Getting from “Gotta Have” to “Community First”

This essay was written by Karen Gimnig, Assistant Director of the Cohousing Association of the United States, and first published on cohousing.org. You can read the original post, and other great submissions from communities around the United States at cohousing.org.

Cohousing community members begin with some basic assumptions. We expect to do some downsizing. We know we will be sharing space and will need to make some comprises about how we use that space. We plan to reduce our impact on the planet and increase our social connections. These tend to be shared assumptions and overall, all these things happen in every cohousing community.

Then there are the less shared assumptions, and there tend to be a lot of these. One person visits a community with a large common workshop and assumes their not-yet-built community will have the same. Another reads about an accessible community and assumes that their unit will be single level. There are assumptions about gardens and shared utilities, private back yards and affordability, and on and on. In short, as people make the decision to join a cohousing community, each as a list of “requirements” that will make cohousing work for them.

The interesting thing about these requirements is not so much that they exist, or what they are, but how they change over time, in particular over time spent in community. We all know before we start that a smaller house is better for the planet, but we tend to have a limit on how small we think we can go. We look forward to sharing more and buying less, but we tend to be more comfortable sharing our stuff than getting rid of it and relying on others sharing theirs.

A lot of the ideals of cohousing sound good, but the reality is that we have to grow into the full potential of this way of life. Downsizing, shedding material objects, and becoming more dependent on neighbors can all feel like sacrifice at the beginning. Full realization of the joy and abundance of cohousing comes later.

The challenge in this is that an awful lot of decisions that relate to sustainability and affordability come sooner. We’re still early in the development process when we decide how much house we are going to build, how many cars we are going to plan parking for, and even how much land to buy.

So what makes people shift their thinking over time? I believe it is the lived experience of relationship. As communities gather and get to know each other, the value of the community increases and the relative value of individuality, certain aspects of individual homes and one’s particular preferences decreases. In short as we become closer and more connected to our neighbors that connection becomes the priority and the things that have made us comfortable in our solitary home matter less.

It has to do with our actual human needs. Whatever advertisers and retail giants would like us to believe, the reality is that we don’t need cabinets full of kitchen gadgets or workshops full of tools. What we need, as much as we need basic nutrition and water, is connection. When we begin to get it, the pull of our things, our cars and our space lessens and our vision of life in cohousing shifts.

So the question is, how do you build connection early enough that your design decisions can be more influenced by your actual needs than by your current mainstream lifestyle? There is probably no way to fully make that transition before move in, but you can speed it along.

Make spending time together a priority, not just for business meetings, but for casual conversation, eating together and social time. Spend time together in smaller groups. Invite one or two others for a meal or a cup of tea. Get to know your community neighbors in more intimate settings than full group gatherings will allow. Start your process and relationship training early. Non-violent Communication and Imago Relationships work are particularly valuable in inviting and building a sense of connection between members. Investing in this work sooner can have significant benefits for your land selection, membership retention and recruitment and design process.

A funny thing happens when you fall in love with your will-be neighbors. Suddenly the most important thing to have in your community by far is each other.

Raising My Kid in Richmond Cohousing

A common sentiment among parents I know is that they had no idea what they were getting into before having a kid, and I am no exception to this. When I first heard about cohousing it seemed like a great way to address some of the isolation and pressure I felt as a single parent. I loved the idea of having other adults close by to provide support and love for my child but also to share perspectives and knowledge that I didn’t have. And that’s not to mention the appeal of having more time to myself by sharing childcare responsibilities, easier socializing for both of us due to proximity of other adults and kids, and owning less “stuff” by sharing resources.

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I became involved with Richmond Cohousing in 2014 and since then the other members have become trusted friends who have seen my kiddo grow from age 2 to age 6. For the past few years we have worked hard to build our community, but it was challenging to find the exact piece of property we wanted – and could afford. When the group decided in early 2018 to pursue our cohousing development in Manchester in a condo-style building, I wasn’t sure I wanted to continue with the project. I hadn’t envisioned raising a child in a condo. This was a big departure from our earlier dreams of a grassy area and playground, fire pit, shared large gardens, and maybe even a pool. I spent a few months contemplating my future involvement with Richmond Cohousing and briefly decided to leave the group.

