Questions for: Ann Zabaldo

September 24th, 2010 by Carolyn Jacobs

A discussion with a leading voice in the U.S. communal living movement.

Brought to you by Liberty Mutual's
The Responsibility Project

Ann Zabaldo has been a driving force in the U.S. cohousing movement. Residents of cohousing communities live in private homes but create a communal lifestyle of shared meals, childcare, social activities and neighborly support. Members are deeply involved in the design and management of their community, investing both money and time for weekly meetings during the years it takes to develop the property and subsequently to ensure it runs smoothly. The village-like community model, imported to the States from Denmark in the 1980s, has since spread from Northern California to New England.

When it reached Zabaldo in 1991, cohousing gave a name and form to the group-housing arrangement she’d shared with friends since college. A business entrepreneur, Zabaldo’s true passion was neighborhood organizing; she plunged into the cohousing movement and never looked back. Currently there are 120 cohousing communities nationwide, and 80 more in progress. Zabaldo was on the development team for two of them, including Takoma Village Cohousing in Washington, D.C., where she now lives. Zabaldo was a founding board member and served as president of the Cohousing Association of the United States and co-founded Mid-Atlantic Cohousing, a regional nonprofit organization. Now 60, Zabaldo is wheelchair-bound with multiple sclerosis. She is busy developing two new communities through her firm Cohousing Collaborative and is happily single, a fact she attributes to the camaraderie and support in cohousing.

What does “responsibility” mean to someone living in cohousing?

Cohousing is the ultimate example of responsibility. People take on responsibility for each other and the community as a whole. And the community owns a lot of common property together. I open my front door and I say not only is this home mine -- this whole community is mine. People feel responsible for the raising of children -- even people who don’t have kids. Our elderly get what they need. Somebody mentions to me, “I need to get to the doctor and I don’t have a car,” and I say, “Here are my keys. Take the car.”

Is taking on that kind of daily responsibility mandatory?

Totally voluntary -- none of this is written down -- but it comes as part of the expectation. You wouldn’t come to cohousing unless you were willing to become a good neighbor.

A majority of cohousing communities share meals in the common dining hall two to five nights per week. How does that work?

It’s voluntary. People rotate the job -- you’re on a cook team and in exchange for preparing so many meals you get to eat so many meals without making anything. Some communities do it every night. I think there’s no better way to get to know your neighbors than to sit down and break bread together. The more people talk to each other, the easier it is to resolve an issue.

How are conflicts in the community resolved?

Some groups have a mediation team; some groups call in outside mediation; some groups ignore the conflict. You cannot legislate behavior. Suppose you have a policy of no dogs off the leash. How are you going to enforce it? Kick them out? Call the animal patrol and have them pick up the dog? No -- this is my neighbor! In ten years at Takoma Village, we’ve had very few meetings in which we’ve heard people raise their voice. Even when people are passionate about stuff, we don’t scream at each other.

What kinds of people gravitate towards cohousing?

People come to cohousing because they want connectedness. They want to come into the community and have somebody know what their name is. I don’t want to be a stranger in the place that I live.

The communities themselves seek diversity -- racial, sexual, and religious diversity; a lot of them put it right in their mission statement. A few communities, including Takoma Village, are highly racially integrated. Single women make up the majority here -- 58 percent -- and we’ve got a lot of single-parent households and adoptions. Blueberry Hill, in Virginia, is overwhelmingly families. Each community is different.

Is there an effort to provide affordable housing within these communities?

It depends on the group. At Jamaica Plain, in Massachusetts, the individual homeowners actually pooled their money to create four permanently affordable units. In Cambridge, they worked a deal with the city to make two units permanently affordable for people with disabilities.

Another way we're working to make cohousing units affordable is to build them highly energy-efficient so the long-term cost will be cheaper. And mortgage instruments have been created for people who live in energy-efficient homes that are usually less expensive than regular kinds of mortgages.

What about privacy?

It’s a little bit of a fishbowl, yet sort of interesting how private things are. We’ve had several divorces people didn’t know were coming. Sure, we gossip all the time. But if you ask for things to be private, they are private. It’s just a sense of respect we have for each other.

Was your battle with multiple sclerosis something you wanted to keep private?

In 1998, when I went to work at Takoma Village, I was still handing out fliers at farmers markets. Very few people knew I had MS. They’d see me with a cane; I’d say I have a little limp. I started to slide in December 2000, and between moving out of the group house and moving into my new home, I had a mega-big attack. Two Takoma Village members dropped everything and came and got me. That’s how I began telling people.

As your illness progressed to living in a wheelchair, how did that affect your interaction with the community?

They’re amazing, wonderful, lovely people. My neighbor Alicia does my grocery shopping every week for me -- every week! I give her a list on Sunday night, and Monday morning my groceries appear in my house and she puts them away for me! People pick up my drugs for me, take me to the doctor when I can’t drive; they walked the dog for me when I couldn’t get out of bed. They have been there for me in constant continuing support. My business partner says it’s not where people care for you so much as people care about you. Maybe nobody would be doing my grocery shopping, but they would help me find someone to do it.

Where does that support and responsibility end?

A lot of cohousers are single people and they get sick, they get older, they get Alzheimer’s. And they have no one else, no family; the cohousing community is struggling with what to do about that. The community may be your communal family, but in the end -- because of the way our laws are structured -- your family has the right to make decisions about your health and well-being. We don’t.

What do you see as the future for cohousing?

I think we’re going to see a lot of the principles of cohousing adapted in cohousing-like communities. A developer might put together a community without a lot of input from the future residents, yet provide training for them -- to be a homeowners association, training in conflict resolution, stuff like that.

What made you want to dedicate so much of your life to the cohousing movement?

I recognized right away that if we could develop a model of living together -- one in which people had to work out their differences -- then we’d have a good chance of bringing peace in the world. I don’t see how we’re going to do that if we can’t agree on who’s going to take out the garbage and if we can’t work out our conflicts one-to-one. Cohousing offers a place for big, serious discussions to happen over time.

Carolyn Jacobs is a television producer and writer. She has created non-fiction programs and series for AMC, PBS, vh1, Showtime, and other networks.