A Mess on Our Hands

October 22nd, 2008 by

The Great Depression, probably not, but we sure have a mess on our hands. On Sunday, October 5th In Fresno, CA the Cohousing Partners and McCamant and Durrett Architects (MDA), and an awesome cohousing group celebrated the grand opening of La Querencia cohousing among hundreds of well wishers, under glorious blue skies and next door to the new Gold LEED Unitarian Church. The church and the community, both designed by MDA, have been recognized for their cutting-edge environmental leadership.
The core Fresno community of 16 households is very strong and enjoys excellent participation as it goes through the usual challenges of the move-in stage. But the challenges are not usual this year. The politicians talk of the financial crisis moving from Wall Street to Main Street. Well, Main Street is us.
The same risk?

Fresno buyers with very good credit and down payments of more than 20 percent already invested in the project cannot get a permanent loan so they can close on their new homes. The lenders consider all of central California a distressed market. And I would argue that, yes, that’s true for those regular boxes spread equidistant across the landscape: there are too many of them and they appear to have been left there by some kind of asphalt-laying machine. They are unfortunate (euphemistically) on so many levels. There are too many McMansions, too many tract houses with two- or three-car garages facing the sidewalk.

The banks blame their reticence on the new Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac requirements, but they don’t have the sense to evaluate cohousing on a real risk basis. Do you know of any cohousing units that have foreclosed anywhere in the United States? Meanwhile there are houses with foreclosure signs on each lawn for streets on end in some towns in central California, Florida and Arizona — how could that be the same risk?

Is this a situation that will get worked out in the next few months? We hope so. But it is a little bit indicative of the challenges of innovative, sustainable housing solutions like cohousing are facing in the near future. The moral of this story is that if we don’t get our collective backsides in gear, this little movement, this little attempt to change the world one neighborhood at a time, this little attempt to move the ball forward towards more sustainability is in danger of being buried with the trash so dominant in the American housing markets.
So, what should we do? Cohousing is the best mainstream example of taking community and sustainability to the people. We should get ourselves organized to let our fellow citizens know the story of this small movement and how it offers the middle-class a chance to live lighter on the planet while enhancing their quality of life at the some time.

Now is the Time
We now have 20 years of experience in how to design, build and manage these proactive neighborhood communities. Now is the time to step up and show the real strength of true community. We benefit from a positive public image and more free PR than we deserve. America is looking for solutions and we have one. Cohousing is a solution that can help mobilize the country towards greater social, economic and environmental sustainability. We do this by the examples we set—one neighborhood at a time.
So what is there to do? First and foremost, cohousing is the best opportunity for middle-class folks to make a quantum leap towards cooperation and community, but it also offers an opportunity for stewardship, and for significantly lowering our carbon footprint while having a good time.
Call to action.
Tell your cohousing story
Write your congressperson
Get involved with the national cohousing association or help support its work
Invest in cohousing (there are projects that need help — by offering Financial Support you are not putting your money into another petroleum or tobacco company.
Share with your neighbors at large what you have done to live more lightly on the planet
Make sure to keep your community presentable to the larger community

But, most importantly, be proactive in making your (model) community work. Make sure that you practice compassionate communication with your neighbors, but don’t get pushed out of shape when someone disagrees with you. Learn to dialog healthfully, but also heartfully. Don’t take advantage of your neighbors—do your share. Help maintain your community: be accountable, cook dinner, be the model that we know we can be; be a functional neighborhood where neighbors talk about the issues of the day and resolve mutual concerns.

This is our chance to model the possible—and to make it more obvious to those who live in an estranged neighborhood. I think that we have a lot to offer—we can no longer afford to be the best kept secret in cultural and ecological sustainability.
But times are raw. Financial crisis, climatic disasters, and perhaps a young, new democratic president.

That’s exactly the conditions between 1987 and 1992, the last severe recession: the Keating debacle and the savings & loan mess, huge floods and fires, and Bill Clinton. Then came the largest economic expansion in American history and of course cohousing (the first cohousing was built in 1991).

