Saturday, March 17, 2007

Church Signs: "Home is Feeling Safe"

Church Signs: "Home Is Feeling Safe"

I'm looking for a new home. A better home. The right home.

My dream is to own my own home. Figuring out how to push or pull that into reality is taking some time. In the meantime, short of some sudden, magic windfall, I'll continue to be a renter.

At my last place, I did not feel happy. I did not feel safe. My landlord was scary and yelled at me. The rent was a stretch. The apartment itself was assaultive. Blasting me with heat in the summer; freezing me out in winter. Something was always leaking or rotting or breaking.

It sounded great on paper—spacious 2BR with fireplace, lots of storage, laundry, hardwood floors, garage, dishwasher, gas stove, and sun porch—but in reality, it was a nightmare. Pipes bursting. Mold and dust and spiders everywhere. One month, I gently removed and relocated more than 80 spiders, but it barely made a dent. Their webs were everywhere. They collected dust and cat hair constantly making the baseboards and undersides of all the furniture in the house seem like it was covered with dirty fringe. It never felt clean no matter how many times I swept it, or how many spiders I removed.

And those were just the small problems.

After three years, I finally moved. It took a great deal of oomph to pick up and relocate. I gave up the fireplace, the three extra rooms, the laundry, the garage, the garden, the basketball hoop, my great neighbors, and a great location. I also gave up my hope that I would meet the person of my dreams and we would make the perfect home there together. It was time to create some change. It was time to move…to co-housing.

In case you're not familiar with it, co-housing is a concept that originated in Denmark. It is a form of intentional community where a group of people own their own homes, but share land and common facilities together.

I am single. I live alone and work from home. I am isolated. I moved to co-housing, in part because the apartment was clean and small and beautiful, in part because the landlord was wonderful, and in part because I thought I would find friends here. I thought I was headed for a quieter environment and a fuller, richer life in all regards. What I got was something my friend Russell calls "The Death Camp of Tolerance." I call it "The Gulag," "The Compound," or sometimes just…home.

A few weeks after I moved in, I was invited to meet with the Welcoming Committee. I ran in the pouring rain to a home in the Lower Pod, to meet with two retirement-age women, one of whom is the current president of the board of trustees of the community. One was very friendly; one was very not.

I expected muffins and get-to-know you conversation. But, the meeting consisted of their insisting that I read through the community bylaws. They also tried to bully me into committing to work assignments with specific committees, something I managed to avoid doing, partly out of naiveté--I didn't realize until later that they weren't just aggressively interested in my interests, they were trying to get me to commit to work details.

I assured them that I'd already read the bylaws (twice), but they thought it would be a good idea for me to do it again--while they watched. So, I did. And, I noticed that in this version, an unpaid work requirement of six hours per month was included, something that was not indicated in my lease or the version of the bylaws that I read and consented to when I joined. I also noticed that smoking was prohibited in the common areas of the community.

I pointed out the discrepancy with the work hours and was disturbed to discover that--at least according to them--the six hour expectation was mandatory, even for renters. I also asked about the smoking rule.

"I have several friends who smoke," I said. "I love them very much, and want them to feel comfortable when they visit. Could you tell me if there's a designated smoking area, or someplace where they can smoke?"

From her perch in an overstuffed chair across the room, the president of the board of trustees paused and looked at me with disdain before responding, "Most people do that sort of thing in their own homes."

"Oh," I said, very perky, flashing my kill-em-with-kindness-smile. "I'm afraid I can't do that. It's forbidden in my lease. My friends are very important to me. Could you tell me where in the community I might be able to take them for a smoke?"

Another pause, a nose wrinkled in disgust. "You have friends who smoke?…What a shame."

A couple of months later, I was loading my car up for my annual trip home to Maine for Christmas. I was sick and overwhelmed and under a lot of pressure to get out the door. I pulled my car into the community, something we are allowed to do if we meet one of 14 exceptions to the "no cars" rule. On that particular day, I met four of those exceptions.

Nevertheless, someone left an anonymous note on my car. And then, while I was walking out to the car, arms full of stuff, an old geezer accosted me, saying, "We don't allow cars in the community." Big emphasis on "we," as though my rent and my residency don't qualify me as one of them.

I snapped at him. I told him I had every right to pull my car in when I was loading and unloading. I hated that man--what the hell? He's my next door neighbor and never even bothered to introduce himself.

Later, he told my landlord about it. I think she must have spoken in my defense because he eventually approached me and apologized, very sincerely, for not having introduced himself. "I thought you were an outsider," he said by way of explanation.

Outsiders. That's what they call people who don't live here. As in, "Something is also needed near the Common House - outsiders seem to think the path is just a continuation of the road."* (The "something," by the way, has been a rock or a log or a safety cone. Not a sign, like they have at the community next door that indicates "pedestrians only, please." How passive-aggressive is it to place a log along the side of a road so as to make it difficult for a car to pass over it rather than just putting up a sign?)

