Becoming Full Members?

by Emlyn Hagan (& Chris Walker)

So, it’s been two months since the blog we wrote just days after being accepted as Prospective Members of Chaco and here we are just days away from submitting our application for full membership with the follow-up blog that we promised.

What an eventful two months it’s been: we’ve continued to meet new people; attended lots of social events; an aborted trip to a network event in Lancaster/visit to Lancaster co-housing; Chris (along with Christine, Ali and Mary) has visited a kitchen supplier; I attended our first members meeting and we had a wonderful (mostly wet) week touring the Outer Hebrides in our campervan (see picture above).

We’ve been working as a team throughout, Chris is away a lot but we’ve attended lots of socials, etc together and I attended one on my own in her absence which was a real challenge to my confidence/the anxiety I feel when meeting new people. Chris has been more active in task groups and has really enjoyed being part of the kitchen design group. I know that I’ve struggled at times, mainly due to the limitations caused by my mental health difficulties, I find high speed, multiple person email threads hard to follow, I also find it hard to commit to things during the week as my work is very demanding and often means all I’m capable of in the evening is chilling out. I know that effective/inclusive communication between members is one of the challenges faced by any group and for me our adoption of “Slack” as a tool could really help.

If our application is successful our next step will be to pay our deposit to secure our spot. Also on the horizon is Chris’ further involvement in some of the interior design decisions and we’ll hopefully be attending an 8 week course at Oblong with a group of Chaco folks covering: communication skills/active listening; working together as a team; managing conflicts and running successful meetings, starting in January.

All along our determination to apply for full membership, despite both having had little wobbles, has remained intact. My intention has been to try and not invest too much into Chaco emotionally and be the voice of reason when Chris’ excitement is building too much (be the boring one you might say). However, I was caught out last month during a brief conversation with Bill about the shared workshop and what it could contain and be used for. The excitement suddenly surge within me, oops. I travelled home from the Bill and Ali’s house full of ideas and new hobbies I was sure to take up once I had access to this new state of the art workshop. Good grief, where’s the voice of reason now?

Chris and I spent an afternoon a few weeks ago looking at finances again and came to the conclusion that assuming we could get a mortgage we would be in a position to commit to buying 80% of the property we wanted. The rest of the afternoon was spent scrutinising property plans and kitchen designs, cross referencing them to the site plan, to find a layout that worked for us. Now that felt exciting! The conclusion? We knew what we could afford and which units would work for us, we could now apply for full membership.

So here we are, the application is a work in progress and we’re back to selling ourselves.  Once our application is complete it’s in the hands of the full members, all of whose opinions and judgement we respect completely, which I guess is one of the reasons why we want to be part of the community. By the time the meeting that decides our fate takes place we’ll be on holiday in Gran Canaria so at least if things don’t go our way we can ease the pain with a cold beer in the sun.

As before we’ll write more as our journey continues…………

Emlyn & Chris

 

ChaCo visit Lilac!

Last Saturday a few of us went on a tour of Lilac, the established cohousing community in West Leeds. Consensus from the trip seems to be that seeing an established cohousing is a good way to settle some of the doubts that can arise while being introduced to the concept.

As we were led around the common house, the site, one of the homes, the allotments and the green spaces, I jotted down notes. This post is a collage of things that stood out about cohousing.

Cohousing is compromise, compromise, compromise.

“Everything is idealism at first”, Laura told us at the start of the tour. “But then you have to go to reality”.

Cohousing brings people together from different backgrounds and ways of life, all with their own thoughts on how things should be done. Current ChaCo discussions capture this well: about kitchen fittings, green walls, common house design, energy systems and so on.

Whittling the idealistic visions of different members into realistic workable plans, agreed on by everyone, is no mean feat. But Lilac shows that it can be done, and that the results are beautiful.

Cohousing is cooperation.

It’s in the name so this one is fairly obvious, but the implications may not be.

