The 100,000-mile Community Tune Up

I've been a group process consultant for 28 years. For the first 26 years most of my work was focused on weathering storms, or training groups in foul weather drills, so that they could better handle heavy seas themselves.

In the last 18 months, however, there's been something of a sea change. In addition to the crisis management work I've always gotten, I've been hired to help five different cohousing communities struggling with who they are, 12-20 years after move in. Plus I've gotten inquiries from a handful more who are thinking about hiring someone to help with reinvigoration, to reset their gyroscope. Apparently it's a trend.

What's going on?

Actually, there are quite a number of things going on, and I've enumerated 10 of them below. While all these don't obtain in all situations, the factors I've named can reinforce each other to erode a sense of cohesion and group identity. If you have a number of these dynamics at play in your group, unaddressed they will almost certainly lead to diffusion and confusion. The good news is that this trend is reversible—if the group has the will to address them.

1. Changing of the Guard
Some founders have retired from active community life, moved or died. New members have replaced them, but the group is now different and hasn't yet gelled in the way that the original group did. This phenomenon tends to happen earlier with cohousing groups because they often include founding members north of 60, so it takes fewer years for some of the originals to age out.
[Note that while aging is inevitable, not gelling is not. See more about this under Point 6 below.]

2. Accumulation of Unresolved Hurts
This is a big one. Overall, it's the most common thing I'm asked to help with (often packaged with other issues). The wider culture handles this abysmally, and thus well-intended folks tend to come into the community experience with: a) the naive hope that conflict won't happen in Utopia; rather than b) the personal skills needed to navigate conflict well.

When tensions don't resolve—I'm not saying they never do, only that it is highly common for some of them not to, and that there is a cumulative effect of ignoring these that gets increasingly expensive—it's often tempting to settle for the simplistic analysis that it's the other person's fault (that efforts at resolving tensions have stalled out). It doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure out how myopic and limited that thinking is.

3. The Three Musketeers Don't Live Here Any More
Often there is a special all-for-one-and-one-for-all quality that is manifested for those who went through the rush of development together that creates a special bond among founding members. This is a real thing and the community can often ride that wave of good feeling for a number of years before it peters out on the endless pebbled beaches of everyday living.

It's one thing to bond over the exhilarating heady days of first meetings, recruitment, planning, and construction, when everything is new and everything is possible. It's another to renew and maintain that sense of cohesion. Groups sometimes make the mistake of thinking that after having successfully navigated the rapids of development together, that they're bonded for life. Not so. The experience fades and latter-day residents can never touch that experience.

Lacking some of the more nuts and bolts ways that groups renew and sustain cohesion (see Points 5, 6, 7, and 9), it turns out that groups may have only created a temporary sense of community during the intensity of development, analogous to how neighbors rally around crisis (such as a tornado or flood) to pull together in ways that they ordinarily don't. Then, when the intensity of pioneering eases off and it's a matter of living the life (settler phase), there is rarely something so compelling or urgent that pulls everyone together in the same way.

It turns out that community building is a lot like gardening: you can't just turn the soil, sow seeds, and walk away hoping to return periodically to harvest sustenance year after year; if you don't cultivate the crops, pretty soon the weeds take over.

4. Increase in Transients
Many communities experience over time an increase in the percentage of renters living in the community—both in-house and whole house. There are three points to make about this phenomenon. First, some groups treat renters as second-class citizens, perhaps by not extending to them the right to block in plenary. I think this is a mistake. Renters can be excellent members and it behooves the group to allow that to happen, expecting renters to have the same set of rights and responsibilities that owners have, excepting perhaps that they're not allowed to block decisions with long-term financial implications (such as the conditions under which capital reserve funds can be accessed). On a day-to-day level, there are very few issues where you wouldn't want renters to actively participate.

Second, it's worthwhile for the group to pause and try to understand what the trend toward more renters means. Are owners struggling to make ends meet where they weren't before? If so, is the community doing anything to help with that? Are owners wanting out, but can't sell their home because of a poor market? Assuming you'd rather have owner-occupied houses, how actively is the community working to make that happen (as opposed to relying primarily, or even solely, on exiting members to handle marketing and screen prospectives)?

Often groups have an active Membership Committee in the beginning, to sell out the lots, and then that team goes dormant once the project is sold out. That's a mistake! You should always have an active Membership Committee, with primary responsibility for:
o Recruitment (if you have no openings, develop a waiting list, including for renters)
o Orientation & Integration (see Point 6 below)
o Exit Interviews (why did that owner sell?)

Third, it makes a difference how long someone is renting. Most groups feel that investing in screening and orienting isn't worth it for short-term rentals (90 days or less) but probably is for longer rentals. Further, there is the contemporary phenomenon of Airbnb—very short-term rentals—which pushes the envelope around safety, strain on common facilities (Common House laundry, Common House kitchen, parking), and overall sense of connection because you know your neighbors. This is worth a conversation.

5. Weakly Defined Common Values and Mission
A lot of cohousing communities have a casually defined sense of what values are shared among members. In fact, a number of groups proudly tell the world that they make no attempt to screen people, trusting that the right ones will find their way to community without any active guiding from current members. I call this member roulette, and I recommend against it.

The truth is, not everyone is going to be a suitable member of your community, and not all collections of people are going to enjoy living together. There needs to be some discernment (by which I mean something more substantive than whether their checks clear), and that starts with defining what the group stands for and what it intends to do in the world—so that prospectives can do a better job of self-screening for appropriateness, and the community has a rational basis for rejecting someone who doesn't appear to be a good fit—what's the point of slogging through 2-3 years of mutual misery to conclude what you could have reasonably projected before move in? Grow a pair.

