All-fe­male co-hous­ing is an evolv­ing so­lu­tion to se­nior res­i­dences, says Ellen Himel­farb, while CARP pro­poses an out-of-the-box ap­proach to the con­cept of “old-age” homes

ZOOMER Magazine - - CON­TENTS -

The Call of Com­mu­nal Liv­ing Women-only re­tire­ment homes

ONA QUIET North Lon­don street in the shadow of a 10th­cen­tury Gothic church tower, I’m look­ing for a door marked “new ground.” The freshly mortared res­i­den­tial build­ing has taken over the foot­print of an old con­vent, and I pre­sume this to be the “new” en­trance on the “ground” floor.

But New Ground, I’m told, is less lit­eral than that. It’s the of­fi­cial name for this ar­chi­tect-de­signed co-hous­ing com­plex of 25 mod­ern wide-win­dowed units. The rea­son: it is one of the first such res­i­dences open to women only.

The res­i­dents of New Ground are the un­likely foot sol­diers for a slow­per­co­lat­ing rev­o­lu­tion­ary move- ment on the fringes of third-wave fem­i­nism. A group that in­cludes vet­eran artists, de­sign­ers, aca­demics and ac­tivists, they are hedg­ing against the iso­la­tion they and many of their con­tem­po­raries will ex­pe­ri­ence as they reach and sur­pass re­tire­ment. Part of a gen­er­a­tion that came of age among the sec­ond-wave fem­i­nists of the 1960s and 1970s, they are ex­er­cis­ing their in­de­pen­dence for what may be the last time.

“The women who started this had had enough of be­ing told what to do by men,” says Maria Bren­ton, a found­ing mem­ber of Older Women’s Co-Hous­ing (OWCH), the van­guard of New Ground, as we tour a vo­lu­mi­nous com­mu­nal foyer and en­ter­tain­ing space fac­ing land­scaped gar­dens that, by sum­mer, will be dot­ted with sun loungers and filled with the laugh­ter of vis­it­ing grand­chil­dren.

She con­tin­ues as we wan­der over to a three-bed­room suite whose great room opens onto the green with full-height con­certina doors. “When you think about the pro­file of men in their 70s and 80s ... unre­deemed and un­re­con­structed ...”

“Their sons and grand­sons are okay,” pipes in Jayne Nel­son, owner of the unit, with her dachs­hund Ber­tie, the only male res­i­dent. “But,” she leans in and whis­pers, “they’re male chau­vin­ist pigs.”

Harsh as that may sound, it’s not the ul­ti­mate rea­son 26 women aged 51 to 88 have sold up, pared down and bought into this so­cial ex­per­i­ment – in the works now for 20 years.

In the U.K., at least, the ra­tio of women to men in se­nior hous­ing is four to one. And 60 per cent of

women over 75 live alone – nearly twice as many as men. In the 1990s, Bren­ton met some of them while work­ing to save a post­grad­u­ate women’s stud­ies course she taught at the Univer­sity of Bris­tol. “Many were on their own with smaller ma­te­rial re­sources than the men we knew but larger so­cial ones.”

She ap­plied for and won a grant to look for ex­am­ples of women who were co-liv­ing in old age. “I thought that was the log­i­cal an­swer for women left on their own.”

There weren’t many women co­l­iv­ing in older age. “The no­tion of older peo­ple run­ning things them­selves is novel. Either you’re left on your own, and no­body does any­thing for you, or you get into the care sys­tem, and they take away your au­ton­omy.”

She be­gan in Den­mark, birth­place in the 1960s of the bo­fael­lesskab, or “liv­ing com­mu­nity,” in which pri­vately owned res­i­dences share com­mu­nal fa­cil­i­ties like a hous­ing co-op­er­a­tive. The idea was to fos­ter a shar­ing-and-car­ing com­mu­nity, sus­tain health and look out for one an­other – “but not,” says Bren­ton, “look af­ter one an­other.” Like those first co-hous­ing set­tle­ments, New Ground draws the line at per­sonal care.