This is the time to buy and to build cohousing. Prices won’t be this low again for a long while. And of course as usual what we have to fear more than all else is fear itself. Cohousing and cooperation really do have something to offer—let’s see if we can move it forward while the economics are peculiar—this is our opportunity to make it much more affordable by buying land and construction while they are less costly.

In 1929, the time of the last crash, most citizens lived on Farms and were closer to the food source. Most lived near extended families, and even nuclear families—demographics are dramatically changed now—for example more than half of American women do not live with husbands. Church and other institutions connected us with vital community. Our opportunities to retool our society through cohousing and other cooperative mechanisms have never been so needed.

Cohousing can be the possibility for modeling a sustainable future.
For those who know someone who survived the Great Depression, they say more than anything else, “spend wisely.” This is the time to live in community—we can do so much for each other simply by doing things with each other. For this to work, be prepared to give each other permission to talk about finances with each other. Be prepared to hire each other, be prepared to help each other. The sky is not falling—it’s just clouded, and the only thing that consistently brightens my day is the smile of my neighbors and what they teach me. I’m sure glad that I live in cohousing just now.

In community with significant help from herrer Jim Leach,


But Is It Really an “Ecovillage”?

October 14th, 2008 by

By Diana Leafe Christian

If a cohousing community uses the word “ecovillage” in its name, is it really an ecovillage? What does that mean, anyway?

Today I got an email from a cofounder of a cohousing project in the Northeast. She wrote, “Can you tell me how a community gets to use ‘ecovillage’ as part of their name? Is there a process, or does the group build the principles into their vision and just use the term? I’m just beginning to organize a group for a cohousing community in my rural village. I think that a group will form and very likely want to be an ecovillage.”

In my experience, cohousing communities that use the term “ecovillage” in their name either did it because they planned to be ecovillages and the founders cared about ecovillage principles and practices or because they wanted to market their project in a way that would appeal to potential buyers. The word “ecovillage” sells. Examples of cohousing communities that also are ecovillages: EcoVillage at Ithaca in New York; Columbia Ecovillage in Portland, Oregon; Munksoegaard in Denmark; and Earthsong EcoNeighbourhood in New Zealand.

Sawyer Hill Ecovillage in Berlyn, Massachusetts is comprised of two adjacent cohousing communities, Mosaic Commons & Camelot Cohousing. One of their founders told me that their development advisor, Chris Scott-Hanson, suggested they call their project an ecovillage in order to market their units. I can sympathize — forming groups need to sell units!

The only other cohousing community I’m familiar with that uses the term is Ecovillage at Loudon County, in Virginia. I believe the founder-developers called it an ecovillage because they built energy-efficient passive-solar homes with green building materials, perhaps thinking that that’s what makes an ecovillage. But I see it differently. In the last few years I’ve visited ecovillages in the US and Canada and interviewed many ecovillage founders and members. I live in an ecovillage myself (Earthaven in North Carolina); publish an online newsletter about ecovillages [ http://www.ecovillagenews.org ]; and in 2007 was the keynote speaker at the Urban Ecovillage Conference in Chicago and one of several keynote speakers at the Japanese Ecovillage Conference in Tokyo. I believe I know what ecovillages are, and know well that just having green and sustainable alternatives does not an ecovillage make.

I think increasing numbers of cohousing communities and plain old housing developments will call themselves ecovillages in the future, either because they are in fact ecovillages, or to sell units, or else because they just want to help motivate us all to live in more green and sustainable ways. And I believe that as it’s increasingly co-opted, the term will gradually become meaningless.

So if you’re looking to join a cohousing community that really is an ecovillage, please know that ecovillages seek to learn, and then model and demonstrate to others (often with classes and tours), examples of (1) ecological, (2) economic, and (3) social/cultural/spiritual sustainability.

