Cohousing, Housing Cooperatives, and Intentional Communities

Perhaps because of the ponderous nature of the term “Intentional Community”, many such communities are called cohousing neighbourhoods. Other terms like ecovillages, communes and housing cooperatives are also used. Since even wikipedia mis-defines some of them, it may be worthwhile defining what we mean by all these terms.

The original meaning of “community” is a place shared equally. The term has been debased to mean just about any agglomeration of people with something “in common”, but for purposes of defining Intentional Community the original definition is useful. “Shared equally” doesn’t mean all under one roof, or identical accommodation for everyone, or even equal investment. It does mean that the “place” is jointly owned by its members, not “privately” owned. You may pay a lump sum for the use of a unit for your private enjoyment, but you do not “own” it — the payment is really a prepayment of rent to the community members collectively, and it is the collective, not you personally, who can transfer that right of private enjoyment to someone else when you leave, charging them a prepayment of rent and reimbursing yours at some pre-agreed “price”.

This might seem to be a big deal to a society that is obsessed and paranoid about “private property”, and accustomed to considering their “home” as their most important asset and investment. But the reality is that most people really rent their property from the mortgage company, and hope to reap a speculative gain on the change in value when they cease doing so and rent someplace else.

The big difference is that, just like a renter, in an Intentional Community you can’t do whatever you want with “your” unit because it isn’t “yours”. In a regular neighbourhood of isolated strangers, you can do whatever you want as long as it doesn’t reduce the resale value below the mortgage, or defy local neighbourhood ordinances mainly designed to ensure you don’t reduce others’ resale value. As long as you can get your head around the fact that your “asset” in an IC is a prepaid expense and a share in a collective place, rather than a piece of property, an IC may be for you. Alas, most financial institutions can’t get their head around this difference. They effectively own the property that you secure your mortgage with, and they can repossess it and do what they want with it whenever they are so inclined. When they’re asked to finance a prepaid expense and a share in a not-for-profit entity, they tend to get skittish.

There are some places that call themselves ICs (especially in struggling nations) that are not. Buying your own private property in a condominium development that throws in a “share” of an adjacent golf course or other “common” facility (and may even throw in maid and chef services) does not constitute being a member of a community — a “place shared equally” — let alone an IC. Real estate developers are a sleazy bunch, though, and they like to pass off timeshares and resorts as “communities”. A “place shared equally” means a place where decisions are made collectively by members, and not outsourced to or initiated by political or economic agents (agents, what’s more, who are generally acting in their own interests).

An Intentional Community is one that has an intention — literally a “stretching toward”. That means something they are striving together to do or to be together. That can be a set of beliefs, or shared goals, or a way of living. In an ecovillage that may be something to do with environmental sustainability, food self-sufficiency, organic and/or vegetarian diet, and living lightly on the land. For a commune it might be shared spiritual practices.

So an Intentional Community is a group of people:

  • who share a place equally, and own it collectively,
  • who make decisions about it collectively, and
  • who have a shared set of beliefs, goals and/or way of living

An Intentional Community could inhabit urban, village, rural or even virtual space. It could be designed by the future members collectively, or retrofitted by self-selecting members already living there or in close proximity.

What about co-housing and housing cooperatives? While the term “co-housing”, like “community”, could be taken to include commercial condominium, strata title and resort developments, true co-housing communities grew out of the Danish model and are real housing cooperatives (a cooperative is identical to an IC, as defined by the three criteria above, except what they share equally is an enterprise, not a place, and instead of sharing a way of living they share a way of making a living). Although true co-housing is a form of Intentional Community, the shared set of beliefs, goals and/or way of living are often more limited and pragmatic than they are in “deeper” ICs.