The Ger­mans adopted the prac­tice with bau­grup­pen, or “build­ing groups;” the Dutch with woon­groepen, or “liv­ing groups;” the Amer­i­cans coined the term “co­hous­ing.” Yet in her trav­els, Bren­ton came across only one women-only fa­cil­ity – in Am­s­ter­dam.

Back in Lon­don, she pre­sented her find­ings to an au­di­ence of older women’s net­works. “From that work­shop, six of us went off to the pub,” says Bren­ton. “I said, ‘We’ve been talk­ing about this for too long. Let’s do it.’ That was the start of OWCH, and we met ev­ery month there­after.”

Bren­ton es­ti­mates about 4,000 women have been through the OWCH “ex­per­i­ment” over two decades. The only re­main­ing found­ing mem­ber, Shirley Mere­deen, lives in a gar­den-view triplex. (Nel­son, the sec­ond in se­nior­ity, joined in 1999.) The other “main mover and shaker” died 10 years ago. Oth­ers, says Bren­ton, “drifted off.” That’s not hard to be­lieve when you con­sider how many bor­oughs in which they’ve ex­plored real es­tate (13); how many failed sites they’ve gone through (four); how many years of build-

ing de­lays (two) and con­struc­tion (five) they’ve waited out.

In early 2016, the ma­jor­ity own­ers (eight res­i­dents are so­cial-hous­ing ben­e­fi­cia­ries) were forced to so­fa­surf af­ter they sold their homes ahead of the move-in date, only to see it pushed off 12 months.

The story is a slightly more pros­per­ous ver­sion of that ex­pe­ri­enced by the ten­ants of La Mai­son des Babaya­gas, a co-hous­ing devel­op­ment out­side Paris spear­headed by fem­i­nist and ac­tivist Thérèse Clerc. The six-storey block, named for a witch in Slavic folk­lore, fi­nally opened in 2012 af­ter 13 years in devel­op­ment. Dur­ing that time, Clerc, who passed away last year, lob­bied hard for gov­ern­ment par­tic­i­pa­tion so the 25 lodgers, many liv­ing be­low the poverty line, could en­joy sub­si­dized rates.

Her ar­gu­ment, that the gov­ern­ment would save money in the long run on hous­ing and health care for the res­i­dents, has been wa­gered against other lo­cal author­i­ties that re­sisted se­nior res­i­dents who might draw on the so­cial-care bud­get. As the Ger­man co-hous­ing guru Al­brecht Göschel once said, “Col­lab­o­ra­tive hous­ing pro­duces a com­mon good by re­duc­ing pub­lic ex­penses for health or care in­sti­tu­tions and should thus stim­u­late a pub­lic in­ter­est in this form of liv­ing.” Or, in Bren­ton’s words, “A buzzy, use­ful com­mu­nity pre­vents peo­ple moul­der­ing into self-ne­glect.”

When CBC Ra­dio aired a doc­u­men­tary in 2012 fea­tur­ing Ba bay a gas House, Beth Komito-Got­tlieb, who lives in Toronto and is re­cently di­vorced, says, “It lit a fire un­der me.”

At the time, women’s hous­ing ex­isted for se­niors in larger Cana­dian cities but, like Toronto’s Older Women’s Net­work co-hous­ing project, only in con­junc­tion with mixed-gen­der hous­ing. Nei­ther the Cana­dian Co­hous­ing Net­work nor the Co-Op­er­a­tive Hous­ing Fed­er­a­tion had a project on the books for women only; they still don’t. But Komito-Got­tlieb, then in her late 50s, helped form a steer­ing com­mit­tee with a hand­ful of other gal­va­nized peers to de­velop such a model in Toronto. Since then, they’ve at­tracted a com­mu­nity of nearly 150 women – most of whom, Komito-Got­tlieb be­lieves, would move “to­mor­row” if they found the right prop­erty to de­velop.

“As some of us en­ter our se­nior years, we’re re­al­iz­ing we don’t like what’s out there,” she says. “The ac­cepted model of se­nior hous­ing – the nurs­ing homes, as­sisted liv­ing, com­fort­able re­tire­ment com­mu­ni­ties – is not built around our needs. A lot of us bought into the idea of the house in the sub­urbs for our nu­clear fam­ily. Those things took us away from the idea of com­mu­nity. But we’ve al­ways been in­ter­ested in the kib­butz or co-op hous­ing ... this is a re­turn to our roots.”

