A New Movement for Ecovillagers, Part 2
By Joel Rothschild of the Ecovillagers Alliance
This is the second of a three-part series focusing on innovative ways to foster places of equity, integrity, and sustainability.
Welcome to the Neighborhood
Something radical is happening here, but you wouldn’t necessarily notice. From the street, this looks like just another block of century-old brick rowhouses, semi-attached like pairs of conjoined twins, with front porches over tiny curbside yards — which, now that you squint, appear to include more native-plant rain gardens and fruit trees than on neighboring blocks. The real surprise is hidden, though. Only when you step between two houses and into the alley behind can you see the real paradigm shift underway.
Where you would expect private back yards fenced into rows, instead you see a single expansive campus, part university quad and part Central Park, crisscrossed by walking paths. People of all ages come in and out of the houses’ back doors — which, now that you’re here, look more like front doors, even the ones on second-floor apartment porches, decorated with different colors and rocking chairs and welcome mats.
Where are these people going without cars from their front-looking back doors? It could be the edible forest garden, or the old garage now providing a massive bike shed. It could be the carriage house converted to a children’s house, with a game room for teens upstairs and a daycare and play space for smaller ones downstairs, plus a room of cubbies marked for the ages of toddlers whose clothes can be swapped in and out. It could be the two old garages set up as a shop space attached to a well-stocked tool library. It could be the guest house with rooms anyone can sign out for visiting relatives. It could be the alley’s old brick warehouse, with its lush rooftop vegetable garden, where neighbors file past the giant chimes announcing that a Commons House dinner is ready for anyone who wants to eat together tonight. Some instead are walking down to the Commons dining room from the upstairs offices, workshops, and studios of a dozen small enterprises.
As you stroll this vibrant super-backyard, you can see some subtler benefits of a neighborhood sharing its basic resources. Holistic land and water management are possible across the entire green space. Swails can lie where they’ll best catch the rain. Flowers and herbs can grow where the sunlight best suits them. The wooded area is more wild and rich than an isolated backyard shade tree. A frisbee thrown past that sprawling playground structure won’t land inaccessibly behind a neighbor’s fence. And those solar panels spread across the many rooftops, is the power they generate distributed through a smart neighborhood microgrid? It wouldn’t take an enlightened power utility coming along to make that possible.
This neighborhood’s most progressive features may not be visible at all. With yesteryear’s single-family homes retrofit into a diversity of units from five-bedrooms to studios, a diversity of life stages can now live side by side — young families, empty-nesters, a group of friends sharing one kitchen to save money. At least as important, this neighborhood accommodates a diversity of wealth backgrounds and income levels by keeping some units purposefully inexpensive, using its Resilience Fund as necessary to hold the community together.
Perhaps most radical are the things you can’t see here because they don’t exist. You see no predatory businesses like liquor stores and payday lenders taking advantage of vulnerable neighbors. You see no businesses pumping out dangerous waste, emissions, or effluent. There certainly are businesses here, providing local livelihoods, but they are coordinated with the neighborhood as a whole to ensure common well-being.
You see no “For Sale” signs, which means no real estate speculators, which means no house flipping, which means no spikes in cost. That means no one suddenly priced out and forced to leave. In fact, you cannot see a single resident here who is in debt for their housing. Imagine that! An entire neighborhood where the right to a home doesn’t condemn the not-already-rich to a lifetime of debt.
Welcome to the Ecovillage Neighborhood developed, owned, and democratically governed as a Community Land Co-op. This one isn’t real — at least, not yet. It’s in the works now where I live in Pennsylvania. Should it be where you live too?
Organize and They Will Build It
I’ve long since lost count of the times progressive-minded architects and developers repeated that old Field of Dreams line, “build it and they will come.” The thinking goes, our neighborhoods are laid out for cars and stuff, not for humans and relationships. This much is obviously true. For better social outcomes, what we need is to start over with new buildings and grounds that are conducive to community and virtuous living, right? This is, by the way, the very same logic behind every “urban revitalization” project that has plowed under slums, also known as poor folks’ neighborhoods, to replace them with the next generation’s slums. I only wish I could count one time I have seen this thinking lead to truly progressive results.
