For Claudia Ruffle, living in a cohousing community was a lifelong dream. She longed to connect with people who shared her values, especially around concern for the environment. But as an introvert, she found it difficult to meet people on her own.
Cohousing, a form of collaborative living that originated in Denmark, provided “a structure where I didn’t need to be outgoing and where I could still benefit from knowing people,” said Ruffle, 72, a former teacher deputy and administrative secretary. . “It made up for my lack of openness.”
She was therefore among the earliest proponents of what was envisioned as Connecticut’s first cohousing community. After more than a decade of planning, the project, called Rocky Corner, finally saw the light of day in 2018 on a 33-acre lot in Bethany, a suburb of New Haven.
Ruffle and a friend pledged to buy one of the adjoining units and sold their New Haven home in anticipation of closing in 2019. But their closing date kept getting longer. And then community members were told that the project had a cash flow problem.
“We thought, Oh, okay, we’ll give them all our money for our unit, with the understanding that once we can move in, our unit will be paid off,” Ruffle said.
But instead, the entire project was seized. And Ruffle’s dream — and his finances — were shattered.
“That money is now gone and we have no way of getting it back,” she said. “We lost about $170,000. And we both have very low incomes. Since then, we have been living in not good circumstances at all.
Members of Rocky Corner offer varying perspectives on exactly what happened. But in general, most agree that the growing complexity of the project proved to be more than the band could afford or handle.
“Mistakes were made down the line by all parties,” said Dick Margulis, a book designer and publisher who, along with his wife, was among the community’s early organizers.
What happened at Rocky Corner does not reflect the viability of cohousing in general, said Karen Gimnig, acting executive director of the Cohousing Association of America, a national nonprofit that supports newly formed communities and existing.
There are about 170 established cohousing communities in the United States, according to the Cohousing Association. There are about 30 cohousing communities in California and about 20 in Washington State. In a cohousing model, residents own their own home, but share common spaces – a structure to foster connection and community through collaborative living.
“Projects that are under construction, like any other development project, it’s imaginable that things could happen,” Gimnig said. “But it’s really, really rare.”
The association always advises people planning such communities to partner with experienced cohabitation promoters to minimize their risk, she said.
Although cohousing projects are usually built on properties with municipal water and sewer, she said, the Rocky Corner project was rural property and involved setting aside some land for agriculture.
Only about half of the planned 30 units were nearing completion when Ion Bank in Naugatuck recently took possession of the property through a limited liability company. The bank made the only $6.9 million offer at the November foreclosure sale. Ion filed for foreclosure in 2020, with outstanding loans on the project totaling approximately $6.7 million.
Housing Enterprises, a consulting firm in Enfield, helped the group secure a $2.6 million state housing grant to make some units affordable. “A lot of people have lost money,” said David Berto, president of Housing Enterprises. “There was a whole group of people who put in the money to buy the land, and some of them weren’t homebuyers. They were just people who wanted to help, including me. We’ve all lost money, and that’s how it is.
At Rocky Corner, members managed the project and their community affairs using a process called sociocracy, which organizes people into various circles to make decisions by consensus. A small group of founding members, including Brenda Caldwell of Bethany, as well as Berto, sat on the “project management” circle and consulted regularly with the construction company and the architect. Other members participated in one or more circles focusing on various other aspects, such as marketing, design and community relations.
Rocky Corner was organized around the themes of conservation and sustainability, the result of a conversation that began as early as 2006. The modestly sized homes on the property, all under 1,300 square feet, are built to exacting standards. high energy efficiency. Arranged in duplexes and triplexes, they are grouped on 5 acres near a 4,300 square foot common house designed to have a kitchen, dining room, living room, carpentry workshop and laundry room.
Organizers had hoped to grow vegetables on part of the land and preserve the rest with easements.
“We were really trying to protect the character of the land, to protect it from big ugly developments,” said Caldwell, an experienced organic farmer. “Now we’re really scared that we can’t protect him anymore, and that’s devastating.”
She blamed the accumulation of debt on a series of unforeseen costs and bureaucratic delays that extended the schedule. For example, she said, just getting the project approved by the city’s planning and zoning commission took two years, in part because it was an unfamiliar concept and sparked some opposition. local. Then, after digging into the ground, they unexpectedly ran into a large number of ledges – an underground mass of rock – which had to be removed.
And the regional water authority asked them to put in an expensive water treatment system, when they were expecting to just drill wells, she said. (Bethany has no municipal water or sewer.)
As costs rose, the group had to raise housing prices, which, combined with the slowing housing market, made it more difficult to attract the young families that the much older organizers hoped to interest.
Some would-be residents were so optimistic about the project’s success that they installed their own flooring and appliances before closing their units. (No closings ever occurred.) Some people have also paid for custom additions to their homes, such as dormers or a porch.
“Maybe in a way it was naive,” Caldwell said, “but we thought we were going to own these houses.”
She and her wife, Marie Pulito, still own their home in Bethany — they took out an equity loan in anticipation of the closure of their Rocky Corner unit. But “there are other people who have sold their homes, and now they’re living in rentals,” Caldwell said.
A professional appraisal submitted as part of the foreclosure process showed prices on expired contracts ranging from $387,000 for a T1 to $463,000 for a T3. Income-qualified housing prices ranged from about $195,000 for a one-bedroom apartment to $240,000 for a three-bedroom apartment.
The remaining members hope that Ion Bank will sell the project to a developer interested in continuing the cohabitation effort.
“A lot of us, including affordable buyers, have invested a lot of money that we don’t want to see go away if we can get a deal to buy our homes,” Caldwell said. “We still have hopes of creating a cohabitation community there.”
Margulis, one of the original organizers, still vividly remembers a meeting for the project that took place in his living room over tea and cookies 11 years ago.
“I even remember the shirt I was wearing,” he said. “I think we were naive – we probably still are. But we haven’t given up on the dream. We are always optimistic about our ability to change the world. »