Lesson 9: Common Housing Movement

living in communityI am going to take time off from Chittister to acknowledge the wide variety of responses I have received to the recent lessons. Obviously now, as in the past, there have always been efforts to find better forms of community. Our participants reflect the usual positions, running from the need for correcting the present system to the desirability of searching for an entirely new one.

Two things jumped into my mind. The first was that Derek was correct in discerning that children have always been a central issue. The second was that the opportunities offered by the common housing movement have been largely overlooked. That movement associated with the Gaia Foundation in Denmark has tried to combine a traditional community lifestyle with the demands of the modern world.

I am somewhat familiar with two common housing opportunities: the Hundredfold Farm in Adams County, Pennsylvania and the Ecovillage in Ithaca, New York. The first is intentionally small, presently only 10 houses with a goal of 15. The second has a population of 240, of which 60 are kids. It attempted maintaining close relationships by dividing into 3 neighborhoods.

Although the common vision is ecological rather than Christian, the movement offers some potential for faith communities. The central goal is to have minimal impact on the environment by placing living quarters on a constricted area of the property. The Hundredfold Farm limits this to 6 acres of the least fertile land on its 80 acre property. It often speaks of trying to reduce its carbon footprint by 70% by providing as much as possible of its own energy, food, water treatment, and other necessities. Neighborhoods are designed for walking with motorized vehicles confined to a car park at the edge of the neighborhood.

However, both communities also promote humane community and economical values. Hundredfold claims the cornerstone of its common vision is caring, paring, and sharing. Members take care of one another, sharing with one another freely. For instance, they offer the privacy of single family units but also the benefits of communal areas.

One of the models for the common housing movement puts this ideal into material form. The neighborhood is centered on a common house that provides services such as guest quarters, party facilities, large dining rooms, laundries, offices, and common tools. This facilitates keeping the housing small. Most of the communities offer three or four common meals a week to promote knowing one another and ministry to the elderly.

The housing in the ideal model is intentionally inter-generational. The homes on the outer edge are larger to accommodate families with children. Those in the middle are designed for families without children who need less space. And the inner group are even smaller so the elderly can more easily continue living in the community.

One reason most people have not heard of the movement is that it has not grown as fast as expected. In spite of the models, the usual problems have emerged. The hopes were for a grass roots governance that used consensus in its decision making. As this has proved to be difficult, new models have been attempted. Hundredfold tries to operate completely on the basis of informal encounters.

As to be expected, some members believe others take advantage of community’s generosity. Relative to Derek’s concern, I have heard this expressed by the elderly complaining about children. One vision was that childcare would be shared by all the members. This has not always worked.

Another issue is that the communities have not been able to attract the poor. In spite of their sharing, housing is still too expensive for low income families.

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