Residents of Lilac are responsible for accounts, conveyancing, facilitating and many other tasks that could be outsourced externally. Pooling existing members’ skills bolsters the sense of community, and discussion among residents ensures that responsibilities are allocated fairly and that everyone is contributing according to their strengths.

Laura said that if they did decide to pay for external help with anything, she’d vote to get a cleaner.

Cohousing is always a work in progress.

The red fence surrounding Lilac had to stay as part of securing planning permission because it was an iconic part of the school that previously occupied the site.

“The red fence is a nice touch”, I said to Laura. She pointed out the section where the new vibrant red is next to the faded original: “it would be better if we finished painting it! Four years and we’ve only got that far”.

As well as finishing the fence, a gardening rota shows which jobs need doing all year round and a maintenance group meet regularly to ensure things keep working smoothly. Other non-urgent tasks exist too: empty space on the site is there to be filled with projects agreed on by residents, like the hot tub and sauna that were built recently.

In short, work is needed and expected of cohousing residents but the result is a dynamic and organic living space that reflects the combined interests and skills of the people who helped to build it.

Cohousing reminds you that you are always a work in progress, too.

After telling us about the near-constant compromise, Laura told us that as a cohousing resident “you realise the world doesn’t revolve around your views which, as I was getting older, was getting more ingrained”.

It is a lifestyle that leads to lessons about yourself, other residents, and life in general. My favourite lesson mentioned? “Learning that we have to talk to each other a lot more for it to run smoothly”.

Cohousing challenges assumptions.

Everything from the lifestyle itself, to the tendency to adopt building materials or technologies that may be less familiar than those in traditional housing challenges assumptions. It is easy to imagine Lilac’s straw-bale walls as delicate and fragile, for example. But despite what you read in the Three Little Pigs, straw is sturdy and resilient to being huffed and puffed and blown down.

When telling people about potentially moving into ChaCo I often get comments to the effect of “so you’re moving into a commune?”. It’s fun challenging these assumptions and explaining the concept and benefits.

It’s more fun to imagine personal assumptions that will be challenged as residents, prospective or otherwise.

Happiness and washing up

By Chris Lee – another of our new Prospective Members

In documentaries, lights are shone on lives and lifestyles that are unusual and intriguing – and removed from the norms that define viewers’ lives. ‘Happy’ is a documentary showcasing lives defined by their happiness and the lifestyle decisions that led there. It features cohousing amongst various other positive and inpsiring things, and it was a lifestyle that made sense immediately.

If I’m being candid, the reason it appealed immediately was the prospect of having to do less washing up. In the cohousing project they visited, meals were eaten in a common area with a rota for cooking and cleaning – I think each family had to cook and wash up once a fortnight.

But investigating further revealed many other benefits, and ones not motivated by laziness: a focus on community and socialising leads to a rich social life. A focus on security and shared vigilance protects both the property and other residents’ well-being. A built-in support network means there is always someone to lend an ear or a hand when you need it, or lend a bit of milk when you run out.

On a small scale these things make for an appealing place to live, but on a larger scale they point to the potential of cohousing to work toward alleviating serious social issues like isolation and loneliness, and the numerous problems that arise from such things.

What an exciting thing to be involved with.

Documentaries also give a sense of otherness, and after watching Happy I remember thinking how nice it would be if cohousing could work in the UK, then assuming it probably couldn’t for various reasons and thinking no more about it. But when Bill showed me Lilac and told me about the various other projects happening in Yorkshire, those reasons no longer stood up to scrutiny.

Seeing the ChaCo journey, the amount of work it has involved, and the underlying belief that a positive and inspiring way of life can exist in the UK has been a pleasure. The possibility of living there (assuming I haven’t missed the boat) and to contribute toward its continued existence will be a privilege.

