It began half in jest — two couples enjoying their annual weekend getaway, strolling the streets of Stratford, Ont., wistfully admiring the pretty Victorians and wondering aloud about the future.
Would it be feasible to avoid the loneliness that creeps with age by joining forces in a private home with room for shared meals and laughter and cosy nooks for private chats or reading?
Two years later, Doug and Mardi Tindal, Ted Addie and Hillary Arnold, who have been friends for 30 years and are all in their late 50s to mid-60s, have parlayed a daydream into a serious plan for a co-living community. It has room for 10 to 12 people, all of whom would continue to pursue their separate lives while also sharing companionship and mutual support.
The alternative for most elderly North Americans is isolation or institutionalization — likely both, say the Tindals.
The two couples have purchased a big High Park house across from a park and backing on a ravine. It doesn’t have a real porch but there is one in their plan. Steps from the subway, the $2.2-million home is divided into three units. While they are assembling their community, the Tindals are living on the main floor and Addie and Arnold have the upstairs. The lower level with a walkout to an expansive deck is rented.
The foursome has legally incorporated an equity co-op they call Wine on the Porch Inc. They have hired an architect, who has done renderings for an extensive renovation that would maintain the footprint of the home but transform it to accommodate up to a dozen people aged 50-plus. They would all share a generous light-filled kitchen and living area. Each individual or couple would also have a private bedroom and sitting area with a locked door, 400 to 600 sq. ft. — about the size of many Toronto condos.
There would be an elevator, two guest suites for visitors or caregivers and a second dining room so residents could host private gatherings for family and friends.
Addie, a retired, self-described introvert, says he is looking forward to having a choice of whether to be alone or share some conversation.
“You always have your private space but it’s easy to plug into somebody else,” he says.
Wine on the Porch is unusual but not entirely unique. Its founders have been informed and inspired by four women known as Port Perry’s “golden girls,” who share the expense and work of co-ownership while living independent lives, and a similar equity co-op in Kamloops, B.C., called the RareBirds.
People generally grasp the potential benefits, they say, of the Wine on the Porch proposition: the ability to age in place; a gentle means of adding density to urban neighbourhoods traditionally reserved for single family homes; and the economic and environmental efficiencies.
But, as attractive as their proposal is to many people, most simply don’t take the leap, says Doug, a retired writer.
“We have a universal enthusiastic response from everyone we talk to followed by the hemming and hawing and backing away,” he says. “Everyone has thought about this but it doesn’t take more than 10 minutes to realize we’re proposing something quite specific.”
What they are proposing is “countercultural,” says Doug, and sometimes just the notion of a common kitchen is a deal-breaker.
The four co-founders have put a lot of time and thought into making some decisions, including the location of the house. The common kitchen and a commitment to one shared daily meal are among the decided tenets of Wine on the Porch. Other details about how the community functions have been deliberately set aside, awaiting the input of more members.
“Why would we uproot our lives and move halfway across the city if we’re only going to meet once a month? We can do that now,” Doug says.
“Many people see giving up their own kitchen as giving up independence,” he says. “In North American society particularly we have this idea of independence as a cardinal virtue that has now tipped over, in many cases, toward isolation.”
Both couples are longtime homeowners. Addie and Arnold most recently lived in a Distillery District condo and still keep a cottage. The Tindals had a High Park condo before moving to their shared address early this year.
What do their friends think about their choice? Arnold and Addie laugh and shrug.
“There’s a lot of quiet, a lot of non-talking, they don’t bring it up,” Ted says. “Most of our friends are suburban and have homes, they love their neighbours, they feel like they have everything. They don’t know what it is we think we’re missing, why we need to do this.”
“They think we’re crazy. They’re polite though,” says Hillary, a project manager, who is the only one of the four still working full-time.
“People who don’t want to do it can’t imagine it,” she says.
But for her, the choice of co-housing is entirely natural. “My life changes so my house changes,” she says. “People get so stuck with their house and their place rather than their people.”
The Tindals have two grown sons; Arnold and Addie have four. All are supportive, the parents say.
Unlike a condo or retirement home, there is no profit built into the financial plan for Wine on the Porch. The expectation is that the arrangement will attract people like themselves, who already own a home and can pay cash for a share in the community. The number of shares will depend on whether the incoming members are individuals or couples. Both are welcome. Without more people it is impossible to say precisely what each share will cost but they think the starting price will be under $700,000.
There will also be a monthly maintenance cost attached to each share. Early estimates suggest it would be about $1,480, they say, including utilities, taxes, insurance, maintenance and repairs, and a reserve fund.
If a member decides to move or dies, their share can be sold or inherited just like any other property. The only real risk, explains Ted, is that Wine on the Porch may not appreciate at the same rate as other real estate. The flip side is that it might become so attractive that it appreciates faster.
