Together, apart

Cohousing allows the best of both worlds — privacy and independence and a sense of community

When Mary Huang began researching housing options for her aging parents in 2016, she came across the concept of cohousing. The Ottawa resident quickly realized that her parents would need more help, but that cohousing might just be the option she was looking for.

“At the time, there were no new cohousing units being built, but I was put in touch with a group of like-minded people,” says Huang, a board member of the Canadian Cohousing Network and a founding member of Concorde Cohousing, a multigenerational cohousing community in Ottawa.

She emphasizes that cohousing does not mean sharing a house. “Each family has their own unit, and we’ll share common space and often common meals or a cup of coffee,” she says, adding that the community aspect is important, and that it’s a good option for seniors.

“We’re here to help each other,” says Huang. “And the multi-generational aspect means not only a vibrant community at your doorstep, but multi-ages as well. Seniors can help with children, and parents can help seniors be being part of a living community and have that interaction.”

MP Yasir Naqvi presents a Canadian Platinum Jubilee Emblem for Community Service to Mary Huang. Photo Courtesy Office of Yasir Naqvi


Concorde is still in the planning stages — “right now we’re looking for land and at existing older low-rise apartment buildings that could be retrofitted to suit our needs” — and Huang calls it “a long, slow process but it will be worth it.”  

The Soul Sisters — Mary Alice (Ang) Henry, Norah McMahon, Dona Bowers, and Kathy Crowe — are four friends who are cohousing, know all about long, slow processes. “It’s taken about five years and many hoops to get to where we are today,” says Henry, adding that COVID really slowed things. “Although we’ve moved in, there are still many finishing touches going on.” When the group started looking, they came across many cohousing-like neighbourhoods in the United States that foster neighbourly supports. “We really liked what they were doing in these communities,” says McMahon. “There was a sense of togetherness along with front porches and big communal yards in the back. But people had their own units, so they could have that privacy when they wanted it.”  

The Soul Sisters (from left) Kathy Crowe, Norah McMahon, Dona Bowers and Mary Alice (Ang) Henry. Submitted photo

The women, who all retired from caring professions, met decades ago at St. Joe’s Parish. It was a different time, say McMahon and Crowe. “People got involved and knew each other through groups like church groups or the Kiwanis clubs.” They knew planning had to be very deliberate: they wanted to marry their needs for privacy in their own unit and still maintain that sense of community. “Our architect, Rosaline Hill really helped to get the build started,” says Henry. “She has just started Ottawa Cohousing and won Ottawa’s designer of the year for 2021 and many other awards since.” Having a navigator for the legal, financial and insurance issues is important as well. “The idea of unrelated owners was a puzzle for most financial institutions,” says Crowe. “And the city had quite a few roadblocks we had to overcome.” For the Soul Sisters, the driving idea was to age in place, with good friends for support. “We kind of feel like pioneers,” says Henry. “And if we can be an example of how to create a cohousing community and help combat loneliness in our aging population, so much the better.”

Terra Firma, the only cohousing community in the province is a testament to its members’ commitment that no one has left since its inception 25 years ago. “We have a couple in their 80s who plan to age in place,” says Kelly Thompson, a Terra Firma member. “And we have a single dad who grew up at Terra Firma who is now raising his own child here.” After more than five years of planning and searching, in 1997, the community bought two adjacent triplexes that had been built around 1885. The six units were in rough shape but formed one property, so the group negotiated one mortgage, and each party renovated their unit as their finances permitted. Seven years later, a seventh unit was added, along with a common house. The common house included a kitchen, recreational space, guest room, bathroom, sauna, and a hot tub. “The multigenerational aspect of Terra Firma has benefited everyone,” says Thompson. “We not only have a vibrant, resilient community but we’ve also got built-in daycare and a social safety net. If we need anything — from a cup of sugar to moral support, to the use of a car — we just send a text to the group or knock on a neighbour’s door.”

Terra Firma members (from left) Susanne Gagnon, Ari Simpson, Denis Bouillon, Diane Ziegler, Kelly Thompson and Rebecca Aird, with yoga instructor Basia Going, third from right. Photo Credit Aynsley Morris

The legal structure of Terra Firma is a condominium that has been adapted to their needs. All the households are represented on the condo’s board of directors and condo meetings are an opportunity to discuss issues and make decisions based on consensus. “For instance,” says Thompson, “we need to adapt to physical changes as we age or are injured, so we are using the condo reserve and maintenance funds to improve accessibility.”

Thompson says that Terra Firma residents aren’t necessarily close friends, but they have common values and trust each other. “We have created an intentional community that is unique,” says Thompson. “Sure, there are risks and making decisions as [multiple] households is challenging, but it’s been worth it.” Thompson points out that it has become increasingly difficult to find affordable property in Ottawa and building codes and legal constraints add to the challenge of developing a cohousing community. “But with a committed group, adequate resources, a supportive municipality, and most importantly, a foundation of trust, it is possible.”



Learn more about Ottawa’s Terra Firma