And don’t worry – I no longer have an aversion to washing up 😉

Becoming Prospective ChaCo Members

by Emlyn Hagan (& Chris Walker)

A couple of weeks ago we became prospective members of Chaco, it’s been a bit of a whirlwind really so we felt now was the time to reflect and write a blog. Chris has lived in Chapeltown for the past 15 years within walking distance of the site, I live in Kirkstall in a flat I’m renovating to sell prior to moving in with Chris.

We’ve both been aware of Chaco for many years, having encountered members running information stalls at various local events but we’d never really seriously considered membership for some reason. We both have friends who live at Lilac and lots of things about the project really appealed when we first visited those freshly installed friends in their new homes in 2013, it felt like a real community. Recently we’ve been planning for the future, talking about what we might do when I sell my flat, etc. Then, out of the blue I noticed a Facebook post from Maeve (now our buddy), a shared friend of mine and Chris’, talking about an upcoming Chaco social the following week at the flat she shares with her partner Nikoli and their baby. We decided to attend and suddenly Chaco was in the forefront of our minds.

We spent the next week checking out the website, looking at plans, discussing finances and coming up with a list of questions. We watched the video on the website and were very taken by Maureen’s enthusiasm, passion and grin. I was pretty nervous about attending the social, Chris tends to be calmer than me but it was great, everyone was lovely, we chatted to folks, Chris caught up with an old work friend (who also lives one street away), I got to wax lyrical about our campervan adventures, I got a cuddle from baby and most of the questions we had were answered. Job done.

On the walk home we decided that we should apply to become prospective members. We let Maeve know straight away and she sent us the forms, she also put me in touch with Bill so we could have a chat about the self build plots. This turned out to be a bit of a blind alley in some ways because we realised that the thing we wanted most was to be active members of the community. Within 24 hours we’d visited the site, spending a good half an hour clambering through undergrowth, peering over walls and through gaps in fences trying to get our bearings, we liked what we saw.

Chris took charge of our application form and did a brilliant job. We’d discussed what we had to offer the community (including a Canadian canoe and a tandem), our skills, experiences and interests. Next we waited……………………. Not too long though as Maeve contacted Chris a few days later to say that we’d been accepted at the previous night’s meeting. Woohoo! At the following social people were really complimentary about our application which was kind of them.

We’re working hard at keeping our feet on the ground, not getting too excited (one of us is doing a better job of this than the other), boringly, I’m acting as the voice of reason. But we are excited, it feels like a potential future is forming before our very eyes, we just need to keep meeting other members and prospective members, attend events and get involved in the community. We continue to meet lovely people at socials, all of whom we clearly have more than a little bit of common ground with, you could describe them as people we’d happy have as neighbours. We even met Maureen a couple of weeks ago, the star of the video and she’s probably even more enthusiastic in person!

We’ll write more as our journey continues

Emlyn & Chris

Radical Routes weekend

Crabapple_loos_592

I’ve just spent the last three days in a field 6 miles south of Shrewsbury. This was my first experience of a Radical Routes Gathering – maybe the first of many, but next time I’m definitely taking a sleeping bag rated higher than “two seasons”. The days were warm and sunny (I’ve got a sunburnt nose), but there was a frost on the tents at night.

Radical Routes is a secondary cooperative – ie: a cooperative whose members are housing co-ops (like ChaCo) or workers’ co-ops (like the Footprint printing co-op based at Cornerstone in Sholebroke Avenue). It’s got a strong commitment to positive social change – and requires a similar commitment from its members. The main reason I went was to investigate the possibility of accessing one of their Rootstock loans that full members can apply for. However, it soon became apparent that they were offering a lot more than mere money. There was a wealth of experience and expertise on tap, and probably the main value for ChaCo would be the mutual support network and number of organisations who could help us avoid reinventing legal, financial and structural wheels, because they’ve already “been there and tried that”.