“This is not a widely established product yet so we don’t know what the future demand will be. But we’re optimistic,” Doug says.
Getting others to sign on is a challenge but the idea clearly speaks to some. Wine on the Porch organized a workshop last weekend that attracted 29 participants. Each paid about $300 to explore different models of co-housing and hear speakers from other communities, including Port Perry and a moderator flown in from British Columbia.
The price, which covered most of the workshop cost, was high enough to discourage window shoppers, says Doug, who admits they are all a little weary of smaller information events.
Response to the weekend was overwhelmingly positive. But they aren’t expecting that new shareholders will necessarily emerge from it. Their hearts have been broken before, says Mardi, a writer and former Vision TV co-host.
Last June, two other couples were on the verge of joining Wine on the Porch. They all invested two days working through a 10-page memorandum of understanding about how the community would operate. Then everyone went away to think it over.
Two weeks later, both couples withdrew, saying they simply weren’t ready.
The problem, say the co-founders, is that by the time most people are ready for the arrangement they’re proposing, it’s too late.
“People have such a resistance to being institutionalized that they say, ‘I won’t go until I have to,’” Doug says. “At the point where you have to, it’s too late for you to form community. You no longer have the capacity.
“We’re doing it for the fun, not out of fear. But that’s part of the mindset you have to bring to it,” he says.
Gathered in the Tindals’ living room on Tuesday, Doug pours from a bottle of red wine and Ted fetches a beer. There is much laughter but also the frank admission by everyone that statistically, the women will likely lose their partners first. When that happens, they say, they won’t face a big decision about moving out and managing alone because their home will accommodate them and their friends will support them through the inevitable trauma.
If she needed a reminder that they are on the right course, Mardi says a trip to the polling station in a nearby retirement home on Monday provided vivid confirmation.
“It looks like a lovely, well-appointed home,” she says. But, “there were a lot of people there who looked lonely.”
“You go to those places and there’s no crackle going on, in the halls, in the common areas, even in the dining room,” Ted says.
“And they are expected to start relationships at a point when it’s hard. It’s easier for us to initiate and begin relationships now,” Mardi says. “To ask an 85-year-old or even a 78-year-old to start all over in a new community, it’s a pretty tall order.”
Co-housing in Canada: ‘It’s not appetite that is lacking, it’s availability of projects’
The idea of co-housing, a concept that bakes community into a home, isn’t new but it is still relatively rare in Canada. It is more common in Europe and parts of the U.S.
In Scandinavia, housing is often developed around a common house and garden, which are managed co-operatively by community members.
In Canada, there are cultural, planning and financial barriers to that system and experts say that launching a co-housing community here is a lengthy, complex process.
But they are worth encouraging because they make sustainable, renewable technology more financially viable, says Sasha Tsenkova, a planning professor at the University of Calgary.
She points out that in cities such as Toronto and Vancouver, many people already live in condominiums and have adjusted to the idea of shared, common space and amenities.
“We simply need to adjust to the problems of a changing society in Canada and across North America and actually change some of the planning regulations to make this easier. We’re very much stuck in a mentality where it’s really either single family homes or the tower block and there is nothing in between,” she says.
There are 13 Canadian co-housing communities operating in Canada, according to the Canadian Cohousing Network website, 10 of them in British Columbia. Another 12 are under development, meaning the founders haven’t yet located land for building or they have the land but are still in the design stage. Two are under construction in Saskatchewan.
The Wine on the Porch concept is distinct from the European co-housing model, says Kathy McGrenera, a co-housing consultant, and founding member of Vancouver’s Quayside Village co-housing community.
McGrenera chose co-housing 20 years ago as a way of providing a community for herself and her daughter. Their life has been rich, she says. A neighbour, who is now 85, read to her daughter, who had no grandparents. As a young child, the girl was free to wander around the community because, with other adults looking out, there was no fear of “stranger danger.”
“That is how many of us grew up and people long for that. But what I hear is that people’s experience is not like that,” McGrenera says.
Quayside Village is a mixture of generations, families and singles occupying separate residences with all the facilities of a standard house or apartment. They share a common courtyard and gardens. Appliances that can be used by members as needed are stored in a community kitchen. Once a week there’s a community meal where members pay about $5 to gather around the table. Residents help run the community through a series of committees.
“Co-housers tend to be sustainability and green minded. Our building does as close to zero waste as we can,” she says.
Two more co-housing communities being built in Vancouver are full with long waiting lists. A co-housing conference in the spring that was expected to attract 150 people filled a venue that held 200. The event could easily have attracted double that number, McGrenera says.
“In our situation, it’s not appetite that is lacking, it’s availability of projects. In Toronto, (co-housing) hasn’t got critical mass yet,” she says.
Tess Kalinowski is a Toronto-based reporter covering real estate. Follow her on Twitter: @tesskalinowski