When Community Land Is Privately Owned

by Tree Bressen

When most of us think of intentional community, we think of a place where some or all of the land or property is owned in common. There tends to be an attitude in the movement that common ownership is inherently superior. I might even agree with that attitude. However, in contrast to the orthodoxy, i’ve also visited places where private ownership, either temporarily or even long-term, seemed to be working out okay. I became curious: What factors make such a situation go well rather than badly?

First, let’s consider the obvious challenges. Property ownership on the part of some members conveys immediate material privilege. It also tends to considerably influence psychological and interpersonal dynamics. In our socially unjust society, ownership is a form of rank or power-over. Owners get to accrue equity in property, while renters’ money just disappears into the void. However, in spite of all that, i still think that if held consciously, and with requisite willingness and skill to have healthy conversations about it, private ownership does not necessarily have to break the sense of community in a place.

When eight of us started Walnut St. Co-op in 2000, we faced a fairly common situation: We all wanted to live in community, but only one person had enough money to buy a house in our town. He went ahead with it, and we all moved in. The goal all along was to transfer ownership to the group. However, again like many groups, we didn’t get around to it for a while. In fact, frankly, we might never have gotten around to it if the owner hadn’t decided firmly, after several years, that he wanted out. In the fall of 2002, one night at our weekly meeting, he announced that if we didn’t buy the property from him by spring he was going to put it on the market. Whew! While we felt shocked and upset, i have to say that it also lit a fire under our butts. A core group formed, and by dint of much hard work, successfully met the deadline. (For part of the story of how we did it, see “Our Community Revolving Loan Fund” in Communities #128, Fall 2005.)

However, what’s worth noticing here is that even in the years before the group assumed ownership, the place already felt like a community. I believe that most sightseers could have sat in on nine out of ten meetings without being able to tell that one person owned the house. We all shared in cooking and chores. We all attended meetings. When the house needed work or when someone was having a hard time, we each did our best to help out, according to individual skills and availability. When a room came open, we all interviewed and selected new housemates by consensus.

The owner laid down the law on one or two things at the beginning, like insisting that no illegal substances be brought onto the property (a guideline that the group later kept, by the way, after the transition to co-op ownership). And that was about it. Aside from that, he held his role lightly, with grace i might even say. So that when we did finally pass from individual into group ownership, the shift was relatively smooth, and changed almost nothing about our day-to-day lives together. The main difference was that the newly formed core group now had extra responsibilities: planning for long-term maintenance, drawing up annual budgets, and making payments to the lenders in our community revolving loan fund. The former owner moved on to other community ventures.

Based on that experience, other communities i’ve visited, and talking with other people in the communities movement, i offer the following list of recommendations to help guide owners and tenants who may find themselves in the situation of attempting to form a community while occupying privately owned land. These recommendations are offered in addition to all the other important elements that any forming community benefits from having, like strong friendships and a good vibe among everyone living there, and a sense of larger purpose beyond the welfare of individual members.


Recommendations to landowners and tenants attempting community living on privately owned land:

Owner being clear and up front about what decisions are up to the group vs. what decisions the owner is ultimately maintaining control over. For example, capital improvement decisions might be up to the owner, while lifestyle choices (e.g., whether the kitchen is vegetarian, or what time do quiet hours start) might be up to the full group to decide. The more clear these agreements are, the better; thus, writing them down helps. The more decisions can be made by everyone, the more likely you are to actually have a community rather than a “feudal lord and serfs” situation; so probably the default should be that decisions are made by all unless there is a strong reason to do otherwise. The owner can still be included as one of the decision-making members, and protecting the owner’s interests is a concern that any member can bring up if it’s relevant to a particular proposal.

Clarity of agreements. For example, having a signed lease, or if work trade is expected then specifying how many hours and what’s included. Again, writing down the basics is useful, both because it forces you to get clear and for referring back to later.

Which hat when? There will be times when the owner is speaking as the owner, and wants to be heard that way. However, unless everyone stays pretty conscious, there will be times when the owner is attempting to put out their preferences as one group member, but instead is interpreted by others as dictating by fiat. Many unhappy misunderstandings can be averted by a commitment on all sides to be as clear as possible about which hat the owner is wearing when. If anyone isn’t sure in a particular case, they should ask.

