only six to eight households who would “commit to wanting to live there and put up a lot of money on speculation it would get built.”
And of course moving ahead after the land purchase entails many soft costs for environmental inspections, architectural plans, and the work of land developers. Although they tried negotiating a deal with the owner to pay less up front and more when the units were sold, they did not reach an agreement.
The next challenge after buying a property is to get a variance for the very different type of zoning needed for an ecovillage. Towns are accustomed to dividing a tract of land into individual lots with roads and driveways, but cluster houses have different requirements. To ensure that getting a variance is possible, Stupel says, land needs to be purchased in a place where the community’s leadership, whether town supervisors, city council members, or the planning or zoning board, would be receptive to a cohousing development.
Some years ago negotiations with a property owner enthusiastic over selling to his group died before a deal was consummated. In 2005 Delane Lipka, owner of the Mount Eden Retreat Center in Washington, New Jersey, in Warren County, came to hear then-executive director of EcoVillage at Ithaca, Liz Walker. Welzer had invited her to speak in Princeton during a book tour for “EcoVillage at Ithaca: Pioneering a Sustainable Future.” Noting the similarity between the acreage where her retreat center sat and that of EcoVillage at Ithaca, Lipka told Welzer, “I would love to have an ecovillage on my retreat property,” and because her husband, Harry, was in real estate, she said she could guarantee the necessary zoning.
What they called the Mount Eden EcoVillage Project began with visits by Welzer and Delane to different cohousing communities.
When Harry Lipka died in 2007 Delane inherited properties that she planned to sell to accumulate money for the ecovillage, but after her husband’s death Welzer says she was feeling overwhelmed, and he backed off.
Welzer got back in touch with Delane Lipka and they were on track to complete the project when in 2014 Delane Lipka died. “The property then went to her kids. It didn’t go to our projects,” Welzer says.
That left them at square one, so they initiated a new strategy. In fall, 2014, they launched a meetup, which they dubbed EcoVillage New Jersey. Their short-term goal was to educate people in order to expand their base, and thereby gather “the human and financial resources” necessary to move forward.
This is a tough row to hoe. “There needs to be a core group of people who are both very committed to the idea and have some of the skill sets needed to push it forward,” Stupel says.
Also, for groups that value diversity, Stupel says they must ensure “some level of affordability. But most people are not necessarily in a place to have assets to buy the property.” She also wonders whether the paucity of cohousing communities in New Jersey is in part due to its high property tax rates.
EcoVillage New Jersey has grown from 10 at the initial meetup to a mailing list of 600. Educational efforts have involved visiting nearby cohousing communities, reading books together, or listening to speakers on environmental and communal topics. Meetings draw between 20 and 40 people.
The group is diverse, divided between people interested in urban, rural, and suburban cohousing, with some looking at retrofitting city apartments and others seeking property with room for farming. EcoVillage New Jersey acts as an umbrella for subgoups with similar cohousing needs.
“People would love to do it in Princeton, if we could find a piece of land where we could walk to Princeton. Last fall a subgroup of about 20 coalesced in the Hopewell Area Co-Housing subgroup, and at the May meeting of EcoVillage New Jersey, they planned to explore working together with interested Princetonians. The first meeting of a group who want to retrofit housing in Trenton will be happening soon.
“We feel this is a coming movement, and people are turning greener and greener all the time,” Welzer says.
The book that launched the cohousing movement in 1988 is “Cohousing: A Contemporary Approach to Housing Ourselves,” by Kathryn McCamant and Charles Durrett. The authors were inspired to write the book by cohousing they saw in Denmark. Because he planned to be in Princeton for his daughter’s graduation from the Woodrow Wilson School at the university, Durrett wrote to EcoVillage NJ and offered to do the full-day workshop on June 5.
Although Welzer was born in Newark, his family moved to Maplewood when he was four. His father, after owning a successful camera store in South Orange, retired early and followed his own dream: he loved Broadway and ended up coproducing about 20 shows. The only successful one was “Annie Get Your Gun” with Bernadette Peters, an acquaintance of his father, 50 years after its 1946 debut with Ethel Merman. His mother taught nursery school, raised Welzer and his sister at home, then returned to teaching.
