Monday, April 23, 2012

What's on Community Minds?

Yesterday was the first of three days devoted to the Fellowship for Intentional Community's spring organizational meetings. We're being hosted (quite graciously, by the way) at Arcadia, a 16-year-old cohousing group in Carrboro NC. As is our wont, we buckled down to work during daylight hours, and used the evening for something more social—in this case, we invited residents of the host community to linger with us after dinner and get to know each other better in an informal setting. Happily, we had a nice symmetry: in a circle of 20 folks, eight were Arcadians, two were visitors from other parts of North Carolina; eight were FIC folks, and two were the partners of FIC folks.

The conversation lasted about 90 minutes. After brief introductions, we opened it up to whatever folks were inspired to talk about and I thought it might be illuminating to lay out what this semi-random gathering of eight community members (who are not networking fanatics like us FIC folks) chose to discuss. Our hosts introduced three threads:

I. Sustainability
As commonly happens, this topic immediately led to a focus on ecological impact, starting with energy usage. The conversation first veered in the direction of probing the pros and cons of solar panels and whether to be off grid or not (off grid has the advantage of independence and insulation from disruption in the case of utility company power outages; grid intertie means you don't need to buy batteries, which are both expensive and have a deleterious ecological impact of their own). This meandered into energy conservation as distinct from new or more benign technologies, where you can achieve much more profound savings more quickly (using compact fluorescent instead of incandescent bulbs; reducing infiltration around doors and windows; turning off lights when you're not in the room; etc.).

This morphed into vehicle use and the opportunities for members to consider shared car ownership (establishing a private car co-op) or at least ride sharing (when you're going in the same direction to work, or can manage to orchestrate multiple errands on the same trip). 

From there the conversation blossomed into consideration of the social and economic aspects of sustainability. For example, one of the reasons so many people own their own cars (which is a poor ecological choice) is to avoid the potential awkwardness of needing to work it out when multiple people want use the same vehicle at the same time for different purposes. That is, the best ecological choices often require a degree of social sophistication to make them work.

Similarly, one woman reported being drawn to live in the community, in part, because ecological impact is a core value at Arcadia. However, that woman's job is 28 miles away, requiring a weekly commute of 280 miles. If she didn't have that job, she could save enormously on travel costs—but if she didn't have that job she couldn't afford to live in her house. Thus economic needs constrain how ecologically she can live.

In short, it's complicated.

II. Aging
Like the rest of us, members at Arcadia are getting older (duh). Is the community concerned about being able to age in place? 

One thread of this examination was whether the community was at risk of having too many seniors at one time, such that it would be too much of a burden on the able-bodied to get basic maintenance covered. While some community members have created spaces in their homes where someone could live and provide assisted care, others were planning to leave the community when their health deteriorated to that place where such assistance was needed.

One woman poignantly disclosed her tenderness about reaching the point where she might need more from the community than she could give. Never mind that she's been running a positive balance in that department for more than a decade, she'd feel awkward asking others to support her operating at a giving/receiving deficit in the future. How does the community want to handle that? (Underneath the issue for a specific person—where that individual's personal history with the community would be part of the equation—is how many limited-functioning folks can the community handle at a given time? That's a limits-of-diversity issue and can be quite delicate to get out in the open—at what point do you tell someone the life boat's too full to permit one more?)

We also spent time approaching this issue from the other end of the spectrum: rather than shining the light on the growing senior segment, we considered the dearth of members in their 20s and 30s. To some extent this is an affordability issue (as the price of houses has spiraled upward in the overheated housing market of the popular Research Triangle area). 

This led to a discussion about whether the community would be better off with limited equity agreements (where leaving members would limit sale prices to what they paid, adjusted for cost of living increases) or market rate agreements (which is what they have now at Arcadia and is part of the reason that younger folks find the community out of their price range). With limited equity it would be easier for young folks to buy homes, yet the departing people would be losing flexibility as they wouldn't be selling their Arcadia home for the money they'd need to buy a comparable replacement.

I mentioned that some communities have creatively dealt with this by setting aside a portion of their monthly HOA dues in a fund that can be used for bridge loans available to new folks who cannot otherwise scrape together a down payment. [See my blog of Feb 14, Doing the Heavy Lifting on Affordability for more on this.]

III. Participation
Finally, we took a swipe at the array of issues that arise from some residents being perceived to be doing less for the community than others. In addition to the awkwardness associated with people pulling unevenly on the oars, there tends to be ambiguity about expectations and uncertainty about how to address both hard feelings.

Some of the concern is that everyone may not be contributing equally to the maintenance of the community, or at least not equally now (while you may have done yeoman service in the past, what have you done for the community lately?). And it's worse than that. This concern can easily expand to include social contributions—where bringing chicken soup to sick neighbors counts just as much as washing dishes after potluck dinner; where taking the neighborhood kids on a nature walk may mean as much as raking leaves.

We asked the Arcadians in the room what they knew about why people weren't more involved in community life, the better to know if there was anything that could be done about it. We suggested that they were likely to enjoy much more success if they tried enticing the reticent with outrageous fun, rather than hoping they'd step forward in response to venting.
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One of the interesting things about the evening was that there were no surprises for us Fellowship folks about the topics selected. All three of these aspects of group living are bread and butter issues (about which we try to make sure we offer workshops whenever we hold events—such as our Art of Community weekend queued up for Sept 21-23 in Occidental CA).

It turned out that the non-fanatics wanted to discuss the same things the fanatics are interested in, which was comforting. While it may be well and good to not be reverent all the time—as an activist you're often out there on the edge, shaking things up—it's highly desirable to be relevant most of the time—directing energy toward the questions that everyone recognizes as the tough ones.

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