A new beginning…

Hard to believe the last post was four months ago. At that point I spoke of the reduced size of our group, to four couples, and looked forward to a retreat in early June when we would assess how to move forward.

It was a good retreat. We rented an old farmhouse south of Guelph and spent a weekend in conversation, interspersed with cooking for each other and enjoying walks in the forested countryside.

Over the course of a weekend, we worked through a draft memorandum of understanding (MOU). It was an attempt to codify the discussions we’d been having over the past several months and make sure we were all ‘on the same page’ about the project.

It’s a ten-page document that lays out:

  • goals of the project
  • how it will be financed
  • how we will operate as an organization, including methods for settling disputes
  • what happens when there’s a change in membership, through death or departure
  • what’s included in the common facilities as a core requirement, and what additional facilities may be considered, depending on specific circumstance
  • guidance to a real estate agent about what would make an acceptable property
  • a rough outline of cashflow needs as the project proceeds.

The idea was to agree on the MOU in principle, get it to the point where all of us felt comfortable signing it, then, over the next couple of months, have our lawyer work it up formally into the articles of our not-for-profit corporation.

Looking back, it’s difficult to convey the quality of our discussion on the MOU. Over the past several months we have come to know each other deeply and to care for each other. So, while the discussion was intense and often included disagreement, there was no trace of rancor. No one was trying to “win.” All were working toward common solutions.

The common kitchen (or rather, the lack of individual kitchens) was a big sticking point for one person in particular. “If I really just don’t want to have to interact with people over a couple of days I want the ability to do that,” she said. “I’m not prepared to give up that much independence.” Over against that was our common desire to reduce our environmental footprint and to promote our interdependence.

We worked it through.

Another was concerned about the wording of the clause related to construction standards for reducing energy use and greenhouse gas production. Would it lock us into unsupportable expenditures?

We found language we were all comfortable with.

We recognized that we needed a process for assessing new members that would give existing members the right to choose who could come and live with them — a screening mechanism — and also be equitable and non-discriminatory. We also agreed we would each open up our financials for review by a third party to assess whether we had the financial capacity to participate in the venture (a procedure that in North American culture leaves many people feeling more naked than, well, being naked).

We agreed on a process.

In the end, there were only two items we felt needed further work, including some detailed financial work on pricing shares for additional members. The concern was that those first in should be fairly compensated for advancing their funds to initiate the project, and we had a lengthly conversation about how to do that while also being fair to subsequent buyers. Ultimately, we left that discussion over for a couple of our members to do further work.

We agreed to polish up the MOU with amendments as discussed, do our homework on the outstanding issues, and meet again in two weeks.

And that’s when two of the couples withdrew.

One felt they just weren’t ready. The other had some emergent personal issues that needed dealing with. Both of them indicated their disappointment. The rest of us shared it. We finished our lunch and then segued into a series of smaller conversations. It felt to me like a palpable reluctance to let this go.

Ultimately, the ones who were leaving, left, and four of us — the original two couples — remained behind.

There was no whining, but there was much wine.

And then, as we continued to meet regularly over the next few weeks, we began defining a new approach to our goal.  We considered various types of housing, different legal forms, different approaches to community. We spent some time looking at potential properties with a sympathetic real estate agent,  getting a clearer sense of the current state of the market. We did some increasingly detailed work on financial projections, trying to discern whether the four of us alone might be able to proceed.

We think we may have a plan.

Ultimately, our goals have not changed. But our inital approach was to form the community first, then collectively work toward building the shared home. Now, we’re just going to go ahead with the development on the theory “if you build it, they will come.”

As far as we can tell, that’s not just wishful thinking. We’ve learned a lot over the past year about how people respond to this concept, what they’re looking for, what attracts them to it and what holds them back. Repeatedly, we’ve seen people stumble over making a commitment when they can’t visualize what they’re commiting to. “Where will the house be?” is often the first question. “What will it look like?”

Cost is also another barrier, and it’s not so much the actual cost as it is the uncertainty. We’re approaching this as people who have been fortunate enough to be participants in the Toronto real estate market for many years. We can sell our existing homes, convert the proceeds to a shared home, and come out ahead. But much of the budget remains speculative until we have an actual property and an actual set of plans, among other factors. For some, this uncertainty is too worriesome.

And so we propose to reduce the uncertainties. We will proceed to acquire property, produce architectural drawings,  begin construction and — if need be — complete it. Our prospectus for potential new members will move significantly beyond a discussion of concept, to: “Here is the address. This is what it will look like. This is what it costs.”

We have begun having discussions with an architect about producing conceptual drawings to help us with this process.

Watch this space.







7 thoughts on “A new beginning…”

  1. That is so exciting. Thank you for sharing your experience in such detail. You are a very good writer. My husband and I would like to know more about your project, especially how you came to agreement on the shared kitchen/or not and when you anticipate it being completed.

  2. Doug, do you really have to build something? Have you thought about buying a four or six plex and converting it? If you can get financing, maybe you and the other couple could live in it, rent the other parts out for cash flow, while you decide how to configure the place. and then work on it piece by piece. Once you have it, and the location nailed down, maybe it would be easier to find other like-minded people. Just wondering if you considered this option and if so, why you decided not to pursue. Following your work with great interest. Thank you for your generosity in sharing, but then, that’s what cooperative living is all about, right?

    1. We have thought about this, Erin, but for various reasons we think the cost of this option would be prohibitive. An older six plex is ideal in some ways, but its physical systems (HVAC, plumbing, insulation envelope) would need a total overhaul meaning, we think, that the major costs of renovation are front-ended and the opportunities for generating cash flow through rental income are limited.

      1. Ok, understood. But, you wouldn’t know all of that until you looked at some, no? I mean, it may be that it’s cheaper to build, and so get exactly what you want. But is it not possible that it could be cheaper, like, much cheaper. Well, obviously it would depending on the building.

  3. Onwards and upwards! The building, whatever form it may take might just be the selling feature others need to make a commitment. Keep us posted please!

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