Some resources:
Definitions of an ecovillage: http://www.ecovillagenews.org/wiki/index.php/What_is_an_Ecovillage%3F
Online and other resources for learning more: http://www.ecovillagenews.org/wiki/index.php/Ecovillage_Resources
Best book out there on ecovillages, in my opinion: Ecovillages, by Jonathan Dawson, Chelsea Green Publishers, 2005.
Wonderful cohousing-ecovillage to visit to get a first-hand experience of being in an ecovillage:  EcoVillage at Ithaca http://www.ecovillage.ithaca.ny.us
—Diana Leafe Christian

“Laser Beam” or “Information-Gathering”: Two Ways to Plan Your Cohousing Visits

October 8th, 2008 by

By Diana Leafe Christian

If you want to join a cohousing community, in my experience there are at least two ways to plan visits to likely existing communities and/or core groups of forming communities.

One way is to visit only those that seem like likely candidates — communities or groups you’re actually considering joining, given what you know at the moment. Another way — which I highly recommend — is to visit those you know you’re interested in as well as other cohousing communities, whenever possible.

The first method is more the laser-beam focus mode: “I’m interested in joining A, B, or C cohousing community, so I’ll visit each and choose between the three.” The second is the information-gathering mode: “I’m most interested in A, B, and C right now, but I also want to learn as much as I can about cohousing life before I make this huge decision—so I’ll also visit, D, E, F, G, and so on before I decide anything.”

If you visit cohousing communities which are different in some ways from the ones you think you’d like to live in (lot model when you want townhouse-style, urban high rises when you want a suburban setting, for example), you’ll further clarify your ideas about what may or may not want in terms of many other factors in the community you ultimately join. Knowing what you don’t want can be helpful in honing your choices about what you do want. I firmly believe you can’t know too much about life in cohousing ahead of time before making the all-important decision about which one to join.

In either of the above scenarios, I suggest that when visiting cohousing communities or core groups you place yourself in “information-gathering mode,” rather than in the “oh-my-gosh-I-have-to-decide-this-right-away!” mode. The latter mode, can to make you feel — gulp! — fairly tense, which of course communicates itself to the community members or core group members you meet, which affects their opinion of you (and your opinion of them), which can affect your ultimate decision.

However, if you approach each group in information-gathering mode, it can take the pressure off both you and the group, can allow you feel more relaxed (after all, you’re just making observations and taking notes), which will communicate itself to the communities you visit, which will affect their opinion of you, and so on.
—Diana Leafe Christian

Musings: Seniors versus Elders

October 1st, 2008 by

An acquaintance of mine, Chris Zimmerman, owns and operates a couple of assisted-care facilities in Alameda, California. He inherited one at age 23 and subsequently built a second one. He’s now 60, and despite the limitations of an assisted care environment, he has developed astute theories about seniors and elders.
Like many observers of the cultural scene, he agrees that seniors today are given little respect, but he also believes that they have to earn the respect that they’d like to command. He argues that seniors have abdicated their role as respected elders. Being an elder once meant earning respect by playing an active role in teaching younger generations, a role that’s seldom fulfilled today. He believes that seniors earn elderhood by helping younger generations understand how to be accountable.

Being an elder once meant earning respect by playing an active role in teaching younger generations, a role that’s seldom fulfilled today.

Helping People Become Responsible
When Katie and I lived in Emeryville Cohousing, there were two very capable elders who not only reminded people when it was time to sign up to cook, but actually signed you up to cook dinner if you forgot. “Oh, you can’t cook that day? Then sign up for a day you can, OK?” I know, because I was one of those “forgetful” people always on the go, overwhelmed by the daily demands of clients, wife and child. I wanted to perform my cohousing duties, but I felt more accountable to the above three. The elders didn’t care if you looked at them funny when they reminded you or if you complained vehemently or even if you stomped off like a child. They had long outgrown the compelling need to be popular that so often plagues younger folks. They helped people become responsible, whether they were used to accountability or not.

Those two elders made it clear to me that my responsibility also included the other members of my community – those to whom I had promised to cook. Consequently, I never missed a rotation. Unless you live in a community with true elders (not just seniors), it’s impossible to imagine a young person (except one born with an old soul) making other young people accountable, much less seniors. Young people are too worried about being unpopular, or about hurting someone’s feelings, or being perceived as being disrespectful to seniors. Consequently, the wonderful young person in our cohousing community whose job it is to get everyone signed up to cook dinner is in a difficult if not untenable position.

Hitting Your Car with Her Cane
When I was a kid living in Downieville, California (population 325), you wouldn’t consider honking your car horn after dark (unless, of course, it was an emergency). If you did, an elder would have no qualms about slamming the large palm of his hand on the hood of your car and shouting, “Hey, kid, we don’t do that around here” – even if he had known you all your life. Or, another elder would feel entitled to hit your car with her cane if you did that. You’d never consider turning around in someone’s driveway with your lights on.

Elders garner our respect because they do the thing that young people can’t do: they affirm the mores and norms of a society, the spoken and unspoken agreements. They enforce the social contract. Consequently, when I get together with my contemporaries from Downieville, we still talk about the old days and the elders of our youth. The same dozen names of elders come up over and over again. It’s clear to me why. The people I tend to respect the most are those who help me see the bigger picture — even when it’s not popular. In short, they help you see that it’s not all about you.

Elders garner our respect because they do the thing that young people can’t do: they affirm the mores and norms of a society.

Elevating the Status of Elders
Sure, there were many more Downieville seniors than those dozen, but the others were just old people who didn’t particularly contribute this way – they were definitely not “elders.” You earn respect by transitioning from senior to elder. However, the elders of Downieville modeled not only what it means to be a sage member of the community, but also a citizen. They elevated the status of all the seniors. Besides modeling elderhood, they reinforced the importance of respecting other seniors — elders or not.

Elders teach young children not only how to fish and tie a fly, but also the importance of good manners. As we get older, they model how to raise children, calmness when it’s time to be calm and forthrightness when it’s time to be forthright. “Did you mean to drop that piece of paper?” “Did you realize that you were yelling into your cell phone?”
Elders help reinforce the agreements – even if they didn’t agree with the agreements in the first place. Then they help float a new and improved proposed solution, but in the mean time they say this is what we’re doing. I don’t know how you hold a society together without elders. Who else will hold the social contract? The police? Young people?

Earning Respect
The way I see it, respect is right there to be earned. A pair of seniors in our cohousing community earned my respect when they took the elder position at the last meeting by saying, “Look, in case you forgot, this is how you recycle,” or when Nira reminds folks to do their common house chores. With pressure from spouses, kids, jobs, clients and bosses, there are so many things that younger people forget – important things that help stitch a society together, but are forgotten or aren’t as immediate — the kind of immediacy experienced when a three-year-old cries and has to be responded to. Seniors remind us how to behave.

For the reasons above, some would take issue with the idea of senior-only cohousing. But some seniors don’t want to live with toddlers or young children. Therefore, senior cohousing broadens the possibilities for seniors who don’t want to live with kids. It means that elders in senior cohousing can play a more meaningful role in the larger society, bolstered in confidence by the reinforcement, role modeling and education they receive from their peers. Seniors also have the very dire need to elder each other — help each other figure out this whole life deal and, for example, how to live more lightly on the planet while at the same time enhancing their quality of life.

One evening a couple of months ago, I invited everyone over 50 in our community to have this conversation in our common house. It was a huge success. Everyone started out talking about how others were not respecting them, without reflecting on their own actions or assumptions. But as the conversation segued toward introspection and people realized that maybe some of it is about me, then true growth occurred. It was one of the most touching and heartfelt conversations I have ever had in cohousing.

In community,

When the Community You’ve Joined Changes . . .

September 28th, 2008 by

Diana Leafe Christian

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

Who Thrives in Cohousing?

September 27th, 2008 by

By Diana Leafe Christian

If you’re looking for a cohousing core group or existing community to join, you’re probably thinking about what you want. You may also be considering what personal characteristics tend to lead to enjoying —even thriving — in cohousing.
Because I live in community myself, and I’ve talked with many others who live in community (both cohousing and non-cohousing), I’ve gotten a sense of the personal characteristics I think help a person thrive in cohousing.
• Confidence, self-acceptance, self-esteem
• Assertiveness
• Humility, willingness to listen and learn
• Willingness to serve, to contribute to something larger than yourself

By “confidence” and “self-esteem,” I don’t mean egotism or self-importance, but the simple appreciation of one’s own worth. This usually results in an innate willingness to extend respect and good will to others. In my experience, people who feel fairly good about themselves tend to treat other people well, and to enjoy living in community. However, people at the lower end of the self-worth spectrum (including those who behave as if they feel worthless and inferior, as well as those who behave in ways that are prideful or dismissive) seem to have difficulty adjusting to community. Sometimes these folks have trouble with other people’s feedback hitting them too hard. Sometimes they don’t know how to take their fair sense of responsibility for things they; either taking either too much responsibility: “Oh, I’m a terrible person!”, or too little responsibility: “I do not do that! You’re the one with the problem.”

By “assertive” I mean the ability to speak up, ask questions, ask for what you want (sensitively and respectfully), patiently persist, and take the initiative. Sometimes it simply means having enough initiative, patience, and persistence just to deal intelligently with something in the community that really needs help! By “humility,” I certainly don’t mean self-deprecation or groveling, but a simple willingness to assume that we may not know many things, we may not have all the answers, we may learn something new. This kind of humility is a simple kind of gentle gratitude, and respect for ourselves and others. It also means not assuming we know more than other people, but can learn new things.

By “willingness to serve,” I mean taking genuine pleasure in working with others to create something that is much larger than our own small selves. You might recall a time when you worked with friends or colleagues on a project that benefited others, or one which you could never have done alone. If you enjoyed the experience, I expect you know what I mean. I often view living in my community, Earthaven Ecovillage, as a lifelong ecological art project. It’s a lot bigger than anything I could ever do by myself — it takes collaborating shoulder-to-shoulder with others. And that’s certainly what cohousing is: cooperating and collaborating shoulder-to-shoulder.

If you don’t believe you have some or all of these above characteristics, of course you can still enjoy life in cohousing. And in my experience, if you encourage yourself in these characteristics, you’ll enjoy your new cohousing community all the more. Good luck!
—Diana Leafe Christian

Look Before You Leap (Ask These Important Questions Before You Join)

September 16th, 2008 by

By Diana Leafe Christian

“The results of this water test are enough to make the hair on the back of anyone’s neck stand up!” the scientist at the testing lab told my friend.

Soon after she bought a home in a brand-new cohousing community, the weather turned cold. She and her neighbors turned on the heat, and the water that came out of the hot water faucets smelled strongly like magic markers, and burned the eyes and skin. Lab reports revealed a situation that turned into a nightmare for her and this community.

While no one in my friend’s community had expected toxic water, they were all well aware that the core group’s decisions about the heating system had been contentious, and they made their choice despite strong warnings from a local heating specialist.

I’m sharing her dramatic story — even though such circumstances are rare in cohousing — to illustrate the need to seek full disclosure when buying a home, in a cohousing community or anywhere else. Of course, most cohousing communities are characterized by safe, well-built housing. However, I do know of two other of the 113 built cohousing communities in the US that had problems because of what their contractor did or failed to do.
In one community, some housing units became so severely mold-infested that residents had to move out for several months. In another, the contractor failed to provide adequate ventilation and other violations of the building code, which an alert member caught during construction. Each group used legal pressure to force the contractor to fix the problem, and with financial incentive from the contractor to sign legal agreements that they would not publicly reveal the contractor’s malfeasance.

What happened in my friend’s community? Here’s her story:
Less than a week after I moved into a newly built cohousing community, it was discovered that when the heat was turned on, the hot water smelled strongly like magic markers. When I used this water my hands burned for hours after. This wasn’t obvious at move-in in the summer when no one needed heat, but in the fall when it got cold it became apparent. People either didn’t turn on the heat (so it no longer had a detectable smell, although we later learned the toxins were still present, but to a lesser degree), or turned it on and showered elsewhere and washed dishes with cold filtered water.

No one in the group was trying to find out what was going on, so I began to try to track down the problem. In brief, the water tested at a lab proved to have very high levels of volatile organic compounds, including toluene and xylene, which are nerve toxins, and ethylbenzene, a carcinogen, and a number of other toxic substances.
It turns out the problem was due to the combination of radiant-heat floors — 300 feet of plastic hot water pipes running through concrete — and a highly toxic sealant applied to the concrete floors, which had leached into the pipes. The group had chosen an “open-loop” system, meaning the same pipes that carry hot water to heat the floor also deliver water to the tap. Because the law requires that potable water be delivered through oxygen-permeable piping, all the pipes were made of material that could be permeated by the penetrating sealant.
After weeks of investigation, I found that compounds in the sealant and in the water were identical. My investigation also revealed that members of the development committee had been strongly warned against choosing an open-loop system, yet did so anyway, to keep costs down. (I later learned this choice is illegal in 33 states, requiring instead a closed loop, separating domestic water from any heating pipes).
When I was buying in, no one told me there had been any kind of concern about the open-loop system or that they had been warned about serious drawbacks. And while I was led to believe the project was “green,” the sealant on the floor was anything but. (I hadn’t even checked out why the floor in my unit, recently sealed, had such an intense odor, because I believed those in charge of the project were making good choices.)
In October a very helpful local plumber I was working with advised at least an initial solution: that we get the contractor to separate the water into two systems: one for hot water and one for floor-heating. The group said no, as they had faith the contractor would solve the problem by less expensive means. I watched helplessly as the contractor, a company, which I later learned had many complaints lodged against it, tried lame and ineffective “solutions.”

In my unit the problem was also compounded by airborne fumes, because of the recent coating. I ended up leaving the heat off to keep the fumes down, keeping all the windows open to let out the fumes, washing dishes with cold water, and taking showers at a friend’s house. I just bundled up and spent the day in my upstairs office, using the wall heater. (As subsequent lab tests revealed the toxins were in everyone’s water, most in the community took showers elsewhere, and many left their heat off until we entered November, when it got too cold.) Despite stuffing cloths under the bedroom door at night to keep out the fumes, I still woke up with a bloody nose every morning, and burning lungs. By mid-November I finally left and stayed with a series of friends as I tried to figure out what to do.

Unable to pay both rent and a mortgage, and not having personal funds to try to repair the problem myself (while everyone else kept waiting on the contractor), I decided to sell the house. Miraculously, a couple who knew people in the community wanted to buy in. There was one remaining house to be sold, a smaller unit, but they were interested in my larger unit. The community could have insisted on selling only the smaller unit, but they felt so bad about what happened to me and the fact that I was leaving that they were supportive in allowing the couple to buy my house. Of course I gave they buyers full disclosure of the circumstances.

The buyers had enough money to immediately seal off the floor with tile and install large, expensive air purifiers. They also hired a plumber to separate the heating and hot water systems so the tap water didn’t go through the heating pipes first. (I believe others in the group finally took this step in February.) I was extremely fortunate to be able to sell the house, although I lost the entire amount of my down payment. I also had to pay legal fees to remove the liens I discovered against the property because the contractor hadn’t paid several subcontractors, and to make sure I was doing everything correctly in selling a contaminated house.

It has taken nearly a year for my friend to recover from health issues she attributes to living in her toxic house.
The point of this cautionary tale is to emphasize the need to learn if there are any such construction-related problems — or any other problems that might affect your health or finances — before joining a cohousing community. It’s the law that buyers must be given a disclosure sheet about the health and environmental aspects of the home they’re buying. Ask for this from the membership committee of your prospective cohousing community. If it’s an existing community, get this from the owner who’s selling, or the Realtor. If it’s a newly forming community, who is the developer or developer-partner? Look for one who is experienced, and perhaps with a regional or national reputation. And keep in mind that if the group, or developer, made a cheaper choice in construction, it may end up being far more costly in the long run.

If you’re joining an existing cohousing community, talk to members, and if you have doubts, to former members, about whether there have been any environmental or financial difficulties. If my friend had talked to former members before buying, she would have learned about the controversial and dangerous choice of their heating system, and would not have bought into the community.

Again, in most cohousing communities you’ll find high integrity among the members and cohousing professionals, lovely and well-built units, and freely offered disclosure. However, my friend’s story illustrates that it does pay to look before you leap, even, sometimes, in cohousing.

Musings: The Community Tax

September 1st, 2008 by

Cohousing is a hoot – it really is. When I walk onto the site after a hard day at work and chat with a couple of the 37 kids, or see cutie one-year-old August smiling in his mother’s arms, well, it makes my life worth living. When I walk into the common house an hour before dinner, and Dyann and Frank tell me they can easily accommodate my Danish guests (who fed us seven nights a week when we stayed in their cohousing), sometimes it seems just like one long party.

I appreciate all the hundreds of times that a neighbor has watched my kid so I can go to the store, to a movie, to a basketball game or to work. For all the times someone knew just the right earache antidote, cheap airline tickets or the best place to buy organic potatoes. It’s the Scrabble game, the billiard game, a neighbor coming over to show me how to bake his savory bread that I so enjoyed. The eggs, the milk, the TV so we could watch the Olympics or the election returns. The neighbor who gave me so much hope for our species by spending quality time with another neighbor’s 12-year-old who was having trouble at home. Hope is a wonderful yet sometimes rare currency necessary to get through the day. For all this I am grateful.

A Zippy Little Red Sportscar
Some days I feel that living in cohousing is analogous to driving a zippy little red convertible. But instead of transportation as entertainment, it’s more like neighborhood as entertainment. There’s always an interesting conversation at the pool or after dinner in the common house. Whether it’s politics, sports, health, family, the economy, art, music or gardening – there’s always something. And after dinner, if you’re bored with one discussion, just move to another table. The beer-makers often either share their wares or know the best to be had from the local microbreweries. In any case, it’s endlessly entertaining.

Last week I spent three days at a cohousing community just north of Vienna, where I was honored to be a speaker at the Austrians’ annual national cohousing conference. At the cohousing community that weekend, 15 people played volleyball for 5½ hours on Saturday and a bunch of others for six hours on Sunday. After a great dinner on Saturday was the monthly dance – with a collection of the most danceable world beat tunes I’ve ever heard.

The Small Price You Pay
While there, one resident rolled his eyes at a neighbor’s comment (you know, one of those micro-controversies) and I said, “Well, you know of course about the cohousing tax.” In other words, it’s those little annoyances that you have to put up with to enjoy all the other gifts — the price you pay to enjoy the rest. That one discussion that, for a few moments, is annoying.

It’s those little annoyances that you have to put up with to enjoy all the other gifts.

It’s the gift tax, the community tax. We all have to pay taxes; that’s a given. Cohousing is no different. The tax for all the gifts we get day after day, big and small. Big ones as in our being able to have only one child because she wouldn’t be an only child with so many soulmates around her, to small ones like the smile 90-year-old Meg is wearing when I pass her sitting on the common terrace.

Another way to look at it is the “frown factor:” 40 to 50 warm smiles, sometimes hearty laughs, gentle cajoles, every day. When I run into a neighbor onsite, offsite, around the site. When I’m trying to figure out which house my kid is in, when I run into cohousing friends in town, and when I go to common dinner. Then every month or so there’s the frown. “Boy, Chuck, your suggestion about the chicken coop was ridiculously expensive” Some days you’re awesome and once in a while you’re ridiculous. Oh well, that’s the community tax.

A Long Gift List
No one likes taxes – ideally, everything should be given to us outright and we shouldn’t have to pay for anything. But for those of us resigned to taxes, the occasional frown is a small price to pay for having someone to teach my kid to sing; for common dinners six nights a week; for being able to borrow a car occasionally (so that for 10 years we only needed to own one car for our family of three): for great homemade beer, sauces or cookies; for incredibly rich and wonderful conversation that grows richer and deeper over time as you get to know these people better and better. A small price to pay for landscaping I could never do; people to paint the garage doors; someone to go to the movies with at a moment’s notice. A small price for neighbors so willing and capable to work together, to live lighter on the planet (my electric bill is minus $77.50 for the last 10 months), and such a small price to pay for the personal growth (I’ve learned that there is no good reason to ever hold a grudge), among so many other intangibles. Two days ago, three young friends – a 6-, 7- and 8-year-old – came to get me to watch the meteor shower with them. Last night four kids came to get me for relay races in the pool. That’s what makes my life worth living.
My neighbors may not have set out to do this, but they have managed to make our lives more practical, more convenient, more economical, more interesting and definitely more fun. And for that I will endure the occasional thorn: the blackberries are too sweet to do otherwise. What I call the community tax – sometimes also know as the “pain in the butt factor” – is the thorn.

In community,
Chuck Durrett

Separating the “Wheat” from the “Chaff” Ahead of Time Online

August 30th, 2008 by

By Diana Leafe Christian

If you’re looking for a forming cohousing community, learn to “read between the lines” in directory listings and websites.

• I observed in my book Creating a Life Together that only about 10 percent of forming intentional community groups succeed, and about 90 percent fail. And while the statistics for cohousing communities are better — Chuck Durrett estimates that about a third of all cohousing core groups succeed in building their community — many do fail, and sometimes this means people lose a great deal of money. So in order to join a group that has a good chance of success, I’d want you to know as much as possible ahead of time about the process of forming a cohousing community. And as much as possible about how successful core groups function.
I just read all the “forming” listings in all the states in the directory of communities on this website, and read each community’s website too. I recommend you do this too! In an hour or so you’ll get a sense of how core groups can be well organized or not organized yet, and the many different stages of the process. A fascinating short online education!
• If the listing shows few or no people, no property, or property but only one or two people (who most likely own the property), and there is no website, this most likely means the group is very new. The advantages of joining a brand new group are that you can help influence its direction, and you’ll have plenty of time to make up your mind whether or not to live in the community being planned. The disadvantage: it may be years before you live in cohousing!
• When you read the directory listings and websites of forming communities, you’ll see that some groups have regularly scheduled meetings; others apparently don’t, since they don’t tell you meeting times. Some have property; others don’t yet. Some are affiliated with well-known cohousing developers or architects; others apparently are not, as they don’t say so. These factors can give an indication how successful, or how far along, a core group may be.

—Diana Leafe Christian

Rainbow or White Bread? Ethnic Diversity in Cohousing

August 4th, 2008 by

By Diana Leafe Christian

Fostermamas (see blog entry below) also mentioned that their family is multi-generational and multiracial. And on June 27th, Annette wrote a blog response, “Regarding ethnic diversity, what are the statistics?”

David Entin of Rocky Hill Cohousing in Northampton, Massachusetts (and Board Member of Coho/US and co-host of its “Research” Topic Room), responds with the following:

“My own cohousing community has wrestled with this question, especially when we were recruiting for initial members and found it so difficult to attract people of color. We do live in an area that has few people of color, which made it more difficult. Our 28 household adult members are all white, though one has part Native American heritage. We do have more diversity of children, through adoptions, children from India, Guatemala, and African-American children.
“In addition, we have diversity in terms of age (from six months to 72 years), a disabled person, and a good mix of gay and straight, both individuals and couples.
“I am familiar with the three others cohousing communities here in the Pioneer/Connecticut River Valley, and they are similar to us in terms of limited diversity. We also have some diversity through a few renters and associate members.”

I’d love to hear from more cohousers — including people seeking a cohousing community to join — what they want, and what they expect, in terms of ethnic diversity in cohousing. Are cohousing communities welcoming to people of color (I think they are) and to multi-racial families? And to larger, multi-generational families? What are you finding? Thanks!
—Diana Leafe Christian