But after making an announcement at a Plenary Meeting that it wasn’t the right time for me and my kiddo to move into a condo, I got into my car and started crying. I thought about my life continuing the way it is now – coming home after work to our house with its yard and front porch and extra bedroom in the neighborhood I’ve lived in since 2002 and still feeling isolated and alone with all of the pressure of taking care of my child on my own.

Then I envisioned coming home to a cohousing condo building and walking through the front door, seeing a few people in the common space, saying hello and chatting for a few minutes, someone checking in with my kiddo about how the school day, and I felt a sense of relief, ease, and gratitude. The fact that it was a condo, that there wasn’t a yard, that it was a new neighborhood, and other unknowns seemed a lot less important than those things I had initially been seeking – community and support – when I joined the group. I knew what the right decision was.

The other members of the group may have been surprised to see my email early the next morning saying, “I changed my mind, I made a mistake, I do want to continue with the group”. Since then I’ve been actively involved and feeling excited (but still a bit nervous!) about this next adventure for me and my kiddo. Raising children in a multigenerational community enriches the lives of not only the children, but everyone else in the community. Richmond Cohousing will be a great place for kids.

Interested in living at Richmond Cohousing with your kids? We’d love to hear from you! 

Contact info@richmondcohousing.com with questions and stay tuned for our next Informational Session. We also know the challenges of nap/school/work schedules and the unpredictability of kids – we’re happy to chat via phone or meet at a local playground. Just let us know what might work best for your family.

Progress and Updates – Nov 2018

Richmond Cohousing continues to move forward in fast-paced and exciting ways!

Near final unit layouts are available and only 6 units remain uncommitted. If you’ve been thinking about getting involved, don’t miss your chance to join Richmond’s first cohousing community! There are 5 two-bedroom units (202, 207, 301, 302, 401) and 1 three-bedroom unit (104) currently available.

Miller & Associates submitted the Plan of Development (POD) to the city a few weeks ago and plan to meet with city representatives on Thursday, November 29th. So far, no major challenges have been identified.

We continue to brainstorm the best use of our common space and ways to (affordably) implement green/sustainable practices. Some members are thinking about how a bike or car share might be implemented, while others are excited to get their hands dirty in rooftop container gardens. Both parents and future grown-up friends are excited to have kids raised in community and are making sure play areas are safe and welcoming. And we want to make sure our building supports a diverse community across all ages and abilities.

Commitments from prospective buyers are encouraged by November/December 2018 – the more members we have, the more impact we have with our developer for customization and community-oriented features.

Finding Cohousing — Rachel and Theo’s Story

We moved to Richmond about 6 months ago – shortly after getting married – and began to imagine how we wanted our lives to look. We envisioned a community like the ones we grew up in – where it was normal to knock on the neighbor’s door to borrow a couple eggs or some flour, and where kids were able to spontaneously organize their own play time with other kids in the neighborhood, rather than parents scheduling play dates days or weeks in advance.

On top of the fact that we both have busy and irregular schedules working in healthcare, we realized that this type of neighborhood is simply not the norm anymore. We were so excited to discover cohousing, which has physical design that encourages interaction, but more importantly, it has a friendly, neighborly culture in which everyone wants to be involved in the community.

RachelTheoforRCWe chose cohousing because we both want to live in close community with our neighbors, and we want our kids to have other people around to learn from and play with. We want to support our older neighbors as they age in place, and are comforted knowing that our neighbors will help us in times of need.  We look forward to eating dinner all together, to watching sunsets from the rooftop deck with a glass of wine, and perhaps throwing in a game of ping pong or Pictionary before heading to bed. We hope – and believe – that more people will choose to live this way as it becomes clear that human connection is the key to happiness.

You can get to know Richmond Cohousing members, including Rachel & Theo, on our “Meet Our Members” website page. Read more about your potential future neighbors and then come meet us at an upcoming event!

We’re Getting Close Now—in More Ways Than One

So, it turns out, audaciously building a cohousing community together—i.e., a new neighborhood essentially from scratch—is hard work and can take a long time.  Who knew?

