Can We Have Communities without Gentrification?
By Eve Bratman, Brandy Brooks, Taylor Mercedes, Josh Jancourtz, and Joel Rothschild of the Ecovillagers Alliance
Mayors across America are falling over themselves vying for Amazon’s new headquarters, even in tiny towns like Rockland, Texas and Scarborough, Maine. They’re inviting a disruption we know too well: techies move in, then skyrocketing costs push locals out. This drop a giant money bomb approach to community “revitalization” deals shock to local ecologies, economies, and communities, yet it is the dominant approach in our new Gilded Age. We urgently look to intentional communities, cohousing, and ecovillages to provide an alternative path. So, do they?
To assess any alternative’s viability, first we need to identify exactly what it is we want to avoid. In other words, what’s wrong with dropping a corporate money bomb, if a city then has more jobs and money? Most of us involved with intentional communities would say it’s the inequityand unsustainability of the approach’s outcomes. If we agree that patterns of inequity and unsustainability are what we seek to avoid, then we don’t want intentional communities to reproduce those patterns.
Colonialism in the Communities Movement
Breaking free from oppressive patterns by divorcing ourselves outright from the system, the dreaded “Grid,” is a tradition of intentional communities. Sometimes we need distance from an ill dynamic before transformation can begin. In this spirit, and of course also to find “cheap land,” intentional communities often move to the edge of mainstream society, as though to a whole new world.
The catch is: this world we share, there is in fact only one of it. Building utopia, Greek for “no place,” cannot be done without impacting topia, the places where everyone else lives. That ill dynamic will follow us into Brooklyn, where we call it gentrification, and it will follow us into the countryside just as well.
When we with the privilege of money and mobility build our communities among the habitat of those less privileged, government and markets rush to attract more consumers with privilege like ours. When we go for undeveloped property instead, the gravity of our privilege draws resources away from existing neighborhoods, bringing disproportional benefit to those of us with the means to travel, to move away from family, to choose where and with whom we live. In either scenario, the less privileged are excluded from the plans and usually also from their fruition. In either scenario, we gather up privilege until we have enough to drop it somewhere, like our own little money bomb.
At this year’s Twin Oaks Communities Conference, a group of us from the Ecovillagers Alliance proposed questions for community builders to ask ourselves:
Does the community of my dreams presume others have received education comparable to mine?
Does the community of my dreams see mutual trust and consensus flowing from a common class or ethnic background?
Does the community of my dreams expect others to have income or access to capital similar to my own?
Does the community of my dreams require difficult commutes for those who can’t easily change jobs or leave behind family?
Does the community of my dreams begin with finding land for sale so we can take control of it?
This is where colonialism, all too often, manifests on the road paved with our good intentions. After all, the intentional communities movement is drawn from the history and lore of 19th-century utopians, who were themselves inspired by the first European colonists, seeking a “New World” to shape according to their values and interests. We tend to forget how these pioneering experimental colonies were part of the so-called Manifest Destiny project that destroyed countless indigenous worlds and people. By neglecting that history, might we doom ourselves to repeat it?
The First Step to Recovery Is Admitting Our Problem Is Systemic
We could make this personal. By riding bikes and planting trees, each of us does our part for the earth, so the thinking goes. But we can’t fool ourselves that it makes a dent in climate change. Environmental problems are systemic, so systemic change is necessary. When we purchase our own homes, likewise, we can trick them out with cob walls, solar panels, kitchens to feed crowds, amazing gardens, all the eco-groovy things! Yet it’s deeply protective of the status quo to expect a consumer market activity like buying property will be what changes the very consumer market system that put the property up for sale. This applies to an intentional community buying property as well as to an individual.
Consumer capitalism is a system of domination, so intimately linked to colonialism that the world has hardly known one without the other. At Twin Oaks, we tried to get precise about this. Labor, black and brown and femme bodies, cultures with non-Christian roots, non-human species, and ecosystems have always been devalued, degraded, and exploited by colonialism and consumer capitalism. Because this happens systematically, it is perpetuated even when we as participants carry no personal animus against the victims. Even when we’re among the victims ourselves!
In other words, no person’s or community’s statement of values makes much difference. As the First Nations community activist Rebecca Adamson has remarked, “I don’t care what a society says its values are. How is the economy organized?” And as black community activist Ed Whitfield said in his Communities Conference keynote, “Our economy is built on the wrong premise: accumulation, also known as hoarding.”
