Co-Housing Governance: Democracy vs Consensus
In my Ignite Seattle talk about Advanced Co-Housing Techniques, I mis-spoke about governance. I said that our house is run as a democracy, which actually isn’t a very accurate representation. Democracies are clearly sustainable forms of governance, but they tend to leave a bunch of people unhappy in many decisions. Up to half the residents can get out-voted on anything, and then decisions move forwards that they disagree with.
Our house actually operates on consensus for most decisions. Operating on consensus is short-hand for everybody has to agree before something happens. Another way to put this is that everybody has veto power over everything. It is this fact which most leads to the slowness of decision making that I alluded to. It can take a long time to reach consensus on issues. But people are generally happy when they do. The biggest source of stress is often that things aren’t moving quickly enough. This leads me to joke sometimes that an issue is “working its way through congress” before it gets decided, which I think contributed to me mis-representing the governance system that we use.
We do have a separate politburo-style committee which is responsible for financial decisions. For issues like when to refinance it makes sense for only certain members of the household to contribute: those with a direct vested interest in the outcome. Maintenance and repairs of the house similarly get dealt with in this sub-group, not because other residents don’t have a vested interest, but because it’s our responsibility and we generally figure the other residents would rather not deal with things like hiring a painter. Even if they did, their incentives would differ slightly. Sometimes meta-issues around residency like how many people the house should have sometimes get taken up by the politburo, but we do our best to keep these discussions open.
I know of other group houses which operate with similar multi-tiered governance systems. The hierarchy often seems to follow legal ownership of the house, which makes sense. Sometimes more power is reserved by the owners. Clearly there’s a continuum of possibilities here which would get unhealthy on either end. A strict dictatorship by the owner would probably make all other residents unhappy fairly quickly. On the other side a house where the owner has no more power than the other residents, and gets out-voted on issues pertaining to physical maintenance could lead to the house falling into dis-repair. I’ve heard that the Evergreen Land Trust model sometimes has this problem. ELT is something I don’t know very much about, but deserves its own write-up.
One closing comment about house governance relates to communication. When decisions need to get made, how will your house communicate the discussion? We use a combination of an email list and periodic in-person house-meetings which are fairly formal and infrequent. I know other houses rely fairly heavily on SMS, or chance discussion. As in most things with co-housing, there are many right answers. The key is finding a system that works well for everybody you live with, and being open to change if it seems not to be working.