In Part 1 of “A New Movement for Ecovillagers” (Green Horizon, Summer/Fall 2018) I argued we cannot achieve better human habitat as long as we try to purchase or even to design it like a consumer product. Contrast this capitalistic approach with social movements, where we look for progress to result from patterns of action. People before profit, process before product. Likewise contrast well-meaning ecovillage and cohousing communities that nonetheless reproduce privilege, suburbanization, and high prices with the diverse, urban, and affordable Los Angeles EcoVillage (or LAEV).
What are the key lessons from LAEV’s success?
Work with what you have. Don’t look for the perfect land to colonize, look in your own backyard. How could the land and buildings there be retrofit in service to the common good? To imagine a world of just, sustainable neighborhoods, first imagine your neighborhood as just and sustainable.
Work with whom you have. Don’t look for the perfect outsiders to recruit, as though your neighborhood is a pro sports franchise. Talk to your neighbors, talk to your friends! Look for the common cause that may already quietly exist. To imagine a cooperative, abundance-sharing world, first imagine cooperating with your present-day neighbors. Host a potluck and try sharing some abundance today.
Avoid the master’s tools. (Humble apologies to Audre Lorde.) If institutional financing is designed to leech resources from people and ecosystems, then don’t use it. If individual private ownership was invented by elite classes to consolidate their supremacy over every other community, don’t use it. Any “necessary evil” is probably just evil, and evil shouldn’t be necessary. Rely on the people instead.
In short, Los Angeles shows us how ecovillaging can be one more powerful form of social movement organizing. What do I mean by organizing? For example, a labor union organizes teachers to stand up for humane, safe, and well-resourced classrooms. It doesn’t look to replace the schools (like some charter advocates would) or the teachers (like some legislatures would) or to import the management practices of corporate capitalism. First and foremost, the union helps teachers find common cause in the workplaces and ideals they already share, then facilitates the teachers taking action together to build power behind this common cause.
The neighborhoods we already share — the buildings, resources, and ecologies we call Home, and the ideals we hold for that Home — these could be the ultimate common cause. So what would be the teachers’ union equivalent for my neighbors and me?
The Community Land Co-op
We recognize our neighborhood is a whole system, so what we want is a way to own and guide our neighborhood as a whole. We want the ability to plan for the long-term material needs of ourselves and the people we live among, because we want to live in a thriving place. To these ends we want to share the costs, benefits, and stewardship of the land and buildings that comprise our common habitat.
Therefore, instead of individually owning patches of land, to be bought and sold and speculated upon like any other commodity, we own shares in a Community Land Cooperative. This CLC represents our shared interest and enables us to make decisions as a community. To ensure that decision-making is democratic, the first share we each buy is one, and only one, Voting Share. One member, one share, one vote.
Now that we have a democratic basis for holistic neighborhood stewardship, how do we get the land and buildings under its permanent control? Here we need the same money we might have spent buying a home off the open market — only we’re not buying and selling homes, because that’s how we’d get speculation, gentrification, and a lack of holistic, democratic coordination. Instead we buy Equity Shares in our CLC, as much or as little as each chooses. Equity share purchases give the CLC money to spend on real estate. Equity shares are non-voting, so we each still have one voting share and one vote equal to our neighbors.
What does the CLC do with the real estate it owns? It rents it back to us! We have become Tenant-Owners, renters who own the landlord. Tenancy does have its benefits. As Tenant-Owners we can up-size, down-size, or move away, without needing to sell anything, simply by starting a new lease. We can also buy or sell equity shares, however it suits our own finances, without needing to move. We don’t take on every responsibility of property management like conventional home owners do. As Tenant-Owners of a CLC we can each focus on contributing the things we’re good at. And, critically, one doesn’t need to be cash-wealthy to become a Tenant-Owner. First and last month’s rent plus the cost of one voting share is enough to take part.
Of course ownership has its benefits as well. As residential and business tenants pay in rent, our CLC puts that revenue first toward taxes and property management, which we oversee democratically as co-op members. What becomes of the remaining revenue? The surplus is paid to equity share owners as a regular dividend, proportional to their shares. Instead of principal and interest to a bank, we are now paying perpetual dividends to ourselves. And instead of an incentive to sell our homes for profit, we have an incentive to stick together and ensure the entire community thrives. ROI (return on investment) for this social investment reflects the neighborhood’s strength as a whole system of buildings, resources, residents, and community enterprises.
