When the Community You've Joined Changes . . .

 

What happens when a cohousing community changes in values, lifestyle, and “community culture” over time? And how might this affect you as an a new incoming member?

I have a good friend who lives with her young son in a cohousing community she helped to start. When she and the other founders started the community, food in common house meals was organic, with both omnivore and vegetarian options. The cooks bought organic vegetables and fruit; whole grain bread, cereals, and other grains; and organically raised eggs, chicken, fish, and meat. They used honey and other healthy sweeteners; never white sugar.

The original group also had a rudimentary knowledge of effective group process skills, and knew how to schedule and conduct mediations between members when necessary.

But over the years as people left and sold their units, new neighbors with different values and practices moved into the community. This wasn’t planned or anticipated; it just happened. As the new people bought in, the community culture began to change.

Most of the new people saw no point in buying the more expensive organic food, or offering “rabbit food” vegetarian options. The new people’s influence gradually transformed common house meals, till now they’re heavy on commercially raised beef from Safeway, commercially grown vegetables and grains, and rich desserts with white sugar. Common meals have gone from organic meals for omnivores and vegetarians alike, to “regular American food” for omnivores alone.

My friend and her son can’t eat with the community anymore, because they feel ill afterwards. She assumes it’s from consuming so much fat, sugar in a meal (and perhaps from environmental toxins in commercially grown and raised food).

The food is not all that’s changed. Recently my friend had a dispute with a neighbor who was a new member. Trying to talk with him about the issue didn’t seem to help, so she requested mediation, with another long-time community member as mediator.

During the mediation it became clear to my friend and the mediator that the new neighbor had no idea how to communicate in an open, honest, self-revealing way, as founders and longer-term residents had learned to do. He maintained the position that my friend was essentially an unreasonable person who shouldn’t want something different than he did, and he was blameless as a party to the dispute. Not only did the mediation fail, but then the new neighbor convinced other new residents that my friend was “strange” because she wanted this “weird” mediation. The founders and other long-term residents know this is nonsense, of course, but the new ones believed it. No touchy-feely crap for them!

My friend still has a better life in her cohousing community than she would if she lived in mainstream housing. She’s surrounded by neighbors who look out for each other and her son. Her home is more secure than it would be elsewhere, and she’s still safer walking to her car than she would be if she lived somewhere else. Her son still loves the neighborhood and he still has plenty of children to play with.

A community’s culture changing like this is no one’s fault, but it is significant. So I hope that you would have other reasons for joining your new community besides that it’s “your kind of people” and “your kind of culture.” I would hope you also love the location and the community’s beauty, comfort, and amenities. Because even if its culture does change, in your new cohousing community you’ll still have the opportunity to live in a much more open, trusting, and secure way with neighbors than most people in the US.

     —Diana Leafe Christian