Take for example the 29-unit Nubanusit Cohousing Community in Peterborough, New Hampshire (pictured above). It calls itself a condominium, and you buy your unit outright, and have, presumably, the right to resell it to anyone you want. But in many respects it does look like true cohousing:

  • the homes are high-efficiency and aspire to high environmental sustainability standards (and there are no roads or driveways; parking is in a common area on the perimeter of the community)
  • the design and development and common area operation of the community are governed by a Core Values statement
  • members must self-assess their “readiness” to belong to the community, including a willingness to undertake collective work
  • the house sizes are modest and the “common house” which is collectively owned is substantial in size and function
  • the adjoining farm is organic and biodynamic and open for partial ownership by members who choose to be active in its operation

The private ownership of units can help placate both members and mortgagors worried about exactly what they own (and fussy local zoning authorities wedded to the anti-communitarian definition of “single family dwelling”), but in this respect Nubanusit is not true cohousing and not really an IC.

The issue is, How much difference does this really make? Is insisting on collective ownership of all the land and buildings of the community a form of ideological purism, that could be holding us back from creating and retrofitting thousands of such developments as a model of a better, more environmentally sustainable and socially responsible way to live, a stepping stone to help our whole society rediscover the value of self-sufficient community and take back decision-making from remote and powerful political and economic interests?

Or will communities like Nabanusit, as they’re resold again and again over time to strangers who had no part in their design and rationale and are indifferent to their Core Values, end up looking like every other exurban community on the planet? It really all comes down to the ownership of private property and decisions on who can and cannot become a member of the community. Without collective ownership and collective decisions on membership, what may start as a true community with shared intention could easily end up as just another neighbourhood of convenience, with residents dictated solely by proximity to their places of work.

And while this particular community claims to pursue ideals of sustainability, responsibility and diversity, might the next community, perhaps right next door, bring together a racist criminal gang whose shared goal is to launder money through its community, or a wingnut cult, or an elitist group of rich executive profligates whose shared goal is to fence themselves off from everyone else, entertain politicians extravagantly and lobby for the deregulation and privatization of everything? Could gang headquarters and militia camps and gated neighbourhoods meet the above criteria of an IC?

You can see how tricky this can all get. Mashing us all together in lonely, socially indifferent, ecologically destructive subdivisions sprawling indistinguishably out from all our cities does have the advantage of keeping us from self-organizing in antisocial ways, not just social ones. Just take a look at some of the popular websites that attract “communities” that advocate the murder of those who disagree with their ideology, or revel in videos that depict torture and humiliation, or hate-monger, or enable sex slavery or wage slavery or the abuse of women and children, and you can see that the power of community cuts both ways.

Nevertheless, we need some working models. So if you’ve ever thought about creating or joining an Intentional Community, here are some questions I’d like your thoughts on. Imagine you’ve found a great bunch of people and a great site for such a community:

  1. Given the choice between paying a one-time prepaid charge (that could be mostly financed through a credit union) of, say $300,000 (repayable in full if you left, once another suitable member was found) plus $200/month dues, or a monthly rent of $2000, to live in an Intentional Community, which would you prefer?
  2. How many hours a week would you volunteer to put in to maintain the community without compensation? 
  3. What would you do there to make a living?
  4. Would you prefer your own separate building, a private unit within a larger building, or a single communal building?
  5. What would be your preferred size of IC: 12 people, 50 people, or 250 people?
  6. Nice part of a city on a public transit route, edge of a town of 2000, or in the country miles from everywhere with lots of green space? In whatcountry?
  7. What’s holding you back? Can’t find the right people? No time to research? Family/work obligations?

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11 Responses to Cohousing, Housing Cooperatives, and Intentional Communities

