By Sharon Villines
A list of the 6 mistakes that groups have made that contributed to their downfall or cost them significant financial loses and/or membership problems. Not a scientific study but reflects 20 years of reading Cohousing-L.
1. NOT READING COHOUSING-L. Cohousing-L will give you access to hundreds of successful cohousers who are more than willing to share information and advice with anyone who asks. Surveys and detailed queries are not wildly liked—too impersonal and take time to fill out. Just ask a question and that will start a dialogue. Then you can ask another one. Unlimited information is available. In my opinion the success of cohousing is the result of people begin able to share information on Cohousing-L. It is run by Fred Olson and began as a labor of love that has pretty much moved in with him. A huge well-organized archive. Join through this site. (I'm not sure where the link is just now.) [Fred objects and wants to say that many other things contributed to cohousing development as well. I believe that too, but communication of information stands above all others in making things possible. Remember Fred was here in the 1990s when very few others were. The cohousing website was not even close to what is is today.]
2. NOT USING A DEVELOPER. Cohousing groups have failed much less frequently since there are developers who are interested AND cohousers are more willing to use developers. The "Yankee Do" impulse was very strong and many groups rejected help until about 2000. Real estate development is a major, multifaceted activity not amenable to overnight mastery, not even in 2 or 3 years. With no experience, groups make a lot of costly mistakes. $30-40,000 for construction drawings that have to be redone. $10,000 for a public relations or marketing firm that produces nothing, $20,000 for a lawyer who just prints out 400 pages of standard condo provisions and wants $400 an hour to revise them. A developer will also have credibility with the bank. You are unlikely to.
3. EXPECTING TO HOLD YOUR BREATH TOO LONG: One problem with delay, is that most people can only be involved in a project other than their job and their personal life for 2 years. That's as long as they can hold their breath and keep swimming. I base this on 25 years of teaching adults at the university level. The vast majority had families (children or parents or both) and full time jobs. As their mentor, I learned that I had to help them plan to finish in 2 years or they wouldn't. Stretched too far, things break.
4. HAVING AN INTERNAL DEVELOPER OR DESIGNER: Peer to peer, intergroup conflict and distrust is very difficult. If it is serious, it will last as long as the internal developer lives in the community. It is inevitable in such a big project that something won't work well or someone will misunderstand what they were promised. When the professional is part of the group, they will either hold enormous power or compromise their professional opinion to do what the group wants. Let your professional members work with external professionals and perhaps complete some discreet tasks, but don't use an internal person to save money.
5. BEING TOO LIBERAL WITH CUSTOMIZATIONS: Any customization costs everyone money all the way down the line. Check the archives of Cohousing-L for reasons why. One that people don't think about is construction workers. They will do what they have always done and then it will have to be torn out and done over. Or they will have to stop and read the instructions for each unit and then educate coworkers. Time is money. A lot of money.
Interest on your construction loan of millions of dollars will be big. For example, 6% interest on a $3 million loan is somewhere in the neighborhood of $180,000 in the first year. With 240 working days in a year, that is $750 a day. With a 8 hour work day that is ~$94 an hour, just for interest on the loan. And you won't have that many days of work. Rain, delays in permits, discovery of endangered worms in the soil, stop work orders, etc, can delay work for days and months. (This are totally ball park figures.)
6. FALSE EXPECTATIONS ABOUT WORKSHARE: From the beginning everyone has to help. They can't sit on the sidelines until the building is finished. If they don't want to know anything about construction, they can arrange pot lucks or call people in the waiting list. There are many jobs to be done and not all require presence at evening meetings. Everyone has 24 hours in a day and chooses how to spend it. If they are too busy to help get built, they are too busy to live in cohousing. Find that out before you move it.
Cohousing is a serious endeavor but entirely possible and wonderful. I don't want to scare anyone off. These are easy things to do but if you don't, the costs in money, time, and exhaustion will prevent you from getting built or make it more difficult than it has to be.