Hyphenated Tenant-Ownership breaks down the oldest caste divide in our society. Good riddance! It also opens new possibilities for financial security and flexibility. Take for instance a retiree who has accumulated a lot of equity shares. If this Tenant-Owner’s dividend would equal 80% of their rent, they may opt to forego their dividend in exchange for the CLC forgiving 80% of the rent they owe. Financially, this would be the rough equivalent to owning a home free and clear. But what if this retiree decides to downsize to a one-bedroom unit? It’s just a new lease, they don’t have to sell any equity shares they don’t want to. Now maybe the dividend is 120% of the rent they owe, so on top of free housing — no taxes or maintenance fees! — there is some cash coming in like a pension.
How might a younger Tenant-Owner without a lot of savings plan on becoming that retiree? They can propose an agreement with the CLC to pay an amount more in rent than they owe, in exchange for the equivalent gradual accumulation of equity shares.
At a more macro level, the CLC’s membership may vote to shave off a percentage of every dividend to set aside in a Resilience Fund, for community-strengthening investments such as subsidizing units to ensure community cohesion (and lower vacancy) during hard times, start-up support to community enterprises, and energy retrofits to reduce the ongoing cost of heating and cooling buildings.
As members of a co-op, we each have some responsibility to pitch in on tasks, show up at meetings, and make decisions together. In exchange, we get to weigh in on the fate of our whole block, not only an arbitrary sliver of it. We get to consider the block’s natural and built resources holistically, to seek the most creative and beneficial ways to organize, develop, and share them. We get to weigh in on how community enterprises conduct their business in the midst of our homes. We get to live in — gasp! — a real grassroots democracy.
The ecovillage neighborhood’s street-facing facades interface with the regular, extractive, capitalist world at large, while a very different, more progressive world is unfolding in back. Much in the same way, our Community Land Co-op provides the financial and management functions of neighborhood stewardship with a kind of protective container. On the outside, the CLC is a property rental and management business owned by many private shareholders. On the inside, it’s a way for us to erase the line between rentership and ownership, to integrate decision-making for homes and business sharing our block, and to share the local abundance together as we, the people, see fit.
The Path Ahead
Community Land Co-ops are substantially different from traditional housing co-ops. In some respects they are patterned more directly after worker co-ops and cooperative investment funds. This hybrid approach emerges from neighborhood organizers around the US, including groups I’ve been privileged to work with in Seattle and Washington, DC, wrestling with the limitations of housing co-ops as well as the Community Land Trusts that often rely on them. Specifically, housing co-ops are designed narrowly for housing per se, leaving out the livelihoods, greenspace, food, energy, and other services that comprise human habitat. They also tend to look like condo or homeowners associations, reproducing the dog-eat-dog dynamics of any private property market. We have been striving for a more holistic way.
The final of this three-part series will pick up where this new movement stands today. Groups have begun learning together how to form and operate Community Land Co-ops. The next step is for cooperators with access to capital to divest from harmful financial instruments and reinvest into a network of cooperative neighborhoods. A long process of legal preparations is nearing the stage when a divest-and-reinvestment cooperative will be available for anyone to join.
With these new tools in hand, activist communities will have new opportunities for work in reparations, restorative justice, environmental justice, and economic re-localization. The movements behind these aims have long been subject to the heavy drag of market (and state) resistance, especially in the ownership of land and buildings. It is time to revolutionize the literal ground beneath our feet!
The Ecovillagers Alliance is a nonprofit coalition of educators, healers, storytellers, and organizers dedicated to cultivating Community Land Co-ops in service to ecovillagers and ecovillage neighborhoods across the US.
Joel Rothschild is an Ecovillagers Alliance founder and servant-leader. Once part of the Ravenna Kibbutz community in Seattle, today Joel lives in the city of Lancaster, Pennsylvania, at the site of a new ecovillage neighborhood in formation. Joel is also working to organize Moshav Derekh Shalom, a residential center for the study and practice of nonviolence to be part of the Lancaster ecovillage.