Sharon Villines, Takoma Village Cohousing, Washington DC
From the first thought of really living in cohousing, an essential requirement is being able to depend on each other to share the work. It's a collaborative effort and requires all hands on deck. If you don't know how to do something, learn. Even if your group is can afford to hire a development company, there are still many things that no one can do for you. Decision-making is one of the hardest because there are so many of them to be made. The "co-"in cohousing is "collaboration."
The fantasy that after move-in it will be easier fades about a week after move-in. For the first few days, everyone will be living with confusion from moving, elated that they have made it, and too tired to notice that the work has just quadrupled. If no one has already, and they probably have, someone will post a query about how to share work more evenly, to require people to step up that sounds something like this:
Please share! I'm at the point of giving up and suggesting that we just raise our monthly fees by a lot. I live the people who show up for work parties or do other regular jobs...but it's a tiny group.
I used to be there. At about 3-5 years in I was still desperate. I was continuing to work an average of 20-30 hours a week straightening up the CH, drafting policies, researching major projects and minor purchases, doing minutes, leading working groups, serving on the Board and at least one other team, etc. I learned a lot about developing a cohousing community but at some point, I wanted to just live in cohousing. That was the point, right?
Stories from other communities were not all encouraging. Some said, it does work out, but I talked with one woman who said she had moved out of the cohousing community to an apartment across the street so she could write the book she had moved into cohousing to write.
"Just Stop" Is Not an Alternative
When I complained about how much I was working and asked others to step up, their response was if you are doing too much, stop. The problem with this was that many of the things I was doing were to make myself feel safer and to create a community that I could be proud of. If I stopped, the place would look like "trailer park trash” (with all respect to wonderful trailer parks). I was anxious about fees rising so much I couldn’t afford them, consensus fading into no one cares and nothing happens, voting becoming the only way to get things done, and individuals, like me, taking over and becoming condo commandos. In other words, it still felt like a failing cohousing dream.
Always one to do research, I looked at all kinds of systems for distributing work. Eventually, I designed a complete relational database to define and track tasks, people, hours required and hours done. It was complex and informative — and intimidating. If I had gotten all the data, I could have told you anything about what needed to be done, how long it took, and who did it — if anyone. I could tell you which households contributed more time and which people preferred what sort of tasks.
I switched from the Community Team to the Facilities Team to analyze what work was necessary there. I hoped they would be more aware of the consequences for things not being done instead of or at least in addition to making everyone happy. I started by going back through all the minutes to find tasks that had been noted but not done. I kept track of comments in membership meetings and emails of things people wanted or needed done. I very quickly had a list of more than 100+ to-do items just for the Facilities Team—some were 2-3 years old. To track tasks and log their completion, I added a table to the database that would send reminders.
I sent reminders at least monthly—every two weeks was driving people nuts. Eventually, they were all done or a decision was made they weren’t going to be done—it took over a year to clear them out. And everyone hated me. It’s very hard to be conscious of the things to be done and to be the person reminding people to do them and be a Cohousing Pollyanna at the same time.
I studied sociocracy and its systems of self-organization and accountability. Looked at communities that were doing tracking and reporting hours. An ecovillage had an annual hours budget as well as a financial budget. New projects had both cost and labor budgets before they were approved. If not enough people pledged the hours, a project couldn’t be taken on. Labor is just like money—you don’t spend it unless you have it. If hours were not reported, the member was automatically charged an hourly rate. Many worked more hours but that was seen as voluntary and based on their own interests. The minimum was required of everyone. And it was minimal—4 hours a month. If people are expecting a vibrant community of meals, consensus decisions, forward-looking planning, shared childcare, gardens, composting, etc., it takes much more time than that.
My community tried many approaches. We had at least 3 working groups at various times who were going to take charge. One concluded that everything that needed to be done was being done or we wouldn’t exist. Another never met. Others tried, but what to do? They wrote wonderfully kind and understanding documents that made almost everyone feel good and accomplished nothing.
At about year seven or eight, however, I realized I was beginning to relax. I felt more secure living here. It would be okay. We had had turn-over in a few units with the new people being much more active and committed than the people they replaced. There was a solid feeling about the community. Part of it was from having more experience and changing my expectations, but it was also that increasingly the expectations of the most responsible people in the community were closer to the wonderful inclusive environmentally-conscious trailer park than the abandoned refrigerators and car tires of socially alienated trailer park trash communities.
I realized that what gave me that feeling was that I trusted the new and many of the original residents would take responsibility. They wouldn’t just ignore the flood in the CH or shrug if we were overcharged for services by the plumber. I could trust that the person in charge of the sump pumps would actually take care of them. And it didn’t matter how many hours one job took compared to another. Knowing that someone was taking responsibility was more important.
For 15 years I never had to think about who was changing the light bulbs inside the Common House and outside on the green and walkways. Not a thought, because one person researched best purchase options, kept a stock of bulbs for all fixtures, walked the property every Saturday morning to check for outages, recruited ladder people to help replace the bulbs, and properly recycled the burned out bulbs. I was totally free of this worry. Even if she did insist on calling bulbs “lamps,” I could handle it.
Something Rob Sandelin of Sharingwood Cohousing said a million years ago kept coming back to me:
“How do I value the hour an ethics expert spends 2-3 times a year teaching ethics to the kids or the 4 hours a month spent sweeping? One is priceless but only an hour; the other, quantifiable but easily hired out"
The Niggles Faded Away
In the end, it wasn’t the hours—it was the responsibility. Saying, I will take care of this, don't worry. Switching from focusing on taking responsibility we could emphasize the importance of building and maintaining our security and comfort. No one had to argue that that job wasn’t worth 4 hours of credit. Or we need the hours over here, not there. Work that counts is for the community, not yourself. Only manual labor counts—meals are just self-serving, not community serving. All that faded away.
It has helped that we have some very organized members who make lists and focus on details and job requirements and organizing work days, but it’s done as support and direction, not measuring and monitoring. It's more self-affirming without making comparisons. It just makes me very happy when someone cleans up the spilled coffee in the kitchen without being asked or assigned.