  1. Dave Pollard says:

    Just saw this, from mattbg Suppose we could make an entire IC this way

  2. Daisy Bond says:

    (I answered this from my perspective now; my great bunch of people and I will, hopefully, be finding our great site about five years from now, and who knows what things will be like then.)1. Given the choice between paying a one-time prepaid charge (that could be mostly financed through a credit union) of, say $300,000 (repayable in full if you left, once another suitable member was found) plus $200/month dues, or a monthly rent of $2000, to live in an Intentional Community, which would you prefer?The former, I think.2. How many hours a week would you volunteer to put in to maintain the community without compensation? Roughly zero? But I don’t think “volunteering” would be without compensation, so it’s the wrong question. What compensation do any of us get for doing the dishes, keeping up the house? We get, hopefully, a clean, beautiful place to live, which is well worth it. Similarly, as compensation for maintaining relationships (i.e. organizing and participating in community activities, attending meetings, etc) we, hopefully, get loving, fulfilling relationships. That said, though, I think, in order for a community to survive, there will be a bunch of different ways that people help maintain the community, some more visible than others. For example, someone might do direct community work (caring for children, keeping up facilities, etc) full-time, with an obvious contribution in the range of most conventional full-time jobs, say 40 hours a week. Someone else might only put in 10, 5, or even fewer hours a weeks actually doing the dishes and tending the gardens, but might be equally doing her share to maintain the community by working an offsite job and contributing financially. Both kinds of work are, for most communities (in my estimation), very much needed and valuable, though capitalism doesn’t acknowledge one (home-based work) and other models sometimes fail to acknowledge the other (wage-earing work). (Communities would, of course, have to develop valuation systems to compare different kinds of work, dealing with questions like: how much does someone have to contribute financially to do minimal home-based work? How much home-based work must someone do give a minimal financial contribution?)Finally, I think the question is, really, how many hours a week are you willing to work to survive? How many hours a week are you willing to work see that your own needs are met? To maintain your most important relationships, to care for your children? To which, as I think I’ve said here before, the only answer I can imagine is, “As many as necessary.”3. What would you do there to make a living?I don

  3. Daisy Bond says:

    Whoops, forgot to italicize the last several questions. I hope everything is still clear.

  4. Well, it appears as if that kind of plan is well out of reach for me. Personally I am a pauper by choice. It gives me the time which I value in life a lot more than the money. So I suppose I won’t answer the list of questions you posed, dear sir. However, I do want to chime in one thing, in keeping with my custom in seeking to broaden the scope of conversations. I think Dave, that living together in a physical abode is far less important than finding and seeking others who are a good match for oneself generally. A lot of us who intensely care about other people around us like we do, Dave, ironically find ourselves living solitary lives because we don’t like the idea of jumping through all the hoops which people do in order to be successful in life in a traditional sense (I’m speaking here for myself, really). And oddly enough, I find that those of us who are deep thinking caring people are often looked at with contempt by the majority of folks in society, because we tend to think outside the box, and we don’t act in quite the ways which they expect. Most folks I see around me seem to have devoted themselves to lives of posturing. They are seeking to get ahead for themselves by playing the chameleon for many different social situations. I think that in order to do the good that we desire to do for those people Dave, we must find eachother and nurture eachother, and set our hands to the plow together. But again, I don’t think that living in the same co housing situation is altogether too important… there are many ways in which we can form communities and groups and businesses with eachother.

  5. Lorne says:

    Well, since you asked so nicely for my thoughts…To answer by the numbers:1- Like Christopher, I’m not that wealthy by a long shot. I could echo most of his post here, but you can read it above. (Except for the repeated use of ‘Dave’, I find that sounds a little more condescending than I like my writing style to reflect). I would prefer to be able to remain debt-free and possibly enhance my financial position by becoming part of a community (by lowered living expenses). For 300000 I could buy land and set it up with off-grid utilities and basically let people who wanted to be part of it come stay for free. But I suppose land is cheaper in rural Saskatchewan.2- It would be my plan to have no formal job outside of the community, so I’d be willing to put a lot of time into the maintenance of it as long as the workload was fairly distributed.3- As for making a living, right now I’m trying a market garden for the first time (and learning tons) and would see this as a good start to providing cash for the things that we couldn’t provide for ourselves. There’s any number of other possibilities from artwork and wood carvings to selling the experience to city-dwellers looking for a retreat.4- I like the idea of a large communal building. I think it would make it easier to feel part of the community, as well as being more efficient to heat (and defend in case of the mad-max hard-crash scenario, although I consider that somewhat unlikely). Separate buildings have the advantage of privacy, although I don’t see a huge difference between your own room and your own building. Separate buildings also offer the security of not having the entire housing wiped out by a single fire/flood type event.5- Somewhere more than 12 but maybe less than 50. Depends on the people I suppose.6- Ideally on the edge of a small city, although land is pricier there. In the middle of nowhere seems like it might afford less hassle with zoning and such. It would definitely be in Canada, preferably Alberta or Saskatchewan.7- Can’t find the right people for the most part. I know a few families who are interested, but money has been a barrier for all of us and we’ve drifted to different parts of the prairies now. It’s one of those dreams that I’ve put on the back burner.Hopefully that helps.

