Laurisa Elhai, 64, recalled when the block between Fourth and Fifth streets along T Street in Sacramento was a no-man’s land.
“When we bought the property, there were three houses on it,” she said. “One house was demolished, one was moved, and one was renovated. There was a building in the alley that used to be industrial, and it was taken down.”
On Sunday, Elhai was helping to guide a tour of the Southside Park Cohousing Community, which celebrated its 20th anniversary with a carnival. Kids were running freely among the various lawns shared by 25 homes clustered around a common house, a workshop and a children’s playground. Elhai was one of the original residents who had been involved in the planning of the community for five years before moving into her house in 1993.
“I wanted to live in a community where everyone knew each other, cared for each other’s children and live in a more sustainable way,” said Elhai, who moved in with her husband and two young children at the time.
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“I have been very satisfied. It’s a great place to raise children. I love having other people cook meals for me three times a week, and I love cooking for other people. I’m socially lazy, so it’s easy for me to have a social event – they are right here on my doorstep.”
The cohousing concept, seen as a way to cut housing costs, was popular in Denmark for decades. It was introduced to the United States through a book published in 1988 by a husband-and-wife architectural team, Kathryn McCamant and Charles Durrett, in Berkeley. The idea was to create a sense of community by having residents share meals, chores and babysitting, as well as letting residents have a say in designing their homes and developing their neighborhood.
Ground was broken on the Southside Park project – then dubbed River City Cohousing – in 1992. It was the fourth co-housing community to be established in the United States and the first as urban infill. Now there are 198 such projects that have been completed or are in the process of being formed in the country, with 39 in California alone, according to the Cohousing Association of the United States.
David Mogavero, the architect for the Southside Park project, recalled that before the co-housing community was formed, the neighborhood was considered one of the worst in Sacramento, known for its crack houses and prostitutes. “The police were called here every hour,” he said. But with the establishment of the co-housing community, the quality of life in Southside Park improved.
“It changed the neighborhood a lot,” he said. “It had a huge impact.”
Former Sacramento mayor Heather Fargo, who spoke during a short ceremony held in the common area Sunday, said she was on the City Council when the co-housing project moved into the Southside Park area. She recalled the efforts the residents made to clean up the neighborhood – picking up garbage from the streets, towing away abandoned cars and videotaping all the prostitutes and their johns so that the police could arrest them.
“I remember how co-housing came in and planted the seed to bring everything back to life,” she said.
Domenic Tavianini, 17, was the first baby born to a family living in the Southside Park Cohousing Community.
“I love growing up here,” he said Sunday. “It’s awesome that I can walk 100 feet and find someone I can hang out with.”
His mother Theresa Tavianini, 56, recalled taking him to a relative’s home in the suburbs for a visit once and trying to explain to him why he couldn’t run in and out of neighbors’ yards as he was used to doing at Southside Park.
Twelve of the 25 families that originally bought homes in the Southside Park Cohousing Community remain. Many of those who left did so because of marriage or new jobs or to care for aging parents. Turnover in ownership is rare, with the last new owner joining the community five years ago. Two original owners have died – including one woman who died in the co-housing community, with a neighbor providing hospice care for her.
There is a waiting list of 30 people wanting to buy a home in the project, but former residents often sell their homes to friends who are familiar with the co-housing lifestyle. Two of the houses are rented out, and one house could come up for sale later this year.
Jennifer Souza, 42, is one of the people interested in buying a home in the Southside Park Cohousing Community. She and her 10-year-old son, Gustavo, will be moving into one of the houses as renters next week. Her husband, Carlos, 43, is working on a farm in Rondonia, Brazil, and will join her next summer.
“Being away from my family is hard,” she said. “But here, there are lots of kids, lots of caring support. If my car breaks down, I can get a ride (from one of the neighbors). I have friends here.”