About Island Cohousing

About Us

About Us

Creating a Neighborhood

Island Cohousing is a neighborhood of 16 houses and a collection of shared common facilities located on a 30-acre woodland site in West Tisbury, on the island of Martha’s Vineyard.  It began in 1996 when John Abrams, president of South Mountain Company, a local design/build and development company, set to work with a core group of Islanders excited by the prospect of community living, affordable year round housing, and environmental responsibility (see Guiding Principles). In 1997 the group purchased land and began a highly collaborative design and development process.  In the spring of 2000, 16 families moved into completed homes, marking the end of the development adventure and the beginning of a new experiment for all of us.  See Design and Planning.

We settled in quickly and gradually acclimated to our new surroundings, our new neighbors, and the potential rewards of what we have created. Today we are a community of 29 adults, 24 kids, 5 dogs, and a herd of cats.  Our site includes a wonderful pond (great swimming and ice skating!), a beautiful common house where we share meals and other activities, a community vegetable garden, and beautiful woodlands with trails that link to many parts of the island.  There are many improvements we would like to make, but we understand that this is a long term process that unfolds over time -  at present our desires far outstrip our abilities and participatory energies.

But we’ll get there in due time. . . . . .

If you would like further information, or like to arrange to see Island Cohousing, please e-mail John Abrams at jabrams@southmountain.com.

Guiding Principles

Guiding Principles


This is an expression of the shared values of the residents of Island Cohousing. It is a living document that is expected to change as the community evolves.

Island Cohousing is a small neighborhood of 16 private households and shared common facilities. Through the balance of individual autonomy and group opportunities and participation, we hope to enhance the social and economic quality of the life of the residents and have a safe and beautiful place to live.?           

Guiding Principles
1)    Process:   The community was developed with the active participation of many of the current residents.
All members participate in the governance of Island Cohousing to ensure that the community reflects the values of the residents.

2)    Design:   Island Cohousing was designed to be an aesthetically uplifting and culturally rich setting that nurtures and inspires its members, provides individual and household privacy,  and respects abutters and neighbors.  Improvements and changes will continue this tradition and respect the original design objectives except when there is a conscious consensus of the community that the objectives should change.

3)    Affordability:   Island Cohousing was designed to allow for diverse incomes and financial abilities.  This will be recognized and continued.

4)    Ecology:   We strive to employ ecological design principles, cause minimal environmental impact, use resources and energy wisely, and support ecologically benign living as best we can.

5)    Common facilities:   The Common Facilities and Common House are to be used, enjoyed, and maintained by all without infringing on the rights of others. 

6)    Diversity:   We encourage diversity.  We seek to accommodate the varying needs of different ages, disabilities, cultures, and viewpoints.

7)    Community integration:   It is our intent to integrate and interact comfortably and responsibly with the surrounding neighborhood and region.

8)  Decision-Making:   Decisions are made by unanimous agreement (consensus).  In case of deadlock, we use a 75% majority voting mechanism.  All meetings are facilitated to insure maximum effectiveness and responsiveness to all members’ points of view.   Nothing that has been previously agreed upon by consensus of the community will be changed without a new consensus (or 75% majority vote if called for).

9)  Structure and Management:   The Island Cohousing Community Association is a Massachusetts corporation.  All households are members and are responsible for upholding the requirements of the by-laws and the Community Policies and have the right to take advantage of the benefits contained therein.  The Association has officers and an Administration Committee to conduct its business, but its policies are set by the General Meeting.

10) Getting Things Done:  We employ a careful mix of participatory group decision-making and delegated responsibility.  When we delegate, we expect to empower trustworthy people and empower them to do a good job by combining reasonable oversight with minimal interference.

11)  Year Round Community:  This is a neighborhood of year round residents.  We will do everything within our power to keep it that way over time.

12)  Model:  We hope this will continue to be an exemplary housing model for others to emulate:  a sensible and sustainable approach to housing for our small island community.



Modeled on a Danish housing concept developed in the 1970s, the sixteen homes at Island Cohousing (ICoho) are tightly clustered in a manner that encourages social interaction, provides a safe and supportive environment for children, and maximizes open space: 85% of the land is undeveloped in perpetuity.

There are extensive shared community facilities, including a pond, garden, fields, and a Common House which has all the spaces which we love to have but don’t need every day in our individual homes:  extra guest rooms, kids’ play room, a generous screened porch, and comfortable areas for cooking, eating together, parties, gatherings, meetings, and classes.

Cars are relegated to the perimeter of the property, making the interior landscape a pedestrian-friendly environment.  The six 2 BR, six 3 BR, and four 4 BR cedar shingled homes clean, spare silhouettes.  All have comfortable front porches, full cellars, substantial salvage and certified wood, and high quality, energy-efficient construction. They are all equipped with composting toilets which convert waste into valuable nutrients rather than contributing to the degradation of the Vineyard’s sole source aquifer.

The homes share a 36 acre site with South Mountain Company (SMC), the design/build firm that developed Icoho (SMC six acres, ICoho 30 acres).  The land was zoned Agricultural Residential; under existing zoning it could have supported a maximum of 10 houses and no commercial activity except home occupations.  The largely friendly (some neighbors were not happy about the commercial aspect) state 40B comprehensive permit that supercedes local zoning enabled the development to achieve enhanced affordability because of additional density and sharing development costs with SMC.

These aspects, along with private fundraising and below-market mortgages provided by two local banks, allowed Icoho to offer four units to families earning 70-80% of median island income.  These homebuyers were chosen by lottery and their houses are deed restricted to ensure long term affordability.
The process of obtaining the necessary approvals (including permits from our regional planning agency, which has some authority with comprehensive permits), took approximately nine months.  Because the town was so supportive of the development (which violated local zoning in eight ways), the Planning Board used it, to some degree, as a model when they re-wrote local zoning.

Today, all aspects of this development except the commercial part could be done in West Tisbury without a comprehensive permit.

The neighborhood’s 51 residents – all year round - range in age from newborn to 70 and includes a diversity of income levels, some born-and-raised islanders, some long term transplants, and one family who moved to the island to join the community.  Both the residences and the business pay full local taxes.  Island Cohousing represents a creative mechanism for developing affordable housing, without public subsidies, in an environmentally responsible way.


The lack of affordable housing threatens the economic viability and social fabric of communities across the Commonwealth.  In no place, though, is the situation more challenging than in the state’s island resort communities, where essential service workers, longtime residents, town elders, and those in crisis or with special needs, can’t simply move to the next town over.  The starting salary for teachers and policeman on Martha’s Vineyard is in the $30 – 35,000 range - none of the houses currently listed for sale with the multiple listing service would be affordable to these essential workers.

The outlook for renters is equally grim.  Units that rent for $1000/month in the off season jump to $4-5,000/month during the summer months; increasingly, rental properties are being bought for use as seasonal homes and are being taken out of the rental inventory entirely.

As one resident of Island Cohousing describes the situation,  “…our best neighbors are leaving the Island in ever-growing numbers…they simply cannot hold on any longer without a stable place to live.  Kids I taught in the West Tisbury School fifteen years ago, with kids of their own now, can’t afford a place to rent, never mind buy.  While I watched all the beaming faces at this year’s graduation, … I wondered how many were saying permanent good-byes.”

And yet there is great hope and promise.  Since the year 200 islanders have galvanized our resources and commitment and made tremendous progress in the struggle to preserve community by solving the affordable housing crisis.  See Island Housing Trust.