Leaving Songaia: A Cohousing Cautionary Tale

Leaving Songaia: A Cohousing Cautionary Tale

Our first three years in cohousing we felt like we had landed in some mythical utopia. Sure, the constant meetings could be a drag, but the occasional inconveniences were well worth the benefits: we had a safe and friendly place to raise our only child, who quickly made many friends and became a leader in his peer group. We lived on an idyllic 11 acres of gorgeous northwest land- with beautifully landscaped grounds, an organic garden, friendly neighbors who watched out for one another, shared home-cooked meals 4 nights a week, and housing that was affordable compared to the larger metro neighborhood. We soon established ourselves in committee work and in the larger goals of the community, my husband becoming involved in leading men’s groups, and I with committees dedicated to celebrations/festivals and parenting concerns.

Soon after turning 12 my son was diagnosed with a serious and rare disease which left him permanently immune compromised and impacted every area of his life. We were able to manage it with a biologic immune medication fairly well the first few years, but as it progressed he had to drop out of school at 15 due to risk of exposure to bacteria and viruses, and be educated at home. Over time he was not well enough to leave the house much. He also developed a co-morbid autoimmune condition which caused severe anxiety and neurological difficulties.

For about four years post diagnosis we struggled to stay involved with community life. We attended meetings and continued committee work as often as we could. We offered meaningful help and support to fellow community members who were having struggles with their health or other personal difficulties, as we had developed a lot of empathy and compassion for others experiencing health challenges, and our help was always solicited and appreciated. When my neighbor developed ALS I joined his care team, and offered massage and movement therapy to him over a two year period. He was my neighbor, I wanted to help, and allowing him to experience his illness in his home instead of in a nursing facility was the right thing to do . In his case the community went all in and developed an extraordinary plan to allow him to remain at home; the majority of community members became involved in one way of another, and with that widespread support he was able to remain at home while being well cared for.

In our case with my son’s illness, it played out much differently. There came a point when we could no longer keep up our involvement in community life as we traveled the country seeing specialist after specialist , trying to keep our son alive, our jobs intact, and our family together. Apart from 2–3 people that I was friends with, no one in the community of 35 really offered us any meaningful support, either emotionally or materially. My son’s friends in cohousing were great about visiting him the first year of his illness, but then over time as their lives got busy the visits became infrequent. Both my husband and I asked for help repeatedly from both adult individuals and the community as a whole. I offered specific tasks people could help with and offered to oversee a care committee like the one my neighbor had had, but I learned from a community member who privately queried others that we did not have enough “social capital” to motivate others to want to help us in any meaningful and consistent ways. In short, to use an old high school term, we weren’t “popular” enough to garner community support when we needed it, although we had offered much to others.

We found ourselves in an extremely awkward situation. After 12 years we no longer belonged in the community we had joined, and it wasn’t just a mismatch that we could easily remedy by moving. We found ourselves stuck, because at that time our son was too sick to move, and there were serious obstacles to selling our house. Our next door neighbor’s family had tried to sell her home after her passing, but the buyer could not get a loan on the house because the appraised value of the home was nowhere near the sale price, something that is not unusual in cohousing, where banks often either do not know how to appraise homes located on “common land, ” or greatly undercut their value because of the unconventional set up.

We were afraid that we could not sell our house even if we wanted to.

I tried many times to salvage what we could of our home in cohousing. I was heartsick seeing my son so isolated in the middle of a community. I spent several member meetings trying to educate neighbors about immune deficiencies and how we could work together to make the common house safer for him through consistent handwashing and installing hand sanitizer machines in the common house, and encouraging people to not cook or eat meals at the common house when ill. My efforts were ignored by most and resisted vigorously and vocally by some who did not want to commit to handwashing/sanitizing, or staying out of the common house when ill. After much arguing and dialogue, hand sanitizer stations were installed in the common area to appease my concerns, but were not widely supported or used.

Along with several other community members, I hosted discussions on our values around caregiving in community. Some of the feedback I received was quite shocking to me, with several members sharing that they did not feel any moral responsibility to take care of vulnerable members, that members personal needs were their own responsibility, and that caring for the earth was a higher priority for them then caring for sick community members. After spending a Thanksgiving isolated in our home while the rest of the community and their families- some 70 odd people- celebrated together in the common house, I was emotionally done with intentional community and decided we would do whatever we could, even if it meant financial loss, to leave. Living there had simply become unbearably painful for my whole family.

I share this story as a cautionary tale for the people who are considering buying a home in co-housing thinking its an easy way to stave off the loneliness of living in a fragmented world. Cohousing is often marketed as a panacea for many modern social problems; the bottom line is that buying into cohousing is not a social contract. The social part of it comes with no obligations, guarantees or responsibilities. It takes a certain amount of emotional literacy and empathy to live closely with other human beings, and in this community we lived very closely, both in proximity and in how intertwined our lives were. However, there were no community-wide agreements or standards relating to conflict resolution, navigating interpersonal relationships, or emotional literacy. There was a committee where members could bring their concerns, but anything that came out of that committee could be ignored if any member was not in agreement with it. The power dynamics relating to living closely with other people are as active in community as they are anywhere else, only in community, as in a marriage, you are financially tied to the people you are trying to negotiate power dynamics with.

Buying into a communal property with people you don’t know well and have no shared agreements with other than a vague statement of ideals and aspirations is extremely risky on many levels. Idealism and warm, fuzzy feelings can evaporate quickly when the tide turns, and over the course of a lifetime many people will experience job loss, illness, and divorce, and all will experience the process of dying and death. Intentional community does not necessarily do a better job, and in some cases does a way worse job, of navigating the difficult terrain of growth and loss throughout the lifespan.

We were eventually able to sell our home to a group of members who purchased it with cash. We were very lucky that this happened. We would have taken a large financial loss if we had had to sell it on the open market.

Buying a house in a cohousing community is in truth entering into a legally binding contract to share land and resources with a group of people you do not know well and who may not have your best interest at heart. In fact, I lost my idealism after living in co-housing. It’s like getting married to someone you just met at a poker game. Roll the dice- you may win, but you also may lose big.

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