  6. Lorne says:

    Apparently the formatting doesn’t work for me, sorry about the readability.It looked a lot nicer when I wrote it.

  7. Lorne, you can use the html paragraph tag between your paragraphs to have it format correctly (opened angle bracket – p – closed angle bracket). Sorry if my writing style sounds condescending to you. I’m used to debating in fiery internet environments, and I suppose I’ve developed a style that’s designed to provoke a response from folks in regards to an issue which I feel is kind of important to discuss in regards to the topic at hand. I do think that deep thinkers would do really well to carefully choose their friends.

  8. mattbg says:

    One thing that would hold me back the most would be my concern about growing to live within an echo chamber. In the US, for example, there is already a trend of liberal types choosing to live where other liberal types live, and conservative types doing the same. And people with strange and unhealthy ideas go online to find others with the same strange unhealthy ideas and it makes them (unjustifiably) feel normal and as if their views might be legitimate. It robs the community of the chance to answer back to diverse views and work out those that are reasonable and moderate. Transplantation robs communities of their diversity: we already know about the dangers of crop monoculture, so why wouldn’t it apply to ideology?The place that IC people belong is within normal communities, challenging the status quo and setting examples about how things can be done differently in order to give others alternative ideas when they’re ready to receive them.

  9. Dave Pollard says:

    Matt: This is a concern to me too, but less than the concern that we’re so splintered and disconnected that we aren’t working collaboratively to create models that work better than the industrial civilization one-size-fits-none model.Consensus/average of 5 answers I received to the questions: (1) one-time prepaid refundable pay-what-you-can-afford fee as “skin in the game”, (2) ten hours a week, but more or less depending on other commitments with no “time cards”, (3) mostly self-sufficiency stuff helping each other with essentials, rather than work for “outsiders”, though also some peer production work to the extent it can be done electronically, (4) absolutely no consensus on this — importance of privacy varies widely, (5) between 12 and 50, (6)no consensus, though most want at least access to a city, (7) other current commitments and priorities.My answers for those who asked: (1) one-time prepaid, (2) at least 10 hours a week, more when/if local projects can use my particular expertise, (3) creating 2-5 Natural Enterprises with a mix of self-sufficiency products (energy co-op) and stuff that could be “sold” outside in return for products we couldn’t produce ourselves, (4) communal — I’m too old to care about privacy anymore, (5) 50, (6) someplace warm with a long growing season, don’t care about city access as long as we have high-speed Internet, (7) nothing — moving ahead on this now, though I can see it taking awhile to find the right people, always the biggest challenge.

  10. Peter Whitlock says:

    1. Given the choice between paying a one-time prepaid charge (that could be mostly financed through a credit union) of, say $300,000 (repayable in full if you left, once another suitable member was found) plus $200/month dues, or a monthly rent of $2000, to live in an Intentional Community, which would you prefer? Communities should not be based on money but on FORM AND HOW FUNCTIONAL THAT FORM IS. Money is about exploiting the populations and so is not needed in an advanced community to the general population.. so the average Joe not have any money and the community not trade or buy or sell

  11. Mechanics rather than emotionalism is the way forward, Peter. However, the way you write makes me doubt your sincerity anyway.

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