An exciting visit with a Co-housing community that got its start nearly 19 years ago in a funky northern California town…
In the middle of winter in the year 1994, a group of young families sit in a circle discussing their wants and needs in terms of housing, community, and financial security. Leading this discussion is Michael Black, an architect who has developed a healthy obsession with a new type of living arrangement that originated in Denmark in the mid 60’s. Michael has tried to develop a co-housing community with two other groups already; both have failed.
These meetings are long and arduous as the group has never been involved in a process like this before. They start as monthly meetings but begin to be scheduled more and more frequently as time goes on. The values emphasized by the group are support, acceptance, and community. There is a strong belief that it is more important to ensure the good of the group versus only valuing the improvement of the self. And yet the only real requirement to join was the ability to pay the initial deposit. This still holds true due to the pressures of fair housing laws and the inability to make amendments for intentional living groups selling individual slots of private property within the greater whole of the shared space. However a process of self-selection began to occur as many people dropped out of the project after spending all day in a meeting only to realize that their wants and needs were not cohesive with the other individuals looking to embark on this journey together. Some dropped out due to the all-day meetings themselves. At one point, there was a turnover of five out of fourteen available units. They were quickly replaced. Finally, after five long years of planning and development, the group eagerly moved into their new community.
In the middle of winter in the year 2017, I sit in a circle with a group of families: eleven of which sat in that original circle. A handful of members move from their seats to a more comfortable position barefoot on the ground as the conversation moves with ease from topic to topic on the agenda: a quick statement of what each member has contributed to the community in the past year, the budget for 2018, awards and nominations for committee chair positions for next term, and upcoming project proposals. The meeting was scheduled for two hours; today they ended early.
It turns out I am the first individual from outside the community to sit in on one of their quarterly meetings, and I’m grateful they allowed me to do so as it helped me to appreciate aspects of their situation I may have otherwise carelessly overlooked. For instance, many people wrongly assume that the type of individual who chooses to live in a co-housing structure must be a hippie, druggie, or some other version of the stereotype of an individual who can’t, or chooses not to, fit into the regular societal standard. Now it was already clear to me that many types of people choose to lead alternative lives, however experiencing the efficiency of the facilitation of the meeting as well as learning about the types of responsibilities being taken on by community members truly blew that stereotype out of the water. The group was filled with intellects and truly talented individuals, and could not have survived without this attribute. In fact, they have been so on top of things throughout the years that they have never once gone over budget and have even saved up a surplus of reserves to apply to up and coming projects. Keeping things running this smoothly required a huge commitment of time and energy from everyone involved.
I admired the way the group had learned to use each person’s skills and strengths to bring value to the whole: Denise saved them the bill of an official accountant, Marty brought her knowledge of backyard chickens, Portia her gardening, Michael his carpentry, and so on and so forth. They had a well-balanced variety of individuals from the business savvy to the creative artist and everything in between. These skill-sets are divided among volunteer-based committees covering building and grounds, landscape, common house, and community life. They had enlisted positions such as president, bookkeeper, and secretary. Further, there were naturally occurring roles such as Steve handling guests due to his extroversion, Phil with entertainment from time to time with his music, and Marty handling inquiries and organizational duties due to her skill and enjoyment in these areas.
It goes without saying that there has been tremendous improvement in the organization of the community and the facilitation of these meetings since the beginning days. Tom, a member of the facilitation team at today’s meeting, explains to me that they brought in professionals to help them get to the point they are at today. The first thing they learned: have a facilitation team. The facilitators were taught tricks such as having a keeper of heart, implementing breakouts where the group divides into smaller groups to discuss touchy topics, rating emotional connection to an issue using a 1-5 dot scale, and taking stretch breaks when needed. They also brought together the chairs of each committee as a group to meet before the quarterly meetings to work out as much of the details as possible. This leaves community meeting time mostly for consensus. (Consensus is a commonly used practice in communal living, however I can’t help but wonder if people fall to the pressures of conformity due to the lack of anonymity and not wanting to be the one person holding an issue on the table and taking up more of everyone’s time.)
However even with all this in place and the years of mastery, there was still quite a bit of extremely polite, passive aggressive comments on mundane issues. But what stood out to me more than this, was the fact that at dinner after the meeting everyone sat down together and enjoyed themselves as one big happy family as if the bit of tension at the meeting had not just happened. You see, this is what community is all about. These individuals have moved past the level of neighbors. Things of this nature are inevitable when you have one large group living in such close quarters. They have become comfortable calling each other out on their shit, because at the end of the day they know that there is a level of care and compassion that goes deeper than disagreement could ever go. As Ginny, the first newbie to the community, explained to me over tea one afternoon…
“The biggest thing at Two Acre Wood is that everyone here is accepted exactly how they are. No one will ever be shamed or punished for anything they do or don’t do.”
She tells me that she has learned to value people for the good that they bring to the community and to love and accept them for who they are, even if that means living with the fact that their values may differ from her own. She shares with me that the beautiful thing about living within an environment like this is that she feels safe, comfortable, and at ease here. She knows that she can go to her neighbor’s door in her pajamas and stick out her mug of coffee and say she needs milk and that they will share with her without a second thought. This exact scenario was retold to me by both Phil and Judy later. (Perhaps a community store of half and half in the common house is in order.) If you ask me, this level of acceptance and comfort is a true sign of success in a mature co-housing community.
