Author: Kim Crieger Goodwin
Published in Communities Magazine Issue #158
I have a confession to make. I’m not a communitarian…or even a prospective communitarian. Instead, I’ve held a fundamental, lifelong attraction to community living from the first day I became aware of that way of life.
In 1982, I was five years old, accompanying my Mom on a real estate appointment with a potential client who wanted to list his home in Deadwood, Oregon. As a treat, after the appointment my Mom let me pick a place on the map that I wanted to see, and let me navigate the way. I loved maps, but even more, I loved going down a road not yet traveled by my five-year-old self. Since I had been reading the map on the way to the property, I already knew the spot I wanted to visit. “Mom, what’s Alpha? Let’s go there!” As we drove along the winding, forested gravel road, my Mom explained that Alpha was an unusual sort of “town”—a place where many people lived together sharing the same land. At the time, a fascination sparked in my mind that never left. I wanted to be a fly on Alpha Farm’s wall, or a butterfly in their garden. What is it like living in a place like that? Why do people want to live that way? Why don’t more people live that way? My questions at the time went beyond what my Mom could sufficiently explain.
When I grew up, I became a real estate agent, as well. The question that would define my adult life became, “How can I help people live the way they want?” When Communities’ call for “affordability” articles came up, I realized it was a topic I would love to learn more about. So I proposed interviewing an experienced communitarian about affordability in community. The resulting interview was surprisingly compelling to me. I was left captivated by the depth and greater implications of affordability in community living.
How did your community get its start?
Our community began as a cooperative land purchase with five investors. Within two years, the onsite owners had so much irresolvable conflict that all moved away except for Reba. Reba was able to buy out the ownership share of those who moved away. Even though she never wanted to be a landlord, Reba found herself as sole resident owner of the community land. She believed enough in community, and had hopes that others would move in to take the place of the owners who moved on—she became our “land angel.”
“Land angel” is a nice description. How is Reba a land angel?
Heart-Culture couldn’t exist without Reba. Her vision, persistence, and hopefulness are the heart of our community. But not everyone has seen her that way. We have had difficult periods where our community expectations and policies were being formed, and idealistic people moved in to help “create” community. I believe these people were very well intentioned, and none of us had the answers. These people were very committed to equality and justice, and wanted to make the world a better place—like all of us. But the reality of community finances was too much for them. They could not wrap their minds around Reba’s experience of community: $250,000 invested, a $600,000 mortgage in her name with monthly mortgage payments coming out of her bank account, and a $2,000 per month community income shortfall that she personally paid for over two years—all on a city bus driver salary.
So there were financial equality and responsibility differences…how did residents respond?
The people who shouted for equality generally wanted equal power, but were unable to take on equal responsibility. They paid $300 per adult per month plus an equal share of utilities, for a total of about $360 per month. They complained when Reba made decisions about land use or who could move in; they called her power-hungry. I saw Reba consistently being committed to community process, including other people’s opinions in her decision-making, and wanting to share the power and responsibility. I also saw her taking a reasonable amount of time to build trusting relationships with new people, and holding a memory and knowledge of the land that new residents simply couldn’t have. The name-calling was painful, and the lack of trust hurt. Mediation wasn’t solving the basic imbalance of responsibility.
How did the “equality issues” finally get resolved?
The community has three septic systems, and they needed to be pumped out. The cost: $4,000. Reba went to the four people who were shouting for equality, and said, “It’s time for equality. Let’s equally share the cost of pumping the septic systems.” Of course, they declined. But it didn’t stop their criticisms. Within a month, all four had moved out—to more mainstream housing options with less possibility of equality. I believe what they really needed were clear boundaries and expectations. Since that time, we have strengthened our boundaries with new residents, expecting signed rental contracts, move-in deposits, and other “mainstream” money agreements—and we have avoided any repeat of the “equality” agitation.
What is your relationship with Reba (the remaining founder) like?
We’ve been here over five years, and at this point we are founders of the community as it exists—we moved in one year after Reba and her partners purchased the land. Our relationship with Reba is our primary investment—we’ve been through multiple intense conflicts, and always came out of them knowing we are allies.
Serious conflict can be a lot to deal with…did you ever consider moving?
Several times, in the midst of intense drama—including a gun-toting, Ritalin-addicted 60-year-old woman who decided my husband was scary enough to call the police on him—I’ve looked around at other housing options. I always come to the same conclusion: I would have to pay more for less of what I want. A lot of that has to do with our values; we want to share space with people, we want to milk cows by hand and raise as much of our own food as possible, we want to build relationships over time that can last, we want to live modestly. In our current location, we are less than five miles from my extended family, close to town and our activities there, next door to 14,000 acres of wildlife preserve, and we have more land for gardening and pasture than we currently use. People come and go, and we’ve had to accept that, but people also stay. Reba is still here, and every time someone new moves in, we wonder if they will be a person who could stay.