Although a lot more grass-rootsy feeling than the Confederation of Cooperative Housing (which we’ve also joined, for similar reasons), I was impressed how well the various meetings were run, and their attention to the boring basics like agendas, minutes and agreed procedures seemed to allow genuine (if sometimes slow) progress towards their goals. There were plenty of people with strong (and occasionally conflicting) views, but everyone seemed to trust that consensus decision-making would get there in the end, and all the discussions I witnessed were business-like and good-natured. I also attended a facilitation training session and learnt a lot about how our own Members’ meetings could be run in a more equitable and effective manner.

Altogether, a very positive experience. Whether or not we can get our own act together enough to be able to meet their rather demanding entrance criteria remains to be seen. And we may decide that our limited capacity means that we have to invest our energies on more immediate needs. However, Despina – one of our Would-be Prospective Members and who travelled down with me – is offering to do a lot of the work if we do decide to apply, and she already has a lot of RR experience from when she was a member of the Xanadu housing co-op in Woodhouse.

Great expectations?

Guest blog by Bill Phelps

We’ve reached a stage in our journey now where we’re about to embark on a £2-3 million housing development. We’re very aware that we’re just a bunch of (rather determined) amateurs, albeit with an impressive team of professional advisers in the background. It’s daunting to consider the scale of what we’re taking on – and how little relevant experience the ChaCo members have in steering a project like this.

It’s also an interesting point to recall that bit of cohousing lore that says that building the houses is easier than building the community.

One of the topics that crops up time and again in accounts of cohousing failure is that of unrealistic expectations. Life in a cohousing community has a lot to commend it (of course) – but it’s not going to be much fun for people who assume they’re always going to get their own way. One group in the US tells newcomers: “We’ll try to give you 90% of what you want.” – a healthy reminder that consensus decision making involves give and take on all sides, and a lot of searching for solutions that everyone can live with.

Another, rather sad, story tells of a new family moving into a cohousing community. In order to make them feel welcome, their new neighbours cooked a meal and left it on the kitchen table, ready for when they arrived. The effect on the newcomers was to undermine their sense of privacy and security, knowing that others had access to their house and might let themselves in at any time without warning. Often, we assume that others have – or should have – the same set of values that we ourselves hold, and it comes as a shock when we realise that people we’re cohousing with have different views and habits.

What this means, I suppose, is that as well as the laughs and excitement, there are going to be plenty of disagreements and misunderstandings before we eventually move into our new homes, and – crucially – afterwards, too. But most of the people I’ve talked to who are currently living in cohousing would say that any tears and disappointments are more than outweighed by the benefits and fun of living alongside neighbours who are committed to watching out for them and sharing time and resources with them.

Will cohousing make me happier? It’s possible. Will I regret investing the time, energy and pain to make it happen? I don’t think so.

Cohousing advantages - a personal reflection

Guest blog by Ali Phelps, a long-standing member of ChaCo

I’m not sure whether an inner city environment causes poor mental health or whether people experiencing it are there because of cheaper, rented or social housing, but I do know for certain that many of our neighbours, over my 42 years in Chapeltown, have been affected by a wide variety of social and psychiatric stresses. Cohousing is brilliant from this perspective. Although it isn’t planned from a medical point of view, lots about it can prevent or alleviate mental distress.

Isolation

In cohousing, individuals agree to meet each other intentionally through some shared meals, work groups and joint decision-making as well as expecting many accidental encounters because of the architecture and landscaping of the project. So if anyone’s pattern of behavior changes, or they become withdrawn, it will be noticed. People vary greatly in their need for privacy and interaction and cohousing is flexible enough to meet a wide range of expectations. Casual greetings, practical task-focused exchanges or philosophical conversations can all be a natural part of cohousing, and will enrich community life. For any members with distant or alienated families, the cohousing group may be the natural place for sharing joys and sorrows, and for support through times of illness and other stresses. The group can be helpful in reducing the likelihood of over-dependent relationships.