But defining common values has more application than merely helping with recruitment and new resident selection. Common values are the bedrock that you build all community agreements upon. They are the basis for discerning which factors need to be taken into account when wrestling with whole-group issues (because they are tied to common values) and which can be set aside as personal interests (because they are not tied to common values). Lacking clarity about this inevitably leads to getting bogged down in the swamp of strongly held personal interests (because there's no basis to exclude them).

By clarifying values and mission the community creates a beacon of light that will draw in people who are a good fit. Lacking clarity you have a fog, which doesn't particularly attract anyone, excepting the lost.

6. Weak Orientation and Integration of New Residents
I spoke above (Point 4) about the importance of having an active Membership Committee. Sometimes groups do a decent job of marketing, yet fall down on the second part of (what I propose as) their mandate: orientation and integration of new residents. Some groups feel that they've done their job if they hand new folks a fat notebook chock full of FAQ, member rules and guidelines, a map of the property, an explanation of the committee structure, and an agreement log.

I'm not saying it's a bad idea to have that notebook, but I don't think it's anywhere near enough. New people often don't even know what questions to ask. Give new residents a buddy for six months who will be pro-active in sitting down with the new folks to help demystify community life (including debriefing community meetings). Expect each standing committee to be responsible for providing an orientation about what they do in lay terms for the new people.

Remember: it's far cheaper to retain a member than to replace one. It falls to the existing members to take the lead on this (rather than asking the new folks to pound on the walls until a door pops open).

7. Martyrs and Slackers Dynamics
This is the most common aspect of community life that I'm asked to handle as an outside facilitator: the accumulation of tension related to the uneven level of participation among members (non-monetary contributions to the maintenance and well being of the community). People are labeled "slackers" because they do not appear to be doing their share of the work, even though it appears they are able-bodied and could. People are labeled "martyrs" because they pick up the slack and then act as if they deserve extra power (that is, additional weight should be given to their views and preferences) by virtue of their having done more than others—even though they weren't asked to do more.

Unaddressed, these dynamics lead to demoralization, a gradual build-up of tensions that leak into other aspects of community life, and a decrease in participation overall (why bother if others aren't going to do their fair share). Yuck.

This is a specific example of Point 2. I think that all groups have a periodic need to talk about this, to clear the air. Think of it like going to the dentist. While it may not be an enjoyable prospect, you need to regularly remove the plaque from your teeth if you want to keep them. Unattended to, your teeth fall out (the bottom drops out of participation) and you're left with little more than a neighborhood condo association—and have to live on a diet of applesauce and mashed turnips, which is not the community you had in mind.

8. No Lights on in the Common House
Over time, most cohousing groups experience a decrease in how much the Common House is used. There are fewer community meals, fewer community meetings, a seldom used library, and even a decrease in social events. While this tends to follow from some of the other problems listed here (rather than create them), it's a relatively easy symptom to track.

The sad thing is that the Common House was expensive to build, and represents an ideal of shared space, where everyone's occasional need for large-scale events could be accommodated. However, when the sense of community is weakened, so is the desire to share, and common facilities go underused.

9. Lack of Clarity about What's Wanted from Leaders
All groups need leaders. While that role can be filled by different members at different times (that is, communities don't need a single person to be the leader), we need organizers, cheerleaders, bridge-builders, articulators, and people who'll stick their thumb in the dike.

Unfortunately, most groups have not taken the time to articulate what qualities they want in leaders, and someone volunteering to serve in a leadership capacity tends to be viewed as prima facie evidence of that person having inadequate ego management. We need to do better than that.

Groups need to be able to talk openly about how power is distributed in the group, and what can be done to adjust that if we want it to be different (short of lopping off heads). We need to be able to distinguish between good uses of power (for the benefit of all) from bad uses (for the benefit of some at the expense of others). We need models of healthy leadership so that we can celebrate when someone does a good job, and have objective criteria to use when trying to help someone improve.

Lacking this clarity there is a tendency for the criticism of leaders to get all out of proportion to their appreciation, with the result that people don't want to serve in that capacity (because they're tired of taking arrows). While I guess you could make the case that no one serving as a leader is equality of a kind, it's pretty miserable.

10. Size Matters
Finally, I want to note that it's harder to maintain cohesion in a larger group, and most cohousing groups have at least 30 members, with many over 50. While no cohousing group, to my knowledge, is so large that people have trouble learning each others' names, it gets increasingly hard to establish and maintain close friendships beyond 20, and it's close friendships that are the life blood of community.

When groups are seeking reinvigoration, they're looking for a greater sense of common identity with the group. While you don't need to feel like every other resident is a close friend in order to achieve that, it's important that your circle of close friends in the group associates that bond with the community.
• • •
When I'm asked to work with groups seeking renewal, I like to spend a couple days ahead of the whole-group time in one-on-one and two-on-one interviews to listen to the stories about what the community has meant to members in the past, to learn what's been precious to them in earlier years, and to assess what they're available for in terms of turning things around now.

While there are no doubt patterns as to how groups get stuck and how they might get unstuck, the key to successful work is building on the assets and desires of that group, and for that there is no substitute for listening. I've found that people will tell you what is in their hearts of you take the time to listen.

So that's the story of how I've recently become a community mechanic—helping with 100,000-mile tune-ups. Two years ago I didn't have the slightest inkling that it might turn into a market niche for me. Now here I am, trying to remember where I put that left-handed smoke bender…