Author: Judith Bernstein
Published in Communities Magazine Issue #152
When the first residents moved into our sparkling new cohousing complex, Oak Creek Commons in Paso Robles, California, it was spring of 2004 and spirits were high. Compared to some projects, our planning process was not too drawn out. Over the planning period, some families and individuals dropped out for both practical and personal reasons, and now it seemed as if we had arrived at move-in with a group of people who were, as a 95-year-old friend of mine puts it, “hot to trot.” These were the people who were meant to be here. And this was the honeymoon period.
Over the next few years, there were some storm clouds and even a few hurricanes. For example, there were disagreements over the location and construction of a children’s playground, over the concept of private gardens, about the way one mother was supervising her children, about putting a cat tower on a front porch area, and about the way one individual interacted with children. Sometimes those who were disappointed with the way the community handled conflict dropped out of cohousing life and other times the people involved moved out.
Over time, move-outs occurred for other reasons. People aged and moved into assisted living. Several people tired of our consensus decision making process that to them seemed drawn out and cumbersome. A very active founding member moved to another area for a career opportunity. And then, complicating matters, along with other indicators of the recession, the housing market collapsed, and people lost 30 percent or more of the value of their home. As a result, three households who wanted to move let their homes be foreclosed on rather than taking a large sale loss.
Since the move-outs were spread out over a few years, for a while there was no real discussion as to whether the community as a whole needed to take a proactive approach to marketing, such as a policy of the Board paying for advertisement of the units on the Cohousing Association website. Some sellers tried for a while to look for people with an interest in cohousing but ultimately listed with local realtors and property managers. Because fair housing laws prohibit discrimination against buyers or renters, there is no legal way of ensuring that cohousing units are sold or rented to people who are committed to the community’s values.
When the sales or rentals resulted in new residents with an interest in cohousing, we were thrilled. But this wasn’t always the case. Some new residents simply liked our attractive design and amenities such as 10 acres of woods, a large common house (one realtor referred to it as a “clubhouse”!), and a swimming pool. The newcomers had an active social life in the town and unlike many of us, who were retired or worked part-time, they often had full-time jobs and several young children. But most important, they hadn’t moved to Oak Creek Commons to be part of a cohousing community as was the case with the original 36 households in 2004. What does this mean for the future of our cohousing community?
In the last two years, the changing composition of the community has resulted in fewer households participating in the social, governance, and work life of the community. By my estimation, a subjective process to be sure, about 60 percent of our 36 households are somewhat or very involved in the community, and the other 40 percent is infrequently or never involved. In all fairness, I have to add that those who don’t participate very often include a number of households who were among the original members. But the combination of participation attrition—to be expected no doubt—and a turnover in residents makes me wonder whether our community and others experiencing turnover can survive unto the second generation.
This concern leads me to question the whole concept of “participation” or involvement in community life: what exactly do we mean by that? And even if we could agree on a meaning, does a decline in participation necessarily point to a decline in community spirit or a decline in our ability to carry out expected functions including the upkeep of our physical “plant”? Is cohousing, by definition, a place where the residents participate in the life of the community? “Duh,” “no brainer,” the reader is probably saying, but I still think it’s worth raising the issue.
Oak Creek Commons’ definition of “participation,” I should note, has morphed every few years. People often think of it as participation in the work, so I’ll start with that. During our first four years, residents got credit for cooking and cleaning at meals, for serving on committees, and even for coming to a Saturday morning bagel breakfast (a way of enticing newcomers). Households were required to give eight hours of work to the community per month or to pay $2 per hour for work not performed. When this system didn’t generate enough money to hire people to complete the work not done, we switched to a two or three hour per month requirement and charged $20 per hour for those opting out. Only the most essential tasks counted toward this work credit; coming to social events, cooking/cleaning, committee work, and other tasks no longer counted toward our “work program.”
Surprise, surprise! Participation in the work program increased. Even people who were rarely seen at community events put in their two hours, possibly for economic reasons. Others liked the exercise of landscaping tasks or the challenge of fixing things, though I can’t say that anyone thought that toilet cleaning would improve either figure or psyche!
The areas in which we have fewer households participating, however, are to me the most vital and essential ones to keep our cohousing community from becoming just a friendly condo complex. These are:
● Meals: cooking and cleaning is required to attend more than two meals per month; only 15 out of 36 households are active participants.
● Governance: in this category I include serving on a committee such as facilities, landscaping, design; common house maintenance; kitchen; and community life; about one-third of the adults serve on a committee.
● Community Decision Making: decisions and discussions happen at monthly business meetings that last two-three hours and at “discussion circles” when there is a special issue or complex decision to be made; I estimate that about 50 percent of households are involved in community decision making on a fairly regular basis, allowing of course for vacations, illness, etc.
● Social Life: this includes special occasions such as weddings, our annual Solstice Dinner; films shown once per month in the common house; the weekly free bagel breakfast (the best attended event); approximately 60 percent of households come to social events more than occasionally.
Let’s say I’m right and that participation in these four key aspects of cohousing life does decline if the second generation doesn’t have a particular interest in or commitment to cohousing. (Note that the question of how much participation is enough will never have a cut and dried numerical answer). The question is at what point does the community cease to function as and feel like cohousing?
My own view is that balance is the key to an active, thriving community. If there are too many members of the “second generation” who for whatever reason are only infrequently or never involved in several areas of community life, the cohousing aspect of community will decline. It is hopeful to believe that over time, their attitude will change and they will catch the cohousing spirit. That may happen, and Oak Creek Commons has taken action to welcome and include newcomers. In a few cases, this has been gratifyingly successful. However, I think it over-optimistic to rely on that process making up for the loss of the “gung-ho” first generation.
There may be a “tipping point” where there are two few people doing too much. Should they decide to cut back, the community is in trouble. If the second generation has too many of what I call “cohousers by happenstance” rather than the first generation who were “cohousers by intent,” I would worry about the future of that community
As cohousing communities are starting on their second decade, the issues of turnover, integration of new residents, renters versus owners, and the meaning of participation are probably being talked about or should be.
I can’t offer answers about the best ways to approach these challenges, but would like to start a discussion among the communities—as Oak Creek Commons recently did at a potluck held at the nearby community of Tierra Nueva—that will help us to share our best thinking.
And I hope that future conferences and issues of Communities can foster a lively debate as to the best ways to bring about a committed and engaged “second generation” of cohousers.