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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.

  1. NaFun says:

    I left that rather vague and ominous-sounding, and in immediate hindsight that wasn’t what was meant. I think I mean to say that discussions around “your kid broke the extraordinarily expensive curved leaded glass window” and “left all the lights on” are the kinds of things that can get hairy due to limited time, attention, and energy. Middle age and parenthood seem to mean letting lots of stuff slide more, which might butt up against aesthetic values, pure ideology, et.

  2. NaFun says:

    All of this is pretty common-sense stuff but interesting to see how it plays out in the organic human world. I think you will run into some situations shortly, when kids come into play, that will change the dynamic significantly.

  3. Stephan says:

    Karen & I try to run our house as a dictatorship, but the residents just ignore me and do as they please.

  4. Leif Utne says:

    Thanks for clarifying. I saw your talk last night and was wondering about this. I live in the Winslow Cohousing community over on Bainbridge Island, where we operate by consensus, too. When you said your house is a democracy, I perked up, then just assumed you meant consensus but were simplifying the terminology so as not to confuse people in your limited time.

    It’s interesting to hear about your hierarchy wrt financial and maintenance decisions. In our community, we have about 80 people in 30 units, all but two of which are owner-occupied. The whole community is owned as a coop, with one voting share per unit. But in most decisions, every adult member of each household gets a vote. However, most decisions aren’t made by consensus because we have an elaborate system of committees, called “clusters” — Grounds, Common Facilities, Maintenance, Administration, Process & Communication, etc. The clusters are empowered to make most decisions about their realms.

    Anyway, thanks for an enlightening talk last night.

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