Whatever. My apartment is cozy and clean. My landlords are wonderful. But co-housing is for the birds. Their latest dictum is that renters shall be required to do between 6-15 hours of unpaid labor in the form of upkeep and enhancement of the property for the community each month, including a monthly three hour Saturday afternoon meeting where agenda items generally include discussions of treehouse building, architectural issues, or parenting groups—three things I don't care a whit about. (I, by the way, am the only renter in the 25-household community with her own apartment. The three other renters rent rooms in other people's houses.) It's like they're creating some sort of fiefdom, where I pay above market rate to live in their midst and then also work their land for free.

They also turn all the lights out at midnight--to save pennies, I suppose. As a single girl is wont to do, when I come home late at least once a week, I enter a world that is pitch black. We live in the woods. There is no light at night other than what we create or what the moon might offer. I keep a headlamp and a flashlight in my car. For guests, I have often had to come out and rescue them as I forgot to mention that they'd be navigating blind if they didn't have their own light source. The sidewalks rarely get shoveled or sanded, too, so it's like a freaking death trap here in winter. You'd think with all those work hours being required someone would be able to take care of it…but perhaps they're too busy moving logs into the path to block ousiders...

Apart from the horrors of co-housing—the rude people, the unethical and I suspect illegal work obligations, the bad food and forced handholding and singing at common meals, the deadly sidewalks that become glare ice at night—there is the noise. The community itself is quiet. Creepily so. But my apartment is not. I hear every footstep, every beep from the microwave, every conversation, every thing from upstairs. It's driving me crazy.

I spent most of the first two months in tears, gripping my ears and rocking back and forth as the thud-thud-thudding destroyed my peace and quiet. I hardly slept. I couldn't work nearly enough. I mustered up my courage and complained.

My landlords were responsive. They gave me an expensive Hammacher Schlemmer sound machine. They run a white noise machine in their house. They walk in stocking feet. They make the kids play upstairs. They tiptoe. They installed special sound dampening curtains in the stairwell between our places and carpets on the floors. It got slightly better, but still…it's unlivable.

Bless her heart and grace be true, when I met with her about it earlier this month, my landlord agreed to either let me out of my lease, or to put in a whole new soundproofed ceiling.

I gave co-housing a shot. I even went to one more common meal, but it just isn't my bag. The new age hierarchy and can take their managed community and live it however they please; I'd rather be an outsider. I want to be someplace where people are interested in making friends, not rules.

So, I've begun my search. I check Craig's List constantly. I've looked at dumpy one-bedrooms in Northampton and an unusual three bedroom in Easthampton. I've perused the "Roommates Wanted" section in the hope of finding something just right.

Last week, I also looked at a 3BR duplex in Easthampton, a real fixer-upper. It's not in Northampton. It has a funny smell. The walls are covered in weird linoleum and so are the floors. Two of the bedrooms are teeny tiny. But I love the way it feels there. I love the landlords, a young couple who just bought the place and live next door. I love the little yard. And even though the view from my office will be no longer be of the forest and the neat co-housing houses--it will be, instead, of the pile of tires in the neighbor's backyard--I think it will feel good there. Even though the ceilings are sagging and the microwave and part of the kitchen ceiling are covered in grease; even though the tub is miniature and the dining room carpet is gross, there's just something about this apartment that I love.

If my references check out—and they will—it's mine if I want it. I'd need to get a roommate. I'd need to cover some pretty hefty move-in costs. I looked at another place today that was larger and prettier and might even include an above ground pool, but I didn't feel safe there. I feel a sense of warmth and safety in the fixer-upper on Hampton Terrace. It's not a rational choice—and it's confusing and tough to know for sure what to do—but as soon as I saw it, I began to beam.

I love that there are stairs. I love the crazy chandelier in the dining room. I love that it's only 7 minutes to Northampton. And I really love the landlords who live next door. I also love that if I can find the right roommate, I'll finally be able to afford my rent with ease, and that is the thing I really want most of all. That is the real source of my sense of safety. After all these years of just barely making it, I'd love to relax into a feeling of quiet and safety and joy in my home.

*taken from an actual e-mail sent by an "insider" to the community's e-mail list, regarding cars driving into the community



Blogger Raines said...

Hi, thanks for your post... I love the writing, please continue the series, and you should get it published (speaking as a former magazine editor)... oh, I see you are a widely published author, nevermind, you don't need me to tell you this stuff.

I'm sorry to hear that this particular cohousing neighborhood and the overall experience didn't work for you. It sounds like you didn't end up meeting people and coming to common meals before choosing to live there, so you didn't get the benefits of building relationships and finding supportive neighbors, to counteract the tell-you-what-to-do busybodies.

