Formation Group Blues and some Common Obstacles.

The Cohousing Study Tour (April to July 2015) commenced in the UK with a cohousing presentation and talk in Newcastle between Edinburgh and Leeds. Meeting the formation-stage Cohousing upon Tyne group, CoHUT to present Murundaka Co-housing and the Australian context.

CoHUT is unusually well connected both within a growing number of groups forming in the Tyne and Wear region and to the UK Cohousing Network. This critical momentum of connected activity can really help small groups by pooling of ideas and expertise including international visitors!

2013-01-02 20.19.40

Sand castle dreaming – with thanks to the imagination of sculptor unknown

The formation stage is full of exciting, invigorating and enthusiastic conversations and experiences. The envisaging and dreaming and ‘getting to know each other’ element is critical to the building and bonding of group.

Inevitably there are pot-holes in the road ahead and group cohesion is a vital ingredient to getting through the ups and downs. Visits to established communities and visits and talks from people with some experience can really help a lot.

The talk was organised very effectively and at short notice by CoHUT and Living for the Future (a mailing list set up to support grassroots knowledge exchange) and was held in the Newcastle City Council building on a Tuesday night. They brought together a small, very receptive audience made up of forming cohousing groups in the area including Durham Cohousing, Curlew Cohousing, Right Path Housing (Buddhist), and Independent Creative Living. The story of Earth Co-op’s ‘Murundaka’ Cohousing Community was presented with the help of some great people, some great photos and some high calibre questions. Afterwards it was “off to the pub for a pint” for more conversation and sharing.

Preparing for this talk in Newcastle (the first of the tour that eventually reached thirty communities) and for the important and imminent keynote address in Leeds, had taken a lot of solid work with many in-depth discussions with Helen Jarvis who, amongst other things, is a CoHUT founding member (1 of 7 originally). Our input was all about raising awareness and demystifying the process – through the story of the Common Equity Rental Cooperative (CERC) program, Common Equity Housing (CEH) and our own Earth Co-op over the last twenty-nine years and Murundaka Cohousing over the last nearly four years. The Seminar was the second of six organised over 24 months. [A previous blog post on April 25th titled “Leeds – The Seminar on Collaborative housing and Community Resilience” talks about this.]

Helen works this patch. She is a Reader at Newcastle University and is doing some truly excellent research work in the area of Cohousing. Helen says it’s about channelling the goodwill, looking into the work on many social, economic and political levels – including the emotional realm, and recognising our own energy levels as activists in this work. She talks about knowing how and where to do the hard sell and the soft sell, how to speak the different ‘languages’ – for bureaucrats, politicians, architects and activists etcetera and creating trust through dialogue.

2011-04-16 11.00.40I recently contacted Helen to find out how CoHUT is going. She replied, By coincidence, last night was our fortnightly CoHUT meeting.  Progress has hit a rocky patch as we have lost 2 of our founding members in recent months and one other has health issues; it really feels like we are falling below the critical mass and momentum of viability so we’ve diverted attention temporarily from our business plan to focus on recruiting several more core members and establishing stronger (fairer) commitment to the work involved in getting this project off the ground.  Personally, I fear losing patience with this being so long a paper-exercise.  Two years and counting and not a lot to show for a hell of a lot of meetings!  It’s true that last night (only 3 of us met) we did meet over a bottle of red and some good home-grown food-stuffs and it did feel positive and communal. We function for now with a constitution as an unincorporated association with a vision statement, membership policy and decision process. We have some good group processes but we also get stuck for what seems like a long time. We’re none of us getting any younger!  So, the upshot is that there’s nothing very concrete (or straw bale) to report at the moment.”

That this is globally not an unusual situation was validated by the study tour. To get a cohousing project established is no mean feat and for every one that gets up there are a number of others that don’t make it. I heard a figure once like one in ten but I can’t verify that. It sounds plausible. If cohousing is the best thing since sliced bread why is it so hard to make happen?

For starters most people involved in the idea are doing other things with their lives at the same time they are exploring the concept. Those rare birds that can put in a full-time effort from the beginning are no doubt more effective and make faster progress. The spreading of the workload amongst a group of enthusiasts is a challenge from the beginning. Generally those with the idea will carry the lion’s share and they are typically also volunteering on other fronts such as Transition initiatives that help cultivate new recruits but also draw from the same depleted pool of energy.

2012-09-12 05.24.14It can take many months, even years, for the formation group to sort out what they want to do / have to do, who does what and how they will choose the location and make decisions. The three key ingredients are the people, the land and the money.

If time drags on people leave and so does their money. Then if land is found, the money isn’t there and not enough people. It can be hard to get all three to coincide.

In Marty Maskell’s case, with what became ‘Fair Oaks’ Cohousing Community in Sacramento, USA, the Global Financial Crisis intervened. They lost twenty-eight of the thirty in their group and had to go back to starting from scratch. In Helen Jarvis’s case with CoHUT in Newcastle, UK, critical mass and viability can be lost if people run out of steam or leave for whatever reason. Several Melbourne-based groups – “Not Melrose Place”, Merri Cohousing, The Older Women’s Group and Belgrave Cohousing – all lasted for several to many years before finally giving in to the range of barriers they encountered. More recently a group in the neighbourhood of Murundaka, Banyule Cohousing, recently disbanded (at least for now) having run out of momentum and then out of steam. Some of their people swung across to the energy and concept of Urban Coop’s group yet Urban Coop itself is now many years in formation and still struggling to establish.

Momentum is so important. It is an essential part of enthusiasm which itself feeds commitment. It is hard to create momentum and once created needs to be cherished and maintained. If it is lost it can be twice as hard to revive or re-create it.

2012-09-13 04.45.07Being able to get over the self-imposed hurdles is critical. Putting constraints around it that make it increasingly impossible is obviously self-defeating. However, in that time before the place is actually created, some things can feel like they are deal-breakers – things like favourite shopping areas, proximity to services, bike-friendly routes, the appearance of the neighbourhood, being too close to busy roads or even to high security prisons.

Keeping cohousing within a reasonable financial range is important. It can be pitched just for the privileged wealthy but usually it is a more mainstream group who aspire to live in community – the middle class, after all, is where the thrust of generative change most often arises. For cohousing to proliferate it needs to be affordable. Ideally it needs to include a few options for truly affordable housing for low income earners, for single parents of young kids, artists, musicians, students, people with certain disability, older people, younger people – actually there are many different types of people and times in life where access to affordable housing – including affordable rental housing – is so important.

For that reason it can be necessary to let go of some of those ‘wish-list’ parameters that can make the land, and therefore the project, unaffordable. Perhaps it will mean seeking land a bit further away from the city centre, perhaps accepting a freeway nearby, maybe the land has to be in a lower socio-economic area. The reality is that once the group is there on the ground and the thing is up and running, the area has already been changed by virtue of the very arrival of the cohousing community. Its mere existence and the “Can Do” message it transmits will attract a whole lot of other new energy too. And so it goes …

In Albertslund in Denmark, a lovely cohousing community of fifty-four households was established – all two-story spacious apartments – each looking into the shared community space, across to the other buildings and out to the surrounding environment. People paid good money to purchase these apartments and then pay a significant monthly community fee (like a body corporate fee) on top that covers, amongst other things, the Common Meals that they enjoy every night of the week. This community thrived on that and with one hundred adults and more than one hundred children it was easy to understand why.

A key factor in the initial feasibility of this large cohousing project was the land value. It was affordable precisely because it was adjacent to a high security prison. The Albertslund Council wanted Lange Eng and the four other Eng developments to come into their municipality to help raise the socio-economic status and have an uplifting effect on the wider community.

They sweetened the deal by gifting them with a large, architecturally designed, two storey, multi purpose, salubrious and very modern community centre for the whole area.


Several years in, at the time of the visit, it was clear that the proximity of the prison had no negative effect on the community at all. In fact, in one sense it was the ingredient that made it all possible.

Holding on to potentially unrealistic ‘wish list’ concepts in a rigid or precious way can put the brakes on a project affecting momentum. The whole thing can stall quite easily if too much time is allowed to drag on. Enthusiasm wanes. Good people leave.

2012-06-12 09.16.19While being thorough is good preparation and necessary, it is just not possible to know everything before getting in and so there is no way to be completely thorough and to insure against mistakes. In addition to the realities that appear to be core to the major decisions, there are illusions and delusions to deal with that may not emerge until later. So there is the possibility of a double whammy with both being hung-up about something that turns out to be less of an issue than people thought and missing something which turns out to be more important in the end.

2012-09-13 01.40.38There is also a timing factor which can also have misperceptions buried in it, further muddying the waters. It is common for people to weigh up their options and considerations based on their current reality. Yet moving into community means reality is absolutely going to change. What will the future bring?

A new reality is created with new elements – some known and some not able to be envisaged or even guessed at. And in any case, it is clear to most people that, looking back over the last five or ten years, change is par for the course. Some changes are welcome and deliberate, others completely imposed and unfortunate. So looking ahead it is possible to at least see the likelihood of that pattern of change continuing. The only thing we can bank on really – is change. Helping individuals separate the images they have of the last ten years and the next ten years may enable them to then “see” that they are looking at the prospect of community through a lens which is really just a snapshot of the time they are in right now. This can help loosen the bonds, the ties, reducing the fear of letting go of what is current and support the willingness to ‘have a go’. And in the context of change, the prospect of being connected within a community can have added value

At the same time, in a universe that is unstable and impermanent it is not very rational to think that we can insure ourselves against intruders, accidents or failures much less occasional mistakes and the peccadilloes of life. There is some risk, as there is in being human and being alive in the world.

2013-06-21 21.13.25Human dynamics are complicated at the best of times and in the early development days not knowing each other well at all is a factor. Having meals and outings and fire-side chats  together is part of the fun and the sharing of the dream, exploring the possibilities and developing the vision in the lead-up phase are all part of creating and maintaining that all-important momentum.

So many things can get in the way of moving forward to create a cohousing community. Add to the list the lack of enthusiasm that typically resides in the conservative world, the difficulty developers seem to have in finding ways to make their profit and create communities in a cohousing-sensitive way, and the risk-averse, retrospective and precedent-based focus of so many local government areas and it can be tough.

In addition to people, money and land coinciding local and state-based planning laws can also stymie new initiatives.

2012-09-13 03.32.03Administrators and bureaucrats almost certainly don’t understand the level of commitment, emotional investment, risk and sheer workload that is being gifted by the formation group nor do they understand the corrosive, energy-draining frustration that results from bureaucratic belligerence and delays beyond the fair and reasonable.

Our system needs an overhaul. The way it has developed, particularly over recent decades, has had further negative impacts and this was something also discussed in the Seminar. The crippling prices in the real estate market puts housing out of reach for many people and itself reflects the effect of commodification in our society; the completely counter-productive, self-serving effect of houses being used as wealth tool.

Unpacking that, we can see it is basically the bankers and land-owners wanting to continue to control the status quo. They want the ‘freedom’ to exploit others – the triumph of individualism over collectivism. This is not in the best interests of a healthy society. Our species relies on cooperation to survive, much less thrive, and always has. These vested interests need to be exposed and addressed. The bankers & bean counters need to be educated.

Throw in the legal constraints which vary form state-to-state and country-to-country and which change (and not always for the better) and some obstacles can become insurmountable.

2012-07-24 17.28.18But with ‘stickability’, determination, belief in the concept, willingness to commit and put in, generosity of spirit and an enthusiasm to have a go, most barriers can be overcome. And so they must if we are to move into a more sustainable world and avert disasters of catastrophic proportions.

Perhaps there is a role for a sort of “Community Whisperer” who could be invited in at a particular time – before all the energy has gone – and help work the formation group through their barriers? As with small to medium enterprises (SMEs) bringing in some expertise early is money well spent and pays dividends later.

For cohousing to proliferate it is a terrible blow to lose keenly interested people before they’ve had the chance to give it a proper go. Perhaps there’s a role or responsibility there from existing and stable communities to lend a hand at the crucial formation stage to keep the process humming, the decisions getting made and the people enthusiastic and happy to persevere?

2014-10-25 13.40.40The bottom line is that without the land there is no community and conversely the land is a key catalyst that sparks and inspires a group to go ahead. It might feel risky but land can be sold off again if things don’t work out however the chances of things actually working out are vastly enhanced by the reality of the land.

Land is a magnet which brings people in. It is the start of the alchemy creating new energy between imagination and real possibility. It’s the point of IN or OUT. It inspires, enthuses, engages and begs commitment.

As indigenous communities the world over teach us – connection to land, to place and connection to each other are fundamental to health, wellbeing and life. Community links both.






About Giselle Wilkinson - 4allsentientbeings

Environmental conservation, community and cooperatives have been enduring threads in my life. Promoting sustainable lifestyles and more lately, focussing on restoring a Safe Climate, is work expressed predominantly through organisations such as The Sustainable Living Foundation (which I co-founded in 1999 - current President) and the others listed as links below. I am some way into a professional doctorate with MIECAT on "Mobilising Whole Communities to Restore a Sustainable Environment" and have in recent years moved into MURUNDAKA – a (more) sustainable, (more) affordable co-housing community / housing cooperative in Heidelberg, Melbourne (for which I gave up my co-op house of 19 years including veggie garden and small orchard) and it's great. I'm also a mum of two grown up daughters and have five step children.
This entry was posted in Cohousing, United Kingdom. Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Formation Group Blues and some Common Obstacles.

  1. ocohood says:


    three more sleeps!!!! nothing prepared, place a mess, internet sporadic, Club considering shut down. Christie in free fall, boys have the flu. Tony on palliative care, me on valium and aching all over.

    Oh yes, enjoyed the article. like ‘community whisperer’.

    Kind Regards

    Margi O’ Connell Twitter: @bioregionguide Sunshine Coast Australia 0476609146 Skype +61 0756410162

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