Cohousing and Intentional Community: Does Terminology Matter?

Cohousing was one of my first introductions to collective living and the world of Intentional Communities. My father helped found Valley Oaks Village, in Chico, CA, in the mid-90’s. He and I moved into his unit in 1996, when I was 16, and I lived there for a year before I moved out on my own. I even become a member of the community (i.e. part of the consensus decision-making group) for 6 months (a token amount, but formative for a 16 year old). My path then took me to a student housing cooperative and then to Twin Oaks, and I’m grateful for the perspective each of these communities gave me.

My life has been all about community, culminating recently in being hired as the incoming Executive Director of the Fellowship for Intentional Community. My predominant associations have been with communities that identify as Intentional Communities, but I’ve had contact with many that don’t.

Terminology is a tricky business. A certain group adopts a label that’s meaningful to them. Another group comes along that’s very similar but wants to differentiate itself, maybe even disassociate. Maybe they didn’t even know about each other when they got started. But if they’re both reaching out to larger society, trying to grow as a movement, tapping into the same resource base, this can create tension and confusion. If they would be better off as allies, how do you reconcile the differences in terminology and any underlying, real differences the terminology might point to?

Is Cohousing a form of intentional community? The term Intentional Community was in use before Cohousing, and describes a broader range of models than most people realize. But Cohousing describes a particular, innovative model developed fairly recently. By contrast, the term Housing Co-operative has been in use in the US since at least the early 1900’s, pre-dating the term Intentional Community. Does it make sense to try and identify housing co-operatives as a form of Intentional Community? Then there are Ecovillages (again, a relatively new term). Some groups adopt this as their primary identity, orienting them towards sustainability and is very inclusive of different ownership models (e.g. Ecovillage of Ithaca identifies as an ecovillage but is most akin to cohousing when it comes to how it’s ownership and finances are organized). And if Intentional Community is the blanket term, then do we need other terms for the various other kinds of communities out there? Communes, land trusts, homesteads… It’s a long list.

Why does this even matter? Well, in the ecosystem of shared ownership models of residences and residential developments there are a number of different organizations doing networking and support: Cohousing US, the FIC, NASCO, ENA, the National Association of Housing Cooperatives, the Federation of Egalitarian Communities, to name some of the most active players. Are each of these groups movements in themselves? Do they collectively qualify as a movement? There’s a clear affinity and potential benefit to collaboration, but it seems to me that they are falling into the same pattern of “siloing” common in the non-profit world.

This movement, which I would call the Communities Movement (and which I would put into a larger movement I would call the Cooperative Movement, which, in my mind, includes worker co-ops and transition towns, for example), is in a very fortunate position at this point in time. There are a plethora of viable models and valuable resources available. Even within the distinction of Cohousing there are numerous variations that will appeal to different people or work for the slightly (if not massively) different circumstances each aspiring community faces. A great resource out there is the Cohousing Legal Toolkit, by Janelle Orisi and Cynthia Hawley. Whether or not a group were to identify as a Cohousing Community, and whether or not some of the material in the Toolkit is workable for a given group, it’s an amazing outline of the kinds of questions any group needs to be asking when embarking on the adventure of collective living.

The relationship between Cohousing and Intentional Communities, particularly as represented by Coho US and the FIC, has evolved over time and at this point is a success story in inter-organizational cooperation. Cohousing has always sought to be a more accessible model of shared living than other forms of intentional community, and, early in it’s life in the US, was reticent to associate too closely with “hippie communes.” This was understandable because of mainstream perceptions but didn’t necessarily reflect the reality of the diversity of intentional communities. But over time the movers and shakers in both worlds started interacting and even overlapping, and there was a recognition of how closer association could be beneficial for everyone. For example, Coho US pulls its directory from the FIC’s Communities Directory, which has been one of it’s primary programs for a couple decades, and the FIC has found an important market for its products and services in the Cohousing world, which tends to be more affluent.

One of the hats I wear is manager of the Twin Oaks Communities Conference. This 20 year old event, held each year on Labor Day weekend (Sept 4 - 7, 2015), has been the primary event for intentional communities in the US. We usually have two to three dozen different communities represented, as well as community seekers and people from other branches of that larger Cooperative Movement I mentioned. Laird Schaub, the outgoing Executive Director of the FIC, and long time professional facilitator, as well as Aurora Demarco, the FIC’s new Development Director, attended the recent Cohousing Conference in North Carolina. We’ve tried to have a presence at every national cohousing conference. Similarly, we’ve had members from cohousing communities attend the Twin Oaks Communities Conference many years, and I’d like to see this increase. This year there will also be a West Coast Communities Conference, Oct 9 - 11, at the Groundswell Institute in Mendocino County, CA. Both of these events can be valuable resources for Cohousing Communities.

At their core, all types of communities, collectives, cooperatives, and other community-oriented organizations tend to struggle with the same things: Decision-making, interpersonal dynamics, organizational structures, finances, whether or not people are doing their fair share, what color to paint the living room, why can’t people clean up after themselves, what to do about the barking dog… the list goes on. This year’s Monday Program is Money in Community, exploring that most confounding and quintessential aspect of our modern lives.

Every group has something to teach and something to learn from every other group. The mission of the Communities Conference is to demonstrate a satisfying experience of community and provide opportunities to create, develop, and learn about intentional communities. Whatever you call yourself, I hope to see you at Twin Oaks in September.