Welzer recalls his most seminal experience of community happening in Maplewood, where the absence of school busing meant that everyone walked together to neighborhood schools, then at lunchtime to someone’s house.
This promoted a real sense of connection. Welzer says, “We knew everybody in the neighborhood, and they knew us. There were not as many cars, so you could ride bikes all over the place. Our mothers let us out in the morning, and they were lucky if we were back at dusk — we would go to the park and to the movies on bicycles together.”
He also dipped into a different type of community at age 16 on a teen trip to Israel, spending two weeks at Kibbutz Degania. Welzer says, “What I saw in Israel was a sense of community. It didn’t occur to me then that America was losing something very important, which I would call community, stability, a sense of place. We always had that as kids and took it for granted, and when I saw that on a kibbutz, it seemed like a natural way to live.”
Welzer earned a bachelor’s degree in history and a master’s in economics, both at Rutgers University.
As a young adult, he was involved in the free school movement described in the book “Summerhill: A Radical Approach to Child Rearing,” by A. S. Neill. His vision was of a communitarian, democratic school, where students had a big part in running it. Welzer and his friends tried to start such an elementary school in Plainfield, and even got some parents interested.
He also spent two months at the New Buffalo Commune in Taos, New Mexico, during a trip around the country after his junior year — made possible by a high number in the draft lottery. He says he was seeking community, but he left after two months when he didn’t find it. “The communes then were getting bogged down in the drug stuff. They weren’t successful at establishing a stable group of people that had a commitment to place.”
During graduate school Welzer got interested in programming computers and in 1980 started working at Applied Data Research in Princeton. He got his master’s degree two years later.
The position that would take him through the rest of his career was as a programmer with the New Jersey Judiciary at the Hughes Justice Complex. During his tenure, he says, “PCs, networking, and the Internet became gigantic,” and he did PC programming for various subdepartments. In 2008, at age 58, he had just completed 25 years in the state system when the state offered a buyout, with lifetime health insurance coverage, and he took it and retired.
With more time on his hands, he was able to run for governor, state assembly, and the U.S. Congress on the Green Party ticket. “I always told people all it takes to get on the ballot in New Jersey is 100 signatures on a petition,” he says, adding that he ran himself to set an example. After his failed political runs, he devoted more of his energy to EcoVillage New Jersey.
Welzer has two daughters and four grandchildren.
Stupel grew up in Texas and spent her entire career in nonprofit administration, including development, fundraising, marketing, and membership and board development at organizations like the Environmental Defense Fund, the Haitian Education and Leadership Program, the National Lawyers Guild, and the Vera Institute of Justice.
Stupel participates intermittently in EcoVillage New Jersey activities; she is a member of the Hopewell subgroup and a group in Pennsylvania. “I am exploring different possibilities and will see where it lands,” she says.
Cohousing seems to attract people who care about the broader community. “I think it is typical not just to be inward focusing, celebrating life’s transitions and sharing meals, but also outward focusing,” Stupel says.
Many want to operate in harmony with nature. “Even in urban housing groups that is often the theme: using reclaimed natural resources; having gardens, maybe where your neighbors can pick what you are growing; or being involved in other organizations where there is synergy,” she says.
Explaining what she is looking for in cohousing, Stupel says, “I share Steve’s [Welzer] strong interest in living in harmony with the land and reducing our footprint. I think the goal would be to develop a cohousing community that is seen as a model for prioritizing people, green living, and having some elements of old version neighborhoods where people interact.”
Stupel looks forward to living in a cohousing community that will enable her to “expand the way we are in terms of our relationships” in an environment that “lends itself to really working together in a way where you grow.”
The Cohousing Workshop: Making It Real, Ecovillage New Jersey, Hyatt Regency Hotel, 2 Albany Street, New Brunswick. Wednesday, June 5, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Led by Charles Durrett of the Cohousing Company. After-party follows from 5:30 to 8 p.m. at the Blackthorn Pub. Register. $149; $20 for after-party only. www.ecovillagenj.org
More on the Cohousing Company: www.cohousing.group