And don’t let the business-like nature of the meeting and logistical processes fool you. This group is so much fun to be around. The positive energy radiating throughout the grounds here is almost palpable. There is Steve and Karen who are a whimsical and upbeat couple that got their start in a Kibbutz community in Israel. They have a playful dynamic and are sure to never let life get too dull or serious. Steve is an avid activist who can often be seen in town holding up a large world flag to promote inclusion and peace. Karen is slightly more reserved than her counterpart, extremely friendly, and hospitable. It is literally impossible to not be smiling and laughing the entire time you are in their presence.
There is Phil who was always sure to come over and greet me when he saw me in the common living areas. He is an easy going individual who believes that a successful life is measured by happiness and lives by the philosophy that life will take him where he needs to be. I am yet to see him without a smile on his face. He is a kind and gentle soul who with a deep appreciation for the companionship he has shared with the community throughout the years. He was brought into the community via his relationship with a current member a few years after its start, and it has clearly been a great fit for him. He shares that he felt let down by the lack of friendliness and companionship with neighbors in regular society and had been longing for a place where he truly was able to connect with those living around him. His prime location, with his always open kitchen window facing the common house, allows him all the access to community he could ever ask for. In my opinion, his getting married on the grounds was a true sign of his rite of passage here. He tells me that his biggest take away from his experience in co-housing is to be empathetic and understanding of what other people may be going through. He applies this to life outside the community when driving in the Bay Area traffic and the person behind him is driving like a real jerk.
“Who knows, maybe they just got a bad call and learned that someone they care about a whole lot is in the hospital. If I just got that call I’d be thinking ‘Hey, there’s somewhere I really gotta be’ and probably driving worse off than most days too.”
There is Judy who claims to be an aging hippie but I swear is inversely aging internally. A retired senior on paper, she is as active and as full of youth and virtue as ever. She halfway jokes that she is a recovering catholic who now preaches a practice of peace, happiness, love, and inclusion. She shares her passions on environmental sustainability, world peace, animals, lifelong learning, and the love and companionship of the one’s she shares her home with. Her excitement at sharing the recent successes of many of her neighbors is as contagious as her involvement in the community is admirable. She is an avid activist and tells me of her plans to attend a protest the following morning. I felt an instant attachment to her as I can see myself being very similar to her in many ways down the road.
And finally there is Wendy and Ben, an energetic and humorous couple who seem to help aid in the sound organization of the community. Their bright spirits and lighthearted reflection on a recent private matter truly proved to me the spirit of those living here at Two Acre Wood. And the beautiful stories just kept coming as the weekend went on. From Debbie sharing about her summer of intentional living in Denmark with her kids to Michael’s stories of his impromptu stay in the middle east when he called his parents to tell them he sold his plane ticket and wasn’t coming home for a year and a half.
I heard more accounts of bravery sparking inspiration than I could ever cram into this article. However I think my biggest take away was the benefits of community living that was clearly defined in this group. This group was unique in that they had maintained the majority of the same members from day one, along with a sole purpose to uphold virtuous community.
One clear benefit was that the ability to connect and network with the surrounding community was greatly increased due to holding educational, political, and musical events in their common house. For example when a local election was taking place they brought in one of the runners and invited laypeople from the town to come in for a question and answer session. It was also expressed to me that many members were turned onto community events they otherwise would not have heard about such as symphonies, art shows, and classes in town. They even run their own groups such as Saturday morning yoga and a book club. Members have also had the opportunity to ‘in-source’ their needs by exchanging their strengths for coverage in areas of weaknesses or dislike, such as doing lawn work in exchange for chiropractic services.
They have learned polite confrontation techniques as well as the use of nonviolent communication, skills that have proven useful in their work and life outside of TAW. By being exposed to individuals that they may have otherwise not interacted with they have learned the value of acceptance and inclusion. Members have the ability to prepare food together and share meal time with an extended group of friends and family twice a week. They have a built in support system right outside their front door, and time and financial constraints in life have largely faded away as shared responsibilities and resources are central to their living situation. In due of this sharing of resources they have been able to make great strides in the area of environmental consciousness and sustainability by installing solar panels, growing a portion of their own food, composting, and implementing the knowledge of two members who are professionals in the topic of zero waste leaving them with only three garbage cans a week for their 14 unit community.
Although some aspects of community such as work days, casual meetings to check in on each other’s lives, and group outings have dwindled off from the beginning due to the comfort of longstanding establishment mixed with the inter-generational aspect diminishing with many adult members now aging and the once young kids now largely gone at college (members joked they were becoming a NORC or naturally occurring retirement community), the presence of community was still clearly visible as well as the inherent want stressed to me by multiple members to reinforce this aspect as strongly as it once was. Plans to move tasks now hired out back to the members seem to be a frequent item of discussion.
The fast paced culture here encourages endless days of excitement and productivity in the areas of self, community, and societal development and I left here feeling loved, excited, and eager to share their story.