Transparency. Openness builds trust. I recommend the owner be entirely open about their title to the land, mortgage payments, and other arrangements, including having open accounting books that any community member can examine whenever they want. Potential members should also be realistic with the owner about what they are likely to be able to put into the pot.

Simultaneous move-in. Walnut St. Co-op was blessed in that, because we actually started as a group, everyone initially moved in around the same time. We all talked over who wanted which bedroom, and common spaces were furnished collectively. We were spared the situation of moving into someone’s established territory.

Common spaces controlled by all. Whose books occupy the shelves of the library? Whose art hangs on the walls? In order for a place to feel like their home, other community members besides the owners will need to have equal influence over furnishings, and ability to have their cherished personal possessions in common space.

Owner not being too attached about too many things. Ooo, this is a tough one, isn’t it? It’s hard for people to change their personalities, so it’s up to owners to be self-aware about this and for other residents to screen for it before choosing to join. I suggest that owners who are more laid back are more likely to succeed in co-creating a happy community around them.

Members who are personally reasonably emotionally secure. We’re not demanding perfection here, but the less secure the other residents are, the more likely they are to project concerns and upsets onto innocent owners.

Attention, if needed, on other power factors besides ownership (for example, gender, race, class background, popularity, political alliances, and so on). Being willing to look at the many power dynamics at play reduces inappropriate targeting of ownership privilege. In a hierarchical society, we all have situations where we are one-up and situations where we are one-down. It’s unfair to expect only the owner to face up to their own one-upness.

Trust. This item was added to the list courtesy of Hank Obermayer, former owner at Mariposa Grove in California. He explains, “Trust that what the owner says is what they mean, both intellectually, and it’s what they will truly work toward. That has to do with incoming members trusting the owner’s maturity, ability and openness. It can also include the owner’s trust of others who are involved in making community decisions that the owner is liable for.”

Owner letting go of, um, greed, or a desire to achieve mainstream profit margins. I hear the wail of community owners: “Oh sure, i’d be happy to have group ownership, i just want to be compensated for all the years of work i’ve put in on the land,” or “As long as others buy in for equal portions,” or, worse yet, “As long as others buy in for the amount of money the land is worth now,” when the owner bought it years ago when the market was a lot lower. If you can find members who are willing to do that, fine. But otherwise, your attachment to profit is likely to keep you from ever having the community you supposedly want.

At Walnut St., the founding group fortunately had a conversation about how much the property would be sold for later. While that did not prevent tensions from arising during the final negotiations, it certainly helped provide guidance and made it easier to arrive at agreement. In the end, the group paid an amount that provided significant profit to the owner, while still being significantly under market value at the time of resale.

A transition plan to arrive at group ownership. Have you ever visited a community where the property is supposedly heading toward group ownership, but has been owned by one person for more than a decade? There are plenty around. If you really want other people to make a place their home, it’ll be more likely to happen if you and they work out a realistic plan for joint legal ownership. Read the relevant chapters of Diana Christian’s book Creating a Life Together for more information on legal options for incorporation and property ownership. And speaking of that excellent book, check out “When You Already Own the Property,” on p. 23 of the same title, for further perspective on the themes raised here.


SIDEBAR by Jan Steinman

Common problems with private ownership of “community” land

* The people with the most effort to contribute generally are young and have little or no money.

* Past labour is generally not valued at all, or assumed by the owner to have been completely compensated for by free rent or meals.

* Property prices rise faster than tenants’ ability to raise money, or even to perform work-trade.

* Banks won’t touch mortgages on commonly-held property–at least not at home-mortgage rates. (Business loan rates are considerably higher.) This means the owner must become the banker as well–yet another position of hidden power.

* Unless the parties are essentially equal in net worth, power imbalances will remain in any share-based system. Even in cooperatives that have equal votes or consensus, there is hidden power imbalance if the equity distribution is vastly unequal, which can eventually cause resentment unless great care is taken.

* The day-to-day grind of running the place tends to put equity sharing on the back burner. I know of three sites where the owners have expressed an interest in sharing equity for some years, yet none of them actually have done so. I don’t doubt their intentions, but this is an example of “hidden power,” in that people of privilege rarely view themselves as such. The “status quo” is good enough for the owner, and the serfs don’t want to rock the boat by pestering the owner about following up on the owner’s previously expressed intentions.

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