It sounds like affordability is closely entwined with relationships in your current community experience. What affordability issues have you encountered in other communities you’ve been a part of?
I haven’t always found community to be so affordable. In general, yes, but almost always because the owner is an angel. Rob Bolman at Maitreya Ecovillage allowed me to live in an eight-foot cardboard dome and pay $100 per month at a time when I was a single mom and refused to put my daughter in daycare. But before I found Maitreya, I could not afford the $500 per month community fees [of other communities I was interested in].
Was that your first experience in community?
My first experience with community was living with a friend’s multigenerational family on five acres near Hillsboro, Oregon. My friend’s mother was the angel there; she charged me a dollar for every hour I worked for pay, and otherwise she treated me like one of her kids, including buying much of my food. I remember we sat down within a day of me moving in, and wrote community expectations: “This is sanctuary. Everyone is responsible for and to the community.” I thank her every day for helping me when I would otherwise have been on the streets as a teenage runaway.
It seems like your “angels” were very committed to helping others and society. What problems do communities run into when trying to balance helping people in need with community necessities?
Affordability and financial sustainability often intersect with social issues. For example, do we kick out the young man who consistently disregards community agreements, even though his rent payments are a significant portion of the mortgage, and he always pays on time? If we do kick him out, will we be able to find a replacement resident quickly enough to cover our financial needs? Will another person be willing to live in the tiny yurt he is vacating, and pay as much and as cheerfully as he does? One of our goals is to have enough housing on the property that we can have a couple of spaces vacant at any time, and still be making the mortgage. That will give us the flexibility to deal with inevitable social conflicts and resident turnover.
What other social/financial issues do intentional communities experience?
Another intersection between social and financial: we want people to be excited to live here. Some things that contribute to that include cleanliness, well-kept landscaping, abundant and well-cared-for food gardens, and exciting projects. Doing and creating these benefits does not directly make us money, and often costs money. But when people do them, others are attracted to move here and to stay here. There is a financial benefit for our community in having motivated self-directed residents who care for our space. At Heart-Culture, we recognize this contribution with social and sometimes financial appreciation. For example, one motivated resident who consistently does more than her share of the landscape maintenance had a late fee waived when she was unable to pay her rent on time.
How do communities decide what to charge, in your experiences?
Expectations for individual financial contribution have to be high enough to attract the right people, and low enough to be fair. For example, when I first moved to Maitreya Ecovillage, rents for the cardboard domes were $70 per month. Most of the dome residents were not able to contribute fully in community—some were alcoholic, others were unwilling to learn effective communication styles. When the rents were raised to $150 per month, a whole different group of people moved in: single parents who wanted to stay home with their kids, young travelers who were motivated to find work, and enthusiastic idealists. We find a similar issue at Heart-Culture. While we do make an effort to work with people who must pay less (including those who own their own RV home, for instance), we insist that people pay—even tent campers pay $150 per month. By doing this, we automatically weed out a whole group of people who would be unable to contribute meaningfully to community.
I understand that; in my experiences as an herbalist I’ve noticed that people often treat plants or herbal preparations more seriously when they paid for them—myself included. It seems easier for us to waste or not fully commit to things we don’t pay for ourselves. What other cost-related values come up in community?
We have community values about space use that limit us somewhat in who we allow to move in. For example, a single woman wanted to rent a small house with a loft, [which] happens to have one of only three kitchens on the farm. Traditionally, the kitchen and bath were shared with other residents who had huts without those amenities. She was prepared to pay more in order to have the entire house be private space for her [alone]. We decided we would not allow that, because we have a value of living communally, and we imagined that her larger payment would not be worth the compromise in our values. In addition, taking the kitchen/bath out of communal use would overload the remaining two kitchens. I would describe our value like this: no individual person is allowed to monopolize shareable space, even if able to pay for it.
It appears Heart-Culture has really invested in establishing its core values and how they interplay with financial needs. What other values are central to your community?
Heart-Culture is the most family-friendly community I have found. We regularly give financial discounts to single parents, and we hold a strong community-parenting value. Parenting is understood to be valuable work, and parents often are excused from certain work requirements, or encouraged to participate in ways that are practical for them (cooking lunch for the work party, for instance).
This interview not only gave me a deeper understanding of the affordability problem in intentional communities, but it gave me a better grasp of the issue as it plays out in our entire culture.
In a world where competition over resources is increasing dramatically every day, finding the answers to these questions is more and more urgent. I came away from this interview with a new observation: People in intentional communities are passionate researchers who, through practicing a way of life, are finding solutions to the most serious problems our world faces—how to create affordable, meaningful living for all people.