Sharon Villines, Takoma Village Cohousing, Washington DC
I thought a question on the cohousing email list what causes conflict in cohousing was an interesting one. There was an element of surprise in the question. Do you allow conflict? Sometimes we paint ourselves to potential new members as rainbows and candy.
The usual suspects that cause conflict are "parents, pets, and pesticides". Or children's behavior, outdoor pets, and cleaning or killing chemicals used in the garden or the common house.
As an example, I’ll list the ones that have been issues as Takoma Village— some small, some big. Some private and individual and some with everyone on one side or the other. Some still toasting.
1. Do we want a residential or commercial dishwasher in kitchen? Some love the noisy commercial sanitizer but others do not.
2. Payment of condo fees is not an issue but payment for other things has been. Should people pay to use the clothes washer and dryer? Guest rooms? Our condo fees are graduated so should everything else be graduated too?
3, Who is responsible for correcting children? What if parents don't or others object to their standards? When parents allow 5-6 year olds outside with no supervision, doesn’t the 5 year old who likes to swing bats need watching? Unless it has been specifically arranged, should other parents be expected to supervise that child?
4. Are parents responsible for cleaning up the kids room even if the parent didn’t know their kids were there, the kids say they weren’t, and several people say they were?
5. Are children exempt from the noise policy because it is their nature to yell and scream and run around as if the world is a soccer game? A soccer game with no rules.
6. Can a member correct a child whose parent isn't present? Tell them not to jump on furniture? Or walk on window sills? Put them in time out for not playing well with others? Tell them they can’t leave the playroom until they clean up.
7. How much do teams have to inform the community about changes? Can a team decide that disposable paper products will no longer be stocked in the pantry?
8. Do we need child safety locks on every drawer and cupboard in the CH or only ones with knives, matches for birthday candles, and cleaning products (even if they are all green and not dangerous)?
9. Can the community decide to put a tree up in front of a member’s window, effectively blocking all light. No, but still some people were very upset because this tree somehow was needed to balance the landscape design. Which takes precedence?
10. Can we plant only native plants? Or what percentage of native and non-native? What is “native”? If we don’t use Round-up, who weeds? What is a weed? Can a resident plant “weed” in their own yards?
11. We need 6 inches of rubber mulch under a raised fort for older children. But I used to jump off roofs when I was 8 and climb 3 story high trees. Why can’t ours?
12. Does it really take a village to raise a child? Shouldn’t we have discussions about manners and reasonable behavior in the common spaces? Can only parents make rules about children’s “needs” and behaviors? Should only parents decide if we need to store carseats in the front hall? Even if there are 8? Plus 8 strollers?
13. Should dogs be allowed to run without leashes? Cats be outdoor cats?
14. Where can dogs poop and pee? Who decides? The landscaping point person who doesn’t want them to poop or pee anywhere? Who is responsible for cats using the sand box or flower planters on balconies for kitty litter?
15. Can people schedule private time to use the exercise room?
16. Can people do exercise videos in the newly refurbished living room instead of the exercise room? How does it affect the expensive new rug?
17. Where can bicycles be parked? How many spaces per unit should be have? We have at least 61 bikes—where can we put them?
18. How long can a member remain on the members email list after they move out? Wha if they have been a member for 18 years and want to stay on for a few months until they are ready to part with the community? Or if they are leaving after having caused trouble? Does everything have to be standardized to be fair? Written down so everyone is treated the same.
19. Should we have a TV in the common house? Who pays for cable? Should it be in a locked or unlocked room?
20. Should we have a whole community internet connection? What about the common house?
21. When there is a central mail delivery room and anyone can sign for packages, can each unit decide where they want their packages delivered and who can sign for them? Who keeps track of individual preferences?
22. What about growing vegetables in the decorative gardens along the green? Should we exhibit our values or have flowering gardens that last longer than vegetables?
23. Can privately owned things be stored in common space that is unused otherwise? Strollers, tricycles, kayaks, bicycle carriers?
24. Can we have a Christmas Tree? Can we put angels or a creche on it? Can a lighted Santa Claus figure be put up on the sign in front of the property?
25. Should the workshop be locked? Who can borrow tools and under what circumstances? Are the paints and other supplies open source or reserved for community use?
26. What cleaning products can be used in the kitchen? Can steel wool be used on pans or bleach on dishcloths?
27. Can children use toy guns in common areas?
28. Can members keep dangerous pets like pythons?
29. Is committee work like researching and righting policies workshare or only physical maintenance tasks?
30. Can diapers dry on portable racks on the green? In a neighborhood where the predominantly black neighbors consider hanging clothes outside to signal ghetto or slums?
These may seem overwhelming or trivial but they all cause conflict. Please don't be intimidated. This is 16 years worth of examples — not a complete list— just the ones I remember off hand.
You can’t address all of these before you move in or start membership meetings with a list of these issues. Take them up as they come along. We didn’t deal with any issues related to children until we had a bunch of them a few years in. Pets, however, may be important to discuss with prospective members because people may not want to get rid of pets. We didn't have a pet policy for over 10 years after move-in and managed to exist.
The worst kind of conflicts, in my opinion, are the small ones that people grouse about but are never resolved. They are often dismissed by others as trivial. These pile up and cause unhappiness that is hard to resolve because it seems so petty. But one person's petty is another person's emotional burden.
Passing off things as personal issues to be resolved between neighbors is usually a problem, too. In cohousing, people are members of a community and accountable to shared values and expectations. Individually, they can't change these. Many members think they don’t have a right to object to someone storing a boat on a trailer beside their garden and blocking their sun because there is no policy prohibiting it.
When neighbors disagree, it is often because the community has not recognized or discussed the issue. It isn't a personal issue that can be resolved by the neighbors.
When communities say, "This isn’t our problem" when asked for help, they are shooting themselves in the foot. If the person could have talked to the other person, they would have.
A policy isn’t always necessary, just a discussion and a recorded sense of the group in the minutes. People often change their behavior after a discussion and no further action is necessary. Getting the right wording of a policy can take years and thens seem like a bureaucratic non-necessity when it finally gets written.
Just talk about it first, as a community. A community is only as strong as it's fully committed members. And unhappy members won't be fully committed.