Community During Crisis: Capitol Hill Urban Cohousing and the Challenges of COVID 19
By Grace Kim*
I live in Seattle, Washington at Capitol Hill Urban Cohousing, a community of nine families – 17 adults and 11 children. My community was featured as an antidote to loneliness in a TED Talk that I gave in 2017 which has been viewed by almost 2.4 million people around the globe. Cohousing is an intentional neighborhood where people know and look after one another. People have their private homes but also share indoor and outdoor common spaces. Prior to the pandemic, we ate dinner together every other night, as well as sharing many life celebrations together. We also shared household items, camping gear, and a couple of households share a vehicle. While we have our own homes, we have 900 square feet (~83 square meters) of shared space in a Common House where we have a dining room to seat 32 people, a larger kitchen than in our home, a storage pantry, guest room, shared laundry machines, and bathroom.
The main challenges that the pandemic has brought about for my community can be categorized to physical, social, and economic.
To safeguard the health of 28 people living in one building, we decided immediately that we would not allow outsiders into the building. Delivery people were allowed to leave packages inside the front gate on a table that we set up as a physical barrier to cause people to stop and read the sign posted asking for deliveries to be left. In the few instances that repair people have had to enter the building, their arrival is announced in a group text so that people know that outsiders are in the building.
We adopted a cleaning protocol twice a day for every touch service to be disinfected with bleach – from the entry intercom and front gate handle to the handrails in the stairway and elevator call buttons all the way up to the rooftop garden.
We have a shared laundry room in our Common House that four families use (other families had installed laundry in their homes). We stopped using the use of this laundry area to avoid cross-contamination and the community purchased new washers and dryers for the four households.
One family had their college-aged child return home and since they had six people living in a 850 square foot (~79 square meters) home and a parent working remotely from home, they were granted exclusive use of the guest room, bath, and a portion of the Common House.
When the pandemic caused our Governor to issue the “stay at home” order, people became very worried. Everyone had different levels of information and concern – based on time available to research and personal health conditions. We used Zoom for our meetings from very early on, meeting twice weekly to share information and check in on each other. There was much to discuss and we worked out the physical changes in those first months. After a few months, we moved to weekly meetings and in the summer we transitioned back to our usual monthly meetings.
About three or four months into the lock-down, a couple of the households were experiencing severe loneliness from the isolation, so a couple of the families opened up their “bubbles” to include those individuals. This allowed those individuals to have dinner with another family; to watch movies and visit in person.
While we decided to discontinue meals immediately, we have found ways to share common meals in small groups on the rooftop garden (though instead of having a meal prepared for you, everyone brings their own meal). We have used our outdoor balconies to help us celebrate birthdays, play bingo, and socialize. The courtyard has been a place for the smallest children to play (with masks on). Various community members have organized movie watching nights on the rooftop – setting up a projector and large screen. Our garden has given purpose to an adult who lost her job during the recession and produced a bountiful harvest. The harvesting has been aided by the children and provided for the whole community throughout the spring and summer.
Two families who own beach homes have offered these to all members in the community to use. While this was always the case, due to travel restrictions, families are using these resources more frequently now. And another benefit of people not traveling, is that people have been home more this summer, bringing us all closer together.
“About three or four months into the lock-down, a couple of the households were experiencing severe loneliness from the isolation, so a couple of the families opened up their “bubbles” to include those individuals.”
We started a “community support fund” in the past four months —a pot of money that only the treasurer has knowledge of. Anonymous donations can be made to the fund. And households can request money from the fund (with no questions asked). The intent is that if anyone is experiencing financial hardships, there was a safety net without questions asked. The treasurer was tasked with reporting the balance of the fund on a regular basis so people knew whether it needed replenishing, or if there were any funds that could be requested. As of our last meeting, there was a balance of $8,000.
“We started a “community support fund” in the past four months —a pot of money that only the treasurer has knowledge of. Anonymous donations can be made to the fund. And households can request money from the fund (with no questions asked).”
Early on, one my neighbors had set up a basket full of snacks and water at the front delivery table. The snacks were for the delivery workers, knowing that they weren’t able to stop at their usual coffee shops or convenience stores because many were closed and also the fear of additional exposure. During the first couple of months she asked others to pick up snacks on our grocery store visits. But after a while, when we realized our common meals would not resume for a while, we decided to use some of our common funds to pay for these snacks for these hardworking “essential workers”.
Since our “stay at home” order started, the U.S. erupted in protests around the murders of Black lives at the hands of our law enforcement. Of the many protests around the country, a very large protest sprang up outside our doors – largely televised and known to the nation as the “CHOP”, the Capitol Hill Occupied Protest. These national protests were a collective awakening of White minds in around our nation, and within my own community. While the fear of coronavirus hung like a heavy cloud over us, me and some of my neighbors did take to the streets to demonstrate in support of Black Lives Matter. Had we not been in the midst of a pandemic, its likely most of the residents would have gone out. We started having deep and difficult conversations about race and privilege.
“The one thing I have learned about my community during these past seven months is that we are resilient. We have learned that our collective wisdom is greater than our individual knowledge.”
And now the skies are filled with smoke, causing our Environmental Protection Agency to declare our air quality as unhealthy. So now we’ve lost our opportunity to meet together outside. This is a foreshadowing of what will come when the weather turns cold, so we are planning for what that might mean.
The one thing I have learned about my community during these past seven months is that we are resilient. We have learned that our collective wisdom is greater than our individual knowledge. We have been consistent about communicating with each other and helping each other. Our social capital continues to build as we continue to have hard conversations and explore difficult topics like race and allyship. We continue to show compassion for each other as our life situations change.
While urban planners and land developers are talking about dramatic changes for the future – a return to separation and lower density (aka single family homes) and reductions to transit. These are not the answers for the future. In fact, I would argue that proximity is good – increased density of 4-5 stories in height means people can walk or use bikes to access daily needs and services. They can walk up and down the stairs rather than relying on elevators. They might know their neighbors so they can help keep each other safe. But regardless of whether located in suburbs or the urban center, cohousing is a clearly a solution for community resiliency and re-building our fractured communities.
*Grace H. Kim is an architect and co-founding principal of Schemata Workshop, an award-winning architectural practice with a keen focus on building community and social equity. Grace is also the cofounder of Capitol Hill Urban Cohousing, a collaborative residential community which includes her street level office and a rooftop urban farm. She walks the talk of sustainability – leaving a small ecological footprint while incorporating holistic ideals of social and economic resilience into her daily life.