Every community has some degree of "us-vs.-them" dynamic, be it a small town or a cohousing neighborhood. This can be especially strong for a group of people that invested together and took a risk and spent lots of time in meetings to create something, and then purchased homes together, as is the case in your (relatively young) cohousing community. You may find the dynamic different and more open/accepting in some of the communities that are in their teens (like the one I live in, in Northern California) and have had more turnover and collective growth. A lot of your neighbors are probably there as the realization of their dreams to own their own homes (like your dreams), and are still feeling their way, and haven't figured out how to expand their relationship circle fast enough to make you feel welcome.

It sounds like your landlord did not do their job well if the lease didn't reference current community expectations/requirements around work/etc. It sounds to me like a broken resident-selection process if you didn't come to a common meal and/or a meeting and meet people beforehand.

The way most cohousing communities set it up, it's their choice who they rent to, but it's in their interest (and the community's interest, and the tenant's interest) to make sure people know what they're getting into, so that it's a matter of choice.

I can hardly imagine that they could enforce any "mandatory" work requirement that wasn't part of your lease, so I can't imagine any real consequences of not participating... where I live, if it was my "job" to mow the lawn, I wouldn't be able to stand it, but because I have the opportunity to do so, I enjoy doing so (and now we're hiring a neighbor's teenager to do it when I can't).

While a welcoming committee is a great concept, it sounds like this particular implementation of it didn't do a great job... in my experience, the role of a welcoming committee should be to help make introductions and fill gaps, and if anybody there doesn't know you after a week then something is wrong with the community processes.

As the only rent-your-own-unit tenant in the community, I'm not too surprised that they're having trouble figuring out how to relate to you... they put all this effort into building relationships with people who made this big "commitment" of buying, so it is "worth the investment" of getting to know them, and here you are, you could be gone tomorrow, so. After I moved from one cohousing neighborhood to another I rented out my original unit and found some challenges for some people there about how to accommodate the annual (and later, more-frequent) changes.

I wonder whether you tried to engage the community around meeting your needs (for instance, motion detectors to make light available when you arrive home after midnight)... that's the key part of what the meetings and getting-to-know-people-over-dinners-and-through-work-together accomplishes in my experience: building awareness of each others' needs so we can take care of them. And perhaps learning a little bit about ourselves in the process. Email list conversation is no substitute.

It sounds like the noise transmission issues were typical upstairs-landlord poor-home-construction issues, not specific to cohousing. I know that's on my checklist for looking at any place to rent or buy with people adjacent or upstairs or downstairs: do a test involving a screaming child, a drum kit, and a dance class before signing anything!

If you can, do check out other cohousing communities, including some of the more-established ones in your area... you may find them more supportive and accommodating. There's a new one in Southern VT, Caer Coburn, that is using a lot-build model that allows members to choose tiny houses like the Tumbleweed Homes to save $$$.

Good luck in staying in Northampton, it's a beautiful town (and home of the original Herrell's!) My wife went to boarding school near there, and I grew up in Eastern MA, and there are lots of cohousing communities in nearby Amherst and around the area, so we've been back a bunch to visit)

Cohousing Coach
Planning for Sustainable Communities
Berkeley, CA

8:19 AM  
Blogger Naomi said...

Raines, Thank you for your thoughtful response! You were right on the money in all regards. I should have come to a common meal first--but since the community was so new, they hadn't actually had any common meals before I signed my lease. The first one happened just before I moved in. When I did attend them, I had a terrible experience; if I had had the opportunity to do that before I made the choice to come here, I could have made a more informed decision. (I doubt I would have moved here if I'd experienced meals with these people.)

And the changes in work requirements are the result of an evolving community. It's so new that everyone is still deciding what works and what doesn't. At the time my landlord presented me with the bylaws, the work requirement was very different than what is now being expected.

And you're right, I could fight for my right not to comply, but it's very uncomfortable to feel at odds with your neighbors.

I didn't bring up the lighting issue because I believed my only recourse would be to attend a saturday afternoon meeting about it. it was a greater inconvenience to make that happen than it was just to carry a flashlight.

I was also just so full of resentment and disappointment that I didn't feel comfortable approaching my neighbors with this need.

As with your mowing the grass experience, I was excited to do gardening in the community until I was told it was required labor. When I lost my free will, I lost my enthusiasm.

I think my landlord did a great job. She's been supportive and an ally in my experience. She gave me the bylaws ahead of time, answered all my questions, and made attempts to introduce me to the community. I don't think any of the blame falls on her in this scenario.

Your post helped me to feel like perhaps a more established co-housing community could work for me in the future; if I ever try again, I will follow your advice. Thanks for offering it.

You also mentioned that you thought the Church Signs series should be published. Thank you for that. Even though I'm a published writer, I'm not sure where one might seek to publish a series like this. If you care to offer any thoughts, I'd love to hear them.

Thank you for reading and offering your insight.

Cheers, Naomi

12:53 PM  

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