Why one kitchen?

In a comment on the preceeding blog post, Lisa asks how we came to agreement on the shared kitchen. She’s not the first. It’s a puzzlement and a stumbling block to many. I won’t “give up” my kitchen is something we’ve heard more than once.

And I was startled, in looking back through other posts, to realize that since we started this blog, it’s always been a given — we haven’t really tried to explain it. I guess it’s time to do that!

The shared kitchen goes back to our initial retreat in March of 2016. The four of us drove together to the Inn where we intended to spend the weekend making plans. Along the way, we were still discussing the only model that had occurred to us to that point: that we would all buy condo units within the same building and, when there were enough of us, jointly buy an extra condo to serve as a common facility.

This model had the benefit of simplicity and allowing for growth over time, but when we analysed the costs we felt it was likely prohibitive. Ultimately, though, it wasn’t the matter of cost that changed our minds. It was the fact that, over the course of our weekend together, we realized that’s not the kind of arrangement we want. We’re looking for something that more closely resembles the idea of “intentional community,” which is best served by closer contact.

In my research on existing, traditional cohousing communties (by which I mean those that have self-contained, independent dwellings plus common facilities) I have not yet found one that manages to have a meal together even once a week. A few get together every two weeks; the vast majority seem to eat together once a month or less. And we found ourselves thinking, “Why bother?” Why invest in those extra facilities if you’re only going to use them once a month?

And, conversely, if we each had our separate kitchens, we could easily imagine ourselves falling into the same pattern as all the others. Would you really be able to sustain the effort of cooking together as a group if you had the choice of just fixing something quick on your own? We imagined ourselves in our separate condos, having uprooted our lives for the sake of very little change. If all we want to do is get together once a month, we can do that now.

No, we want something more. As we see it, the dominant forms of elderly housing in North America these days tend toward a harsh choice between life in an institution, or a life of increasing social isolation.

We reject both choices, and a shared kitchen is integral to our view of a better alternative. The kitchen is often the very heart of the house. It’s where people gather — how often have you been at a party and suddenly noticed that everyone has gravitated to the kitchen?  It’s no accident that most religious  and cultural traditions have sacred rituals associated with eating together. It’s part of what binds us as human.

So for us, one kitchen symbolizes the kind of community we want. We’re not completely rigid about this: We will make additional facilities available, either in-suite or between two suites (TBD) so that, as one of us puts it, we can “make a cup of coffee and a piece of toast without going downstairs.”

But for us, the thought of sharing a kitchen, cooking together and, normally, sharing an evening meal together, is part of what we look forward to.  It’s not a sacrifice, it’s a benefit of community.

 

Setbacks

Well this is some tough stuff. When last I updated our status, we were eleven individuals representing a potential seven units — four couples and three singles.

One by one, we’ve lost our singles. One still had young adults not fully settled and wasn’t ready to give up her home.  One, I think, felt not quite enough affinity in terms of interests and lifestyles. One came to the reluctant realization that her capital resources weren’t sufficient. (Our planning to date has been based on self-financing with a per-unit capital buy-in of $600,000.)

So we’re down to four units, all couples, at the moment, and it puts us in something of a quandary. After the first individual bowed out, we made a decision that we would not re-open recruitment at that point. The difficulty is that each new person puts us back to square one in building relationships. We don’t want to spend months or years in serial dating and never get to the point of commitment.

On the other hand, we’re not sure that a four unit community is sustainable, or that the four of us have the financial capacity to achieve our goals on our own. The continuing steep climb in Toronto housing prices doesn’t help.

It is, as one of our members put it, “a big conversation.”

Fortunately we had already planned a weekend retreat for early June. Here’s hoping we can find a way forward.

Momentum builds

Let me just acknowledge there have been fewer posts recently as our attention has been focused more inward on building our group. We are currently 11 individuals representing a potential seven units. We meet about every three weeks to get to know each other better and continue to firm up our plans.

It’s fascinating to see how much sustained interest there is in what we’re doing. A couple months ago we did a 20-minute segment on Metro Morning just because we’re thinking about co-housing. We don’t have a location, a formal organization or any details, but the program’s producer still thought the conversation was interesting.

Yesterday, a feature on the front page of the Star’s Business section promoted a co-housing/co-ownership session organized by Lesli Gaynor, a Toronto real estate agent.

csi-cohousing-session
Overflow crowd for a co-housing/co-ownership session at CSI’s Bathurst Street location, February 8. Affordability was a major concern.

Co-ownership is in some ways a simpler concept than the co-op model we’re promoting, but it still has challenges. Many lawyers don’t understand the intricacies of a co-ownership agreement, and the financing can be challenging (how does a bank foreclose half a house if one of the co-owners defaults on the mortgage?).

Lesli has founded a company to help people learn more about co-housing, have ready access to legal and financial expertise, and make the purchase.