Life rhythms

Some residents will not be in full-time paid employment. Cultivating shared allotments, using the workshops, interacting with schools, training groups, the elderly, sporting and creative community groups as well as taking responsibility for shared meals, maintenance, cleaning and recycling will all provide ‘work’ type opportunities for purposeful daily activity. Prospective residents already have a wide range of skills to share – musical, creative, artistic and dexterous, which may contribute to the relaxation of the whole group. The space we design will lend itself to possible community celebrations of Bonfire Night, New Year(s), harvest and the Big Lunch as well as the variety of faith groups represented being able to share particular festivals, as appropriate. The rhythms of planting, tending, reaping and using food are always life-affirming and health-promoting.

Generations

Although some cohousing schemes opt for the familiarity of peer groups, there are overwhelming benefits to living in a deliberately multi-aged group. Children can know and trust a variety of adults from birth, thus building solid foundations for childcare and life-long emotional health. They will also naturally learn to relate to older and younger children. Elderly people can be rejuvenated by respectful interactions with youngsters, and can contribute wisdom, stories and practical skills even as they learn the mysteries of smartphones and websites. New parents can have support and practical help at stressful periods – easy babysitting options can contribute to saving strained partnerships, extra pairs of hands can offer needed hours of sleep for those insomniac moments. There can be mutual support through periods of illness or recovery without much effort from the group. Similarly, as individuals age, issues of mobility, memory, bereavement and strength may all be helped reasonably easily by a cohousing group, without incurring huge transport or financial costs.

Diversity

Those committed to the project have already valued diversity in education, race, language, faith, gender, abilities etc. and look forward to learning more through the closer living and decision-making of deliberate cohousing. It aims to celebrate Chapeltown as a district of immigration and welcome and to find ways of continuing to provide safe and affordable space for new arrivals as well as remaining open to settled neighbours near the cohousing project.

Sustainability

Cohousing makes it much easier to practice some aspects of green living, for example, shared transport, solar energy, recycling, bulk-buying, shared laundry facilities and cultivating. Construction from scratch should ensure sustainable materials, and high levels of insulation resulting in lower energy bills. Sharing of ideas and hope will contribute long-term benefits to the planet as well as improved health to the residents.

Some financial implications

Cohousing will result in lower living costs for residents.

  • Energy: through sustainable building and shared facilities and activities.
  • Food: through growing our own, bulk-buying and shared meals.
  • Childcare: some will be natural, in-house.
  • Things in common: because of the shared facilities, individual households will need less space and fewer tools, cars, equipment.

Statutory savings

  • NHS: Fewer GP visits because of less isolation, fresh food, fresh air and exercise. Fewer psychiatric in-patient costs, as good patterns of living result in better mental health.
  • Police: Fewer interventions. The cohousing group is very aware of the lack of out-of-school provision for young people in Chapeltown and would encourage relevant activities and inclusion. The cohousing group is committed to share problem-solving and is therefore less likely to have neighbourhood disputes needing police attention.
  • Social Services:
    If parents need hospital care, the group may have the capacity to look after children, preventing the disruption and expense of fostering/respite care.
    Elderly people should be able to stay in their own homes for longer, with good informal neighbourhood support. Where professional carers are needed, residents would be able to provide additional company, mobility, and the stimulation essential for good quality of life.
    Disabled people can be included more easily when building new, with raised beds in the growing space, design of communal space and wheelchair access.
  • Affordable space for groups to meet in the Common House e.g. A grandparents group, craft groups
  • Education: If toilets and teaching spaces are available, the Leopold Field area could become much more usable both by the CHESS cluster and local residents. Sports spaces, a growing area, orchard, and pond could all contribute to a better quality of local education.
  • Housing Support workers/CAB/Refugee Support workers:
    Some issues could be solved in a shared community.

