Separating the "Wheat" from the "Chaff" Ahead of Time Online


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

P.S. This is a duplicate of my first posting in the Members' Area, which is under the title "Welcome to the 'Finding Your Community' Topic Room." I see that not many people had read this, and thought more might know what this posting is  about if I gave it a more specific title.

Why do so many communities fail?

I think a forum might be in order to address this very basic question! As you point out, most do fail, and the consequences can be costly. In fact, they might even be compared to the current mortgage crisis in the sense of people getting in over their heads.

Even long-standing communities such as Twin Oaks are suffering from too much turnover.

If you look at the US as an "experimental community" in 1776 (when only monarchies existed in the world), you have to admire the guts and foresight of the founders. Founders of today's communities certainly have no shortage of intestinal fortitude, but are they being as prudent in the sense of preserving freedoms? When I see that Twin Oaks forbids microwaves and air conditioning, and insists on a work quota, I wonder.

Clearly, cohousing groups don't go that far. But aren't there still some requirements that make people just uncomfortable enough that they avoid these communities, or drop out after a few years? America as the "land of freedom" continues to grow after 200 years, immigrants keep acoming, and no one's revoking his citizenship. In other words, zero turnover, phenomenal growth.

There must be a reason. My guess is it's openness, lack of limitations and requirements. How true is that of cohousing?

What do you think?

Reasons why new communities may fail

Why communities fail is a deep interest of mine, and in fact I wrote a book about it, which is also about factors that help new communities succeed. (Creating a Life Together: Practical Tools to Grow Ecovillages and Intentional Communities. New Society Publishers 2003).

I believe cohousing start-up groups can disband for various reasons, including that the group cannot find land (big developers grab parcels first); they can find land but cannot afford it; they buy land and can't get a zoning variance to have a denser population; or members of the group can't devote the kind of time to the land-search process and community-creating process that it requires.

To avoid these problems, I highly recommend working with an experienced cohousing developer or developer-partner.

Besides these logistical land or money or time reasons, there are also what I call "structural conflict' reasons. The group needs to have, in my opinion, a common mission and purpose; a fair and participatory decision-making method (and if it's consensus, all group members, now and later, get trained in it before having full decision-making rights);clear agreements in writing; knowing what you need to know ("left-brained" skills like contracts, financing, land purchase, legal entities and "right-brained" skills like good communication skills); a clear and well-organized new-member policy; and a way to help people stay accountable to the group's agreements.
(Much more on structural conflict and these factors in the book.)

Cohousing communities tend to do better than non-cohousing communities (perhaps 1/3rd succeed), and I believe this is because most groups work with cohousing professionals, including experienced cohousing developers.

Diana Leafe Christian

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