But Richmond Cohousing just passed an important milestone that’s suddenly brought our end goal into sharp focus: we’ve chosen a site, are planning to share a brand new 4-story condo building in Manchester, and are working out the details with our developer, Miller & Associates. We’re getting close now!

Anyone who’s followed our progress knows that we have been at this for some time. A few of our members joined the group as early as 2011 and 2012. Most came later, once we got better organized in late 2014.

And what a journey we’ve had! We’ve gathered for countless meetings and potluck dinners. We’ve sung, biked, played games, tabled at festivals, and volunteered together. We’ve eaten scrumptious community dinners in each other’s homes. We’ve read cohousing books together, attended cohousing conferences, visited cohousing communities in other cities, sent members of our group to facilitation trainings in neighboring states, and hosted facilitation trainings here, too.

We’ve articulated our core values and created agreements about processes and policies to govern the way we want to live together as a community. We’ve honed our meeting format to a fast-paced, no-nonsense structure that helps us accomplish a lot in the limited time we have together. We’ve developed spreadsheets and databases and circumnavigated the city to check out possible sites for our future home. We’ve pooled some funds and kept careful records. We’ve created our own website, logo, budgets, and bank accounts – the works. We’ve also laughed a lot—at almost every meeting. We’ve watched each other’s pets and younger children. We’ve helped out each other with some significant home projects and a few minor emergencies. Three babies have been born since we started. A new romance is blossoming, too.

Through it all, we’ve become a genuine community. In a word, we’ve gotten really close. So close, that we can’t wait to be moving in together in 2019.

And we can’t wait for more people to join us.

Our next Informational Session & Site Tour is Wednesday, September 19th at 5:30pm. This is a great time to get involved—we’ve laid the group foundation, now it’s time to build (membership and the structure)!

To get event announcements, project updates, and more details via e-mail, sign up for our e-mail list.

 

My Cooperative Food Experience

My first exposure to cooperative culture was participating in a Canadian young adult program called Katimavik. Katimavik (which means “gathering together” in the Inuktitut language) was created to develop youth and foster civic engagement through community service. We lived in communal houses with 10 to 20 other young volunteers from across Canada and served for nine months in three different communities. Our first community was Wolfville, Nova Scotia where 20 of us lived in a rambling farmhouse, between commercial pig and chicken barns, overlooking the picturesque Bay of Fundy’s extensive red mud flats.

For most of us, Katimavik was a gap year between high school and whatever was next. Those not fluent in both of Canada’s official languages (the majority) awkwardly attempted to communicate. We tried to live well together with the counsel of coordinators who were only a few years older than ourselves.

Planning, preparing, and eating meals were central to our communal life. The expectation was that we’d eat a healthy diet on a very low budget. Despite our limited experience with cooking, we learned to bake our own bread and prepare meals from scratch. We immersed ourselves in a slow-food diet using Laurel’s Kitchen, Diet for a Small Planet, Moosewood Cookbook, and the Tassajara Bread Book for guidance.

Our Katimavik group belonged to the food co-op in Wolfville, a charming store with bulk food items in wooden bins with hand written signs, organic baked goods, local produce, honey, eggs, dairy, meat, and maple syrup. We did not frequent the store since most of our food was purchased in bulk from the co-op and delivered to us. However, members of the co-op hosted us in their homes, organized our community service projects, invited us to celebrations, contra dances, and into their lives. These people understood that production, distribution, and consumption of food were crucial to the well being of our planet. They were an idealistic, opinionated group of individuals choosing an alternative to the competitive culture that dominates mainstream society. In retrospect, I suppose they were matured east coast hippies. All I knew at the time was that I wanted to emulate them.

Almost 40 years has past since I was in Katimavik. During that time, the globalization of food production has been accompanied by increased wealth disparities within and amongst countries, more fast food, and escalating rates of obesity. Most North Americans are increasingly disconnected from food production.

