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.

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How co-housing will save the economy

Funny how things cluster. The day after our co-housing article appeared,  the Globe and Mail also published a column by Todd Hirsch, a Calgary-based economist. Mr. Hirsch’s column is all about the challenges of low growth, nothing at all to do with co-housing — or so you’d think.

But just at the end, as he’s talking about the issue of low yields, which has a negative impact particularly on pensioners and seniors, he recommends:

rethinking the way seniors live in closer communities, supported not by money but by the people around them. Seniors living with low incomes can suffer more from isolation than lack of money. Rather than single-unit low-income housing, we need to re-examine multi-family, communal living arrangements, maybe using tax credits as incentives for builders.

As we’ve said elsewhere, the economics of co-housing are not the primary drivers for us. But it’s good to see those particular stars aligning. Generally, once there’s an economic rationale, the policy pieces start to fall into line.

Conversation with a co-housing community

A couple months ago we had a good Skype conversation with our friend Dan, one of the founding members of a co-housing community in Kamloops, B.C.

Here are some notes from that conversation.

March 21, 2016

What have you learned about optimum size of community?

We tried to figure how to get off the ground with a group that was big enough to be sustainable and provide efficiencies of scale, but more intimate than the bigger 50-60 unit projects. More like a small village or family. So we said six units, 6-12 people. We knew we’d have 6 voices at the table in decision-making. Enough snap and crackle to have some verve. We haven’t voted in five years — if we can’t agree on a decision we don’t make it.

We’re really satisfied with six members.

How did you start and grow this as a group? How did you get into conversation, did you have a structure?

We didn’t all know each other. About five years ago, two people went to see a movie called How to Boil a Frog and it sparked us to work on this. We said we’ve been talking about this for years, let’s get it going. Put it out in our friendship network. Eleven people came to our first gathering and it evolved over five years.

It took two years to build the nucleus of the group. We met every two weeks, plus 6 or 7 weekend retreats. Our practice of being together is evolving. There is some “circle work” [referring to a particular form of group participation]. Now we have two meetings a month.

One is about wellness and communication, no business. Just what’s going on with each of us, speaking from the heart. The community is in grief right now, one member of a couple is quite ill. We’re grieving with his spouse and the wellness meetings are really important.

The other meeting is more formal; we make decisions and take minutes. It’s remarkable how faithful people have been to those meetings. We’re all busy but we carve the time. We use a lot of silence. We rotate the roles of facilitator, scribe, guardian. The scribe at one meeting facilitates the next meeting.

How do people get in and out?

Through a process of invitation. We’ve never floated a proposal or communique, though we’re doing that now because of one of our members moved out. Previously it was all word of mouth.

We looked at all the models for ownership and title, and we ended up with an equity co-op. We created the entity and by-laws first. We’re all one-sixth owners. Everyone has one share which is one-sixth the value of construction. We will assess later whether to peg the share value to the market value of the house, but we haven’t figured out the method to do that yet. We’re overbuilt for a single family home, so going by “best use,” you would probably have to evaluate us as a care home. You surrender your share back to co-op if you leave and we have 12 months to pay shareholder.

We’ve rewritten our wills to explain the structure to our heirs.

What have been the challenges?

The absence of [a member who left] coupled with [another member becoming ill] has been profound. We had a wait list and tapped into that before we advertised. A couple of them are still keen but the timing is not good for them right now.

It’s a little different now for having kids visit. It’s not just dad’s house any more. In two years we’ve never had a problem, we’re all very kid friendly, but it still feels different to them.

How big are individual units?

About 400 sq ft. Then there’s a big common space, large rec room, guest bedroom, serenity room, workshop, patios.

What have you lost, gained?

We [Dan and his spouse] have asked ourselves that quite a bit. We’ve lost some spontaneity. Here we’re more scheduled, that’s part of committing to community life. Having meetings every two weeks works out to a lot of time. And we need to process everything through the group. We can’t just make decisions on the fly as a couple.

We’ve gained the crackle of other people,a  different energy, and variety. And we share grief and support. [The member whose husband is ill] will say “I come home from the hospital and I’m not alone, there’s a meal made, I can debrief.” And we take some turns visiting with him in the hospital.  So I look on it as building for the future, using my strength to prepare for my weakness, for a time when I will be less able that I am now.

The biggest gain is evening dinners, which are spectacular. We have great cooks and enjoy a lot of variety, experimentation. Mornings and lunch are free-for-alls, but we tend to all come together for dinner.

It’s a lot cheaper to live this way. Outside of food and consumables, we split the operating costs (like utilities and taxes) six ways — by unit, not by person. Groceries cost about $300/person.If I’m travelling, I can deduct $10/day off my grocery bill.

Everybody has a debit card. We have two accounts, for consumables and more long term expenses. We keep all our receipts.

We write our names on the labels of the wine and beer, we don’t cubbyhole the fridge.

We don’t use the word “fair.” We say fairness will kill us. We talk instead about equity. We take responsibility for our own sense of fairness, talk about it. There’s no structure around chores. We have a deep aversion to scheduling or controlling. They happen when they happen. Except for meal prep — we set a schedule for meal preparation a week ahead or less. We tried to schedule two weeks ahead but it was too long, there are too many changes.

How many members are working or retired?

Most are still working. Two are retired. The two lead candidates for new members are a young couple (28) interested in sustainable living; and an early 30s single woman.

Recommended resource

Communities magazine, “Life in Cooperative Culture,” bills itself as “the primary resource for information, stories, and ideas about intentional communities —including urban co-ops, cohousing groups, ecovillages, and rural communes.” http://www.ic.org/communities-magazine-home/

Equity Co-Operatives

There are many forms of joint ownership. One we’ve been looking at is called an equity co-operative. The co-op owns the land and structure, the partners own shares which permit them to occupy a unit. According to CMHC’s note on equity co-operatives, they “combine various aspects of co-operative and individual ownership. The term covers a variety of options, but generally they include these main characteristics:

  • members provide development capital,
  • they share ownership of the project,
  • they usually manage the project themselves,
  • they control who can join the co-operative, and
  • they operate on non-profit principles.”

Control over who can join the co-operative is an important consideration for a small group of people who intend to live within an intentional community. A statement prepared by the Co-operative Housing Federation of Canada explains how this works:

When the members leave an equity co‐op, they do not put their home on the open real‐estate market.   They sell their shares back to the co‐operative, whether for full market value or on a limited equity basis, and the co‐operative finds new members to purchase the shares. In this way, co‐ops can control whom they select as members.

A challenge to this model is that financing can be more difficult. Many banks won’t provide individual mortgages to co-op buyers. Credit unions, which in themselves are a form of co-op, are often more sympathetic.