Not a World Cup event - but much more important

It’s approaching midnight on a momentous day. Brazil beat Cameroon 4 -1, England are slipping towards defeat in the latest cricket test match, Andy Murray has started strongly at Wimbledon and our garden is loaded (was loaded!) with strawberries.

But the event of the day was the completion of our pre-feasibility study. I’m not going to put all of it up here as it’s a massive 99 pages long. I’ll wait until we have an executive summary but in the meantime here’s a couple of highlights.

As part of the study we undertook 67 conversations using our questionnaire and discovered that

  • people do know what makes a good community
  • people want safe green space and growing space
  • people want community facilities owned and managed by the community, which are not culturally specific to one ethnic group or religion
  • there was a high level of concern about provision for teenagers and young adults
  • people saw a need for affordable, well designed, good quality housing

 

Through these and many other conversations we have concluded that:

The Leopold site offers potential for innovative development, focused on building on the best traditions of Chapeltown and meeting the yearning people have for improved facilities and stronger community. It can deliver a mixed range of attractive new, affordable, low energy sustainable housing which can include self-build, co-housing and can meet a wide range of needs.

There is a real opportunity here to develop the site in ways which can enhance the community, improve resources and meet local aspirations, and can significantly contribute to improving community wellbeing. In particular it can offer a community based approach to growing and sharing food and providing improved sports facilities and access to nature for our children, and people of all ages. It can provide employment and training opportunities for local people. It can deliver community facilities which return ownership and responsibility to the people who live here.

So today has been momentous because our pre-feasibility study is complete and it means we are one step closer to achieving our vision to:

Transform derelict land; an under-used playing field, a dilapidated day-centre and run down historic buildings into a vibrant urban village bursting with sustainable housing, recreational space, opportunities for inter-generational connections and a diverse intentional community grown from the local

Goodnight.

Climb the fence and plant seeds

2014-06-12 16.57.28I’m so glad someone else picked the date for the Design Picnic. Last time I picked a date for an outdoor event we had thunder and lightning – just what you’d expect for mid-summer’s day!

Around 100 people came to our design picnic. Most had never stepped onto the Leopold Field before – despite it being a community facility. One boy admitted he had played football on the site but this was only because he had climbed over the 6-foot high spiky fence that surrounds the site.

I was surprised by how many people said they’d like to see allotments and food growing projects as part of the development. Honestly, I didn’t prompt or lead them into it.

The whole event was much more relaxed than anticipated. The kids didn’t need any of our pre-prepared activities but simply created their own entertainment using the piles of cut grass. The adults (who weren’t jumping into piles of cut grass) were content to chat in twos or threes without any need for us to do presentations. The hands-on design model evolved throughout the afternoon with each person adding to what had gone before rather than re-inventing everything from scratch.

(Click on any photo to view the slideshow)

I’m most excited about the swimming pool with slides!

Chapeltown: where is it and what does it do?

Today four of us from Chaco listened to Max Farrar talk about Chapeltown.

I live in Chapeltown but if you search on Streetmap, which uses the official Ordnance Survey maps, you’ll find Chapeltown hanging out way up to the north of my house in Spencer Place. Google maps does much better by locating Chapeltown in Reginald Mount.

This geographical confusion explains some of the title of Max Farrar‘s talk as part of the Leeds Big Bookend festival.

The other half of the title was even more interesting. Max is a Professor with Leeds Metropolitan University who spent 25 years studying Chapeltown (and for most of the time living here as well). Max summed up his talk by saying

Chapeltown provides a repository for the racialised hopes and fears of a divided city; a site on which various social imaginaries do their work.

I’m not sure I understand the summary! What I did understand is that there are many stories told about Chapeltown. These stories present only one way of looking at it, miss the incredible diversity in the area, and often misrepresent the area.

The story I want to tell is much better summed up by the sub-heading of Max’s 400 page book: The Struggle for “Community” in a British Multi-Ethnic Inner City Area – Paradise in the Making.

I believe that Chaco can be a part of making paradise here.