Over the years, I’ve belonged to numerous food cooperatives. During university in Peterborough, Ontario, the co-op required volunteer service to be a member. At the intentional farming community I lived at near Scottsville, VA, Mountain Warehouse Cooperative delivered large quantities of rice, flour, dried beans, oil, and other staples of our diet. When I moved to Richmond in 1989, I joined Fair Share on Main Street. Fair Share closed in the early 1990’s, ending 20 years of incarnations of food co-ops in Richmond. These co-ops were community focused organizations which were instrumental in teaching cooperative culture, including providing training in consensus building.

foodco-opWhen I heard about the Richmond Food Co-op, I joined. It is a member owned full service grocery store focused on local, sustainable, and affordable food. The Co-op will be opening summer of 2017 at 1200 Westover Hills Boulevard. It currently has greater than 1000 members. Each member has to opportunity to participate in the governance process.


Ben Kusterer, the Membership Outreach Coordinator, describes the co-op as: “Made up of a community of engaged and active people working together, the Co-op is poised to create a brighter food future for Richmond. The Richmond Food Co-op will be a 100% locally owned, 100% locally governed grocery store focused 100% on supporting our local farmers, economy and community; not to mention increasing affordability of good food through a member/owner model”.

Like Richmond Cohousing, the Richmond Food Co-op is striving to make a cultural shift from competition to cooperation. I hope we will serve our members most effectively and strengthen the cooperative movement by working together and learning from each other. In my heart and mind, a food co-op is central to creating the sustainable community we desire. For more information about Richmond Food co-op, visit their website or email info@richmondfoodcoop.com.

Growing, buying, and eating sustainable and local food is very near to the cohousing mission and members of Richmond Cohousing are excited to live in a city with such vibrant and innovative food choices! 
We often feel that no cohousing event is complete without food and sharing in community meals is a staple of cooperative living. Thanks to Kathryn for sharing her own experience with the cooperative food scene.

The Cohousing Development Process – Part Two

While all cohousing communities have a different journey, many share similar steps. This two part post shares an overview of how Richmond Cohousing is traversing the Cohousing Development Process. Part One explores how a few “burning souls” build a group structure, expand membership, and partner with a Developer, while this portion explains the process after site selection.

Site selection and acquisition can occur in any number of ways but typically the group defines a set of characteristics and works with development partners and other professionals to identify sites that meet those characteristics. Once a preferred site is selected by the group, the group and/or Development Partner secures an option on the property, conducts feasibility analyses, and determines whether they want to commit to that parcel or keep looking. Once the group has secured control of their selected site, the community design process can begin.

The process of land acquisition, community and home design, entitlements and public approvals and construction of the community typically takes somewhere between 1 and 3 years, although a number of factors can either speed-up or slow the process. Setbacks can be the result of national forces such as recessions or changes in regulations, or the result of local challenges such as getting needed entitlements and approvals or addressing resistance from surrounding communities. Many cohousing groups experience some setbacks along the way but the determination and creativity that comes from a well-organized and committed cohousing group is a powerful force for overcoming obstacles and reaching successful completion.

While the developer is at work managing the technical and construction aspects of the project, the group plays an important complementary role. They engage actively in a contributing to the community design process by giving input and approval to site design, common house design, and home designs. They also give input on other factors such as green and sustainable elements, aesthetics, efficiency, and cost-saving measures. Most groups have design charrettes (workshops) with the entire group, but also create a small team of trusted members who serve as a liaison between the group and developer, charged with keeping each side informed and passing key questions and information back and forth.

At this stage of the project the group continues the work of finding the future neighbors who will complete the community. This means marketing and outreach to raise awareness about the project and providing support and guidance for new members who need to be welcomed, engaged, and informed about their new community. New members will need support in learning about existing community practices, agreements, and governance. The group will also ensure that all potential full members are in a position to afford their future home; potential members should seek bank prequalification or preapproval (if they need one) early in the membership process.

As construction proceeds and the membership numbers grow, the group shifts more of its energy and attention to planning for life in the community after move-in. They will make decisions about community agreements and policies such as managing community meals, sharing work contributions, annual budgets and homeowner dues, conflict resolution norms, pets, establishing community traditions, using common lands, whether to have solar panels, chickens or a swimming pool, etc, etc. Working through these issues and possibilities creates fertile ground for getting to know one another better through community conversations, listening to different perspectives, and finding common ground and mutually acceptable solutions. The time the group puts into this work grows members’ capacities for working collaboratively for years to come.

The final step in the development process is moving in and beginning day-to-day life in cohousing with people who have become not just neighbors – but friends.