A large crowd turned up for an open session last night. We were among the panellists. Seeing the  relatively young audience, we thought the focus might be exclusively on affordability. It was of course a major concern, but we also found a lot of interest in our project and its goals of community and sustainability.

The cost of housing in Toronto is creating significant challenge and hardship for many people, especially younger people. There’s a small silver lining, perhaps, in what we saw last night. People are bringing energy and creativity to the overlap between housing and community.

Decisions, decisions

A group stands or falls on the quality of its decision-making. Some decisions are trivial; some appear trivial in the moment but loom large later on (or the reverse); some are so clearly fraught with consequence that a misstep here could doom the whole enterprise.

So if participation and collaboration are among the values shared by your group, you’re going to spend a lot of time and energy making decisions.

With that thought in mind, the Fellowship for Intentional Community (FIC) recently took a look at systems to support decision making. After all, as they point out, it’s not always possible to gather everyone in the same place at the same time. And then you find

Should we admit the Death Star into the Galactic Federation?
Should we admit the Death Star into the Galactic Federation? The witty and instructive demo from Consider.It, a decision-making support system.

yourselves asking: “Do we have enough people in attendance to make this decision? Can people weigh in by e-mail if they can’t be at the meeting? What if the person who came up with the proposal is absent?”

Most decision-support software has evolved as business tools, unsurprisingly, and may require some ‘translation’ to work for a co-housing group.  FIC looked at sociocracy, and Loomio, two powerful and worthy systems.

But my favourite, by far, not least for its surpassingly cool demo, is Consider.it, a tool that dares to ask the question: Should we admit the Death Star into the Galactic Federation? Each member of your group can add their pros and cons to the discussion, then rank their overall support or opposition to the idea.

“I don’t trust its manager, Darth Vader,” reads one of the cons. I think he has unresolved daddy issues.” But, counters a pro, “The Death Star and the Sith have limitless resources.”

The pros and cons are arranged in an intuitive visual that lets you easily explore who said what and engage in threaded conversations about any individual item.

I don’t think you’d necessarily want to use Consider.It (or any other formal tool) all the time. That would feel to me like too much energy going into process for most, relatively trivial decisions.

But when you’re facing a potentially world-ending question like whether to get in bed with the Death Star, you need all  the help you can get. Besides, did I mention it’s really cool?

More “epidemic of loneliness”

Another article on the “epidemic of loneliness,” this one focused on the U.K.  In Britain and the U.S., about a third of people over 65 live alone, increasing the risk of social isolation.

Blackpool, England, has developed The Silver Line Helpline to give seniors a place to call and be assured of a patient, friendly ear. It gets 1500 calls a day.

There’s an interesting comment from John T. Cacioppo, a psychology professor at the University of Chicago, who calls loneliness “an aversive signal,” like thirst or hunger — in other words, a feeling of loneliness may be a useful warning sign, alerting you to a need for social interaction.

“Denying you feel lonely makes no more sense than denying you feel hunger,” he said.

Why has cohousing been so slow to catch on?

Courtney E. Martin has lived in cohousing for three years and sees it as the solution to a whole host of problems, but it’s a solution that has problems of its own.

Martin is a believer in the benefits of cohousing. Although cohousing communities vary greatly — some are multi-generational, for example, while others focus on seniors; some are religiously inspired, others are secular — she notes:

most groups hold in common a belief that a high quality of life is achieved not through self-sufficiency, but through a village mentality.

So why hasn’t the movement had greater impact? In an article for the New York Times, Martin cites lack of awareness and financing as two factors limiting the spread of cohousing.

She’s right, of course, but I would argue that a third factor is far greater. It’s the flip side of the quote highlighted above. It’s the cultural assumption that independence or self-sufficiency are virtues of such enormous importance that the interdependence of “a village mentality” is something to be avoided, or perhaps even ashamed of.

Awareness and financial barriers can be overcome with a little persistence. Changing our mindset takes longer.

The Age of Loneliness

“What do we call this present age,” asked George Monbiot, writing in the Guardian (The age of loneliness is killing us, October 14, 2014). Looking at increasing trends toward social isolation, he suggests we are now entering the Age of Loneliness.

This is hugely destructive (for example, loneliness has the same impact on health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day) because, Monbiot argues, “we were social creatures from the start, mammalian bees, who depended entirely on each other. The hominins of east Africa could not have survived one night alone. We are shaped, to a greater extent than almost any other species, by contact with others. The age we are entering, in which we exist apart, is unlike any that has gone before.”

Yes, factories have closed, people travel by car instead of buses, use YouTube rather than the cinema. But these shifts alone fail to explain the speed of our social collapse. These structural changes have been accompanied by a life-denying ideology, which enforces and celebrates our social isolation. The war of every man against every man – competition and individualism, in other words – is the religion of our time….

See The Great Affluence Fallacy for some thoughts on how to counter this trend.