Consumption-based schemes to change the world are like trying to win at soccer while blindfolded on a sloped field. The players can’t work together and the ball tends always toward the goal of those with built-in advantage. Anyone who’s studied the history of capitalism has likely realized the playing field was never level, the players were always blindfolded, and this is how it was designed to be, despite our fervent hopes and some stubbornly-held myths about bootstraps.
Systems of domination run deep. They pervade one’s sense of self, what we dream to be possible, and the tools available for building those dreams. It’s not enough to believe in a post-colonial world. We must pry ourselves out of the logics of colonialism and consumer capitalism, in how we think and moreover in what methods we reach for when seeking our actualization, whether as individuals or communities. And we can’t wait for when it’s convenient. What if no system except colonialist consumer capitalism is offering our dream community land to live on? Then we must create one.
A System of Healing
In Ecovillagers Alliance we’re convinced no community based on private ownership of land and buildings can ever be free from the cycles of dominance, because those patterns come baked into the system of real estate itself. It can be cohousing or an ecovillage, urban or rural. If it drops the bomb of accumulated privilege, it will leave a crater somewhere.
We are convinced that state or nonprofit ownership are not much better, because these are also tools of dominance controlled by the rich and powerful. Independent collective ownership seems the natural third way, so how can we cultivate independent collectives that will favor the interests of labor, black and brown and femme bodies, cultures with non-Christian roots, non-human species, and ecosystems?
Independent collectivism is an especially tall order for those who’ve been systematically divided and conquered. In the world’s most powerful country today, the United States, the richest one percent of families control nearly twice the wealth of the bottom 90 percent combined. Merely pooling resources won’t be enough to beat the system when the field is sloped this badly.
Luckily, there are stars to guide us in the night. Cooperative efforts emphasizing labor and inclusion, like Cleveland’s Evergreen Cooperatives, Cooperation Jackson in Mississippi, and the Cincinnati Union Co-op Initiative, are empowering local residents, most of them historically marginalized, with direct ownership of holistic, sustainable, and democratic enterprises, and they have started to bring housing into the model. The Los Angeles Eco-Village continues to demonstrate how grassroots organizing can provide a neighborhood with shelter, food, transportation, meaningful work, and fellowship through democratic self-governance, retrofitting buildings, and peer-to-peer financing. Also in California, the People of Color Sustainable Housing Network, supported by the Sustainable Economies Law Center, is developing a radically democratic approach to property investment by and for community. (See Janelle Orsi in Communities, Summer 2017.)
At Twin Oaks we described these approaches broadly in terms of healing, to emphasize how restorative and regenerative processes can correct harms and build resilience. The efforts just named all emphasize work with existing buildings, community organizations, and relationship networks, effectively putting restoration ahead of replacement. As we’ve seen, the outcome of utopian thinking is often the opposite: replacement over restoration.
The projects that inspire us also rely heavily on education, not only for existing members but for others in their networks and in the neighborhood. The express goal is to encourage regenerative cycles of learning and leading, leading and teaching, teaching and learning again, from one community member to the next.
Intentional community proposals often emphasize some big vision; a healing system tends to do this less. Effective healing, akin to good permaculture design, begins with awareness of who and what is present and what their conditions and interdependencies are. Healing happens through the application of care more than vision.
Furthermore, healing acknowledges that illness isn’t personal, though part of the work to correct it may be. A virus-free individual surrounded by sick people coughing is no better positioned for wellness than a perfect acre of off-the-grid self-sufficient cottages is positioned to participate in societal transformation.
Healing calls for a whole system. This presents a real problem for healing-oriented approaches in a world controlled by systems of dominance. One neighborhood cannot create the whole system necessary for its own liberation. It’s too much! Among the Ecovillagers Alliance, we say, “it takes a community to raise a village.” This points to organizational power that, frankly, doesn’t yet exist and that we need.
Community Land Cooperatives
The Ecovillagers Alliance group at Twin Oaks made a proposal: to cultivate community land cooperatives (“CLCs”). CLCs provide a way to steward a neighborhood’s land and buildings outside of real estate’s harmful buy-and-sell cycles. In financial terms, CLCs rely on equity rather than debt. Organizationally, they’re based on the power of a grassroots network, known as a real estate investment cooperative.
In a nutshell, the CLC is a landlord, owned and governed by its tenants, who are called tenant-owners. Each tenant-owner holds a lease, providing the right to a CLC home or place of business. And each tenant-owner holds a voting share of ownership, providing the right to participate in decisions about the CLC’s property, including the rent and other terms of leases. The CLC is designed to provide cooperative ownership and governance to as many neighboring units or buildings as can be incorporated over time, without ousting owners or residents who don’t wish to participate, up to roughly the scope of one square city block.
While the CLC provides ownership and governance on the hyperlocal level, it operates as part of a regional real estate investment cooperative (“REIC”), which provides the larger system of democratic capital investment, educational and technical support, and organizational power that the CLC needs to become established and to thrive. When we speak of Ecovillagers Cooperative, we refer to the proposal to establish North America’s first real estate investment co-op dedicated to community land co-ops.
With the REIC underpinning its CLCs, it’s possible to finance the ownership and improvement of CLC land and buildings without debt, because non-tenant members of the REIC can join tenant-owners in purchasing equity shares. The sum of equity share investment by tenant- and non-tenant-owners together provides the capital for each CLC to own land and buildings adequate for the tenant-owners’ needs. Because an equity share represents a portion of the CLC as a whole, not an atomistic building unit, shares can be bought and sold among members of the REIC without affecting anyone’s cost of living (i.e., the rent) or requiring anyone to move.
CLCs and their REIC alike are independent, democratic collectives, the combination of which produces a whole, healing system. The CLCs sustain our villages at the scale of local self-governance, and the REIC sustains the broader community it takes to build them. The CLC minds local needs, while the REIC maintains educational, technical, administrative, and capital resources in common.
Without the land and buildings ever being sold, a CLC enables residents and community businesses to build local wealth and power with the support of REIC members who fill in the missing cash. CLC wealth flows from the cooperative dividend produced when tenant-owners’ rent payments exceed the cost of taxes and maintenance. The dividend is distributed proportional to each member’s equity, with a higher-return share class reserved for tenant-owners. Rent and share valuation are determined through inclusive self-governance so that no one impacted by decision-making can be excluded from it.
Because tenant-owners can acquire additional equity shares gradually over time, each community’s members have potentially greater financial flexibility and security than conventional homeowners, to say nothing of conventional renters. The ownership of cooperative equity isn’t tied to any particular lease, giving tenant-owners greater flexibility with respect to where they live or do business.
The Path Ahead
This cultivation of “ecovillage neighborhoods,” as we sometimes call our CLCs, begins with study circles, to engage us first in building relationships and educating each other in the nuts and bolts of cooperative governance. Any group of neighbors can propose to form a CLC by learning together, with mentoring and guidance from their peers, building on the REIC’s curriculum and guidelines and a growing awareness of local needs.
This path toward healing prioritizes place-based work, in the sense of the landscapes, the buildings, the community enterprises, and, above all, the networks of relationship already in a neighborhood. Building a CLC does involve property acquisition, but through the most cooperative and inclusive process we can muster. If an existing property owner wishes to join the CLC, their title can be traded for equity shares. If an existing renter wishes to join, the REIC can finance their home’s purchase and they can start buying equity in their neighborhood over time, without having to move.
Healing can be a long process, and Ecovillagers is a big experiment, one that will continue to raise juicy questions and challenges. Within the Ecovillagers Alliance, we have been studying the financial, legal, and social implications of these models for many years, and work still remains. Though the needs are urgent, any quick fix would almost certainly reproduce the patterns of dominance as much as heal them.
We take heart from the spirit of people rising up in this historical moment. We were moved by the seriousness and optimism of discussion around these ideas at Twin Oaks this Labor Day. And now we invite all to join in the conversation and work together toward a communities movement that is equitable, sustainable, and just.
Eve Bratman, Brandy Brooks, Taylor Mercedes, Josh Jancourtz, and Joel Rothschild write on behalf of Ecovillagers Alliance, the organizing and education initiative in support of Ecovillagers Cooperative. Josh lives in Union County, New Jersey where he has worked with Eco-Village New Jersey. Taylor, Eve, and Joel live in Pennsylvania and are working to build a CLC-based ecovillage neighborhood in the City of Lancaster. Brandy lives in Silver Spring, Maryland, was an Ecovillagers Alliance co-founder, and is running for Montgomery County, Maryland Council At-Large.