Baba Yaga Place, the vir­tual net­work of po­ten­tial res­i­dents of which Komito-Got­tlieb is chair, stays true to the French Babaya­gas model of af­ford­able rental, rather than go­ing the condo route. And in the typ­i­cal Cana­dian fash­ion of in­clu­siv­ity this model would al­low men. “We want this to fill a need – not just for peo­ple who can af­ford to be there. Women, es­pe­cially later in life, are likely to be poor, be by them­selves … My gen­er­a­tion was full of nasty sur­prises.”

The Cana­dian group ex­pects to pri­vately fi­nance the en­deav­our through grants, fundrais­ing and part­ner­ships with de­vel­op­ers. With no proven ben­e­fits to the so­cial safety purse, gov­ern­ments are re­luc­tant to get on board, though Komi­toGot­tlieb hopes to hold con­ver­sa­tions at the fed­eral level. For now, the Canada Mort­gage and Hous­ing Cor­po­ra­tion has “no re­sources that speak specif­i­cally to se­nior women’s hous­ing,” ac­cord­ing to its spokes­woman Karine LeBlanc. Its re­cent re­port, drawn up from six months of con­sul­ta­tions to in­form the 2017

Na­tional Hous­ing Strat­egy, fails to men­tion women out­side at-risk groups and in­dige­nous.

Rec­on­cil­ing the prin­ci­ples of shared liv­ing with per­sonal fi­nances and af­ford­abil­ity is del­i­cate work for Bev­erly Suek, who two years ago opened her Win­nipeg home to four women aged 53 to 70, Golden Girlsstyle. Her in­spi­ra­tion? While cam­paign­ing for a lo­cal po­lit­i­cal can­di­date in 2011, she was struck by the sheer num­bers of older women liv­ing alone or “in­fan­tilized” in se­nior res­i­dences. With real es­tate prices soar­ing, she was de­ter­mined to pro­vide an in­ten­tional com­mu­nity.

Suek bought back the fam­ily home from her son, who’d been wind­ing down his B&B op­er­a­tion af­ter adding sev­eral plush en suite rooms. But her goal for shared own­er­ship and shared gov­er­nance re­quired hav­ing the house reval­ued and would have proven too costly for ev­ery­one. To­day, her house­mates pay a “rea­son­able” shared liv­ing cost she deems “af­ford­able to any­body.” Yet the de­ci­sion-mak­ing ul­ti­mately de­faults to her as sole owner.

No­body sets out to be a rev­o­lu­tion­ary. Suek had prac­ti­cal rea­sons for want­ing only women around: “Be­cause I wanted to be able to walk around in my py­ja­mas. And be­cause of­ten women act dif­fer­ently when men are around.” Safety, too, was a mo­ti­va­tion. Ul­ti­mately, though, the house­mates ended up host­ing potlucks for Amnesty In­ter­na­tional and sa­lons high­light­ing in­dige­nous is­sues. Last Jan­uary, they marched on Wash­ing­ton to­gether. “We’re not just women liv­ing to­gether,” says Ni­co­l­ine Guer­rier, 54, youngest ten­ant at the time. “We try to be a net­work of sup­port for each other and use the house as a com­mu­nity hub for en­gag­ing peo­ple in so­cial is­sues.”

Not least their own: “So many peo­ple come to visit and say they want to do this with their own house,” says Guer­rier.

Baba Ya­gas Place fields daily emails with the same sen­ti­ment, re­gard­less of still be­ing a work in progress. “Ul­ti­mately,” says Komi­toGot­tlieb, “we could have a net­work of Babas.”

And back in Lon­don, Bren­ton says there’s a wait­ing list to get into New Ground, even though none of the res­i­dents seem poised to, er, de­fault.

“It’s some­thing you want to start think­ing about early.”

Pop cul­ture po­ten­tials for fu­ture fe­male co-hous­ing: The Golden Girls, the Sex and the City denizens, The Mary Tyler Moore Show’s work­ing women and the mil­len­nial Girls

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