Living Communally

At EEC Forest Stewardship, the evolution of co-housing has traversed many ecosystems, and will continue to develop around the concept of community. What that looks like might surprise many, disappoint some, and be a lesson for most. This land can support 8-10 people comfortably. At present, 5 are in residence. We offer seasonal housing as well, including tent camping, wall tent living, single rooms, and a Mongolian Ger which, in Mongolia, hosts 8 comfortably, but generally, hosts one more adventurous occupant. The main house is divided up a bit to offer tenant common space and full bath on one side of the house, while offering my partner and I a private other half. It is important for me to have my own living space, complete with kitchen, bath, and living room for running a healthy and balanced life working where I live. Though when this experimental living project started almost a decade ago, habitation layout was quite different, and sadly, much too idealistic to succeed in current times.

Communal living means a lot of different things, as I said, but the evolution of EEC began with a common dream, that morphed through a nightmare phase, into growing pains, followed by the balancing out- which we’re still in. After purchasing the property, I lived alone on the land for a month to settle in before inviting friends to come join me in building a permaculture farm housing intentional community. This setup was unbalanced from the start- I was the “owner”, had the majority financial and mechanical responsibility for the land, buildings, and people. Though blessed with some leadership qualities, I quickly became acquainted with founder’s syndrome, then realized my excellent communication skills did not always align with those of my housemates. They were financial contributors, investors, and labor pool for big land projects, but there was a looming power dynamic which would never offer balanced risk and return.

The other major hurdle encountered in the initial housing structure, was a lack of shared vision. Sure, we all talked about our passion for land, growing things, and being together, but the actual task and toil of making such things work meant just that- a lot of work. 20somethings may be hard workers, but they are often not rooted in long term commitment yet. This is certainly true of the white suburban majority living together at EEC. I was 31, fully invested, the only fully invested, this is important to recognize in this particular setup. Below I share a truly group/village model of cooperative living which has equal investment and is the best way to properly found community living, but it’s not the only way, nor is it perfect. Still, take a moment to look at what could be for some. EEC was never meant to be a large scale community living space. I opted for full control and investment, leaving me with a rentier relationship with tenants. This model operated more effectively when you are offering short term living accommodations with a wonderful rotation of people bringing their gifts, but not rooting in. This is the main type of living style which works for what I see as an undeserved population.

So much of life now must be transient. This is the new norm for a growing generation of non-home owners, unmarried, and often seasonally employed. They do not have the capitol to buy in, but can pay month to month for affordable accommodation. Originally I planned the property to house 8 full time farm workers cultivating the land, growing enough food for themselves, with extra to sell, and an additional 2 seasonal spots for summer workers, usually employed in another nearby farm, or at our local wilderness summer camps. There was a lot riding on work trade- people would put in the labor and time needed to establish productive gardens, livestock infrastructure, human infrastructure, landscape, earthworks, and forest stewardship. The list of job opportunities were endless, and some did work, though no one put in as much time as me, because I was responsible for everything in the end.

Delegation is great when you are already working in a collective. EEC is individually owned, and that’s important for financial liability, though community investment in large scale developments would certainly be better for those looking for establishing village. I know that I am not looking for a village, that EEC is ultimately returning to forest, with a small dwelling and/or educational structure. That’s a bit of a change from the working farm with 8 full time community members, but that’s the reality I’ve run into, and it’s ok. Right now, not many people need to farm, work land, and especially work land they don’t own. At the same time, so many people I talk with dream of “the good life” on a piece of property they can grow their own food on. Quaint, but far from the reality.

Katahdins flock with wall tent in the background

Without reliance, there is no reason to invest. This is the true economy we operate in, and it’s often confused with community. Teamwork is possible, though limited to a game that lasts a few hours. Living together, sharing risk, investment, failure, and triumph. We have not cultivated a society that seeks this experience. Instead, we’ve turned on screens and tuned out. Maybe because life is very hard to live in when you do not invest in it. What are we invested in? As this language suggests, money, profit, the bottom financial line. That’s just it, the bottom, and we’re scraping an almost empty barrel, forcing scarcity. So why did I not buy into community co-housing? After all, the example in Ithaca started in the 90s. Here in Washington State, there are many housing opportunities where I could have invested in village modeled living. However, I was not seeking a village, I already have Duvall and a greater area of community connections that feed my need for socialization.

I’ve always wanted to grow food, tend land, and root. That was the core of my vision, and folding in housing for others to be connected, but not obligated, is the current working title at EEC Forest Stewardship. I’ve learned that maintaining a more formal rentier relationship helps tend clear boundaries with the people who live here. This seems strait forward, and many of you might be asking why I didn’t just do that to begin with. Well, I had thought I could transcend the issues of ownership by offering generous opportunities and lots of potential. King County is wealthy, there are a lot of good job, economic growth, and progressive civic engagement. This land is unincorporated, meaning camping, wall tents, primitive living, and farming can thrive. We’ve hosted tiny houses, RVs, and home made tent structures. Most of these alