By Rob Sandelin
The first steps in creating a new cohousing community don’t need to be abstract, circular or ambiguous.
One of cohousing’s sages updates his worthwhile advice on where a new forming group should focus its energy.
These are some of the elements to consider working on in the first months you spend together. This assumes you have brought together a core group of at least two or three households. Three or four households is even better.
1: A vision/goals statement which defines the intentions and directions of the community.
This should clearly state what you hope to achieve as a group. Give it to every future member.
2: A group decision and communications process.
You need to answer the following questions:
- Who are members? What is the process and qualifications to become a member? Most communities require people to attend a minimum number of functions and be approved by the members. Some communities have found that “investment = commitment” and require a non-refundable investment to weed out the "just looking” folks from the serious. One hundred dollars will clearly identify the really committed from the onlookers. If members will need to invest several thousand dollars eventually, a hundred bucks is really not very much money. Make this a non-refundable investment.
- How are decisions made? Who gets to make them? Learn about consensus before you commit your group decisionmaking to it, though you may have to have some sort of majority decisionmaking at the very beginning to deal with potential obstacles.
- How will meetings be run? Who gets to talk, when? Having someone hold the role of facilitator helps enormously. The cohousing.org resource page has some good sources about facilitation and much more.
- How will conflicts be handled/resolved? When we don’t agree, how will we work it out? Holding lots of parties and rituals together will grow bonds and make dealing with conflicts easier. Family counselors could mediate in a dispute, or early on identify other people who can help the group make a tough decision or help it deal with a conflict.
- How will records be kept? Who takes notes, how are they distributed and to whom? Start by taking turns taking notes, and encourage those who are good at it to do it most of the time. At the end of the meeting be sure to assign any tasks to specific volunteers with due dates, and read quickly through the notes about any decisions made so what is in the notes is accurate and agreed to.
- How will new members be brought up to speed? Record your decisions in a decision document and hand it out to new members. When you get to about a dozen people, assign new members a "buddy" who explains the processes and history.
3: A financial structure.
You should have answers to the following questions:
- How will expenses get paid?
- Who will keep records of what has been paid?
- Is there a membership fee? How much?
- Will payments be refunded? If so, how?
4: Form an LLC or incorporate.
It costs very little to form an LLC (limited liability company which is a hybrid of a partnership and corporation) or to incorporate, and this protects your personal assets. It also lends legitimacy to your organization in the eyes of banks and other agencies.
5: Make bylaws.
Based on the decisions made in Step 2, write them down as bylaws for your organization. These will be changed several times. If you live in a state where the bylaws must be filed along with the LLC or incorporation papers, it will be harder to amend them, but the purpose is to write down your agreements so you don’t forget them and to create a record you can refer to.
6: Get a bank account.
Once you incorporate you will be able to get a tax ID number and a corporate bank account. Use this for all expenditures and put someone responsible in charge of keeping track. Remember, once you start spending people’s money you are a legal entity in the eyes of the courts and the tax man. Lots of communities have gotten in trouble from bad accounting.
7: Collect assessments from members.
Start with a small sum, like $20 a month. Along with an initial $100 investment this will identify those who are committed and also painlessly raise some startup capital for mailing, legal paperwork, advertising, etc.
8: Don’t reinvent the wheel.
More than 100 cohousing communities have figured out how to create community together. Take advantage of all the knowledge out there by turning to resources like the Cohousing list-serve as well as the articles, cohousing events, workshops and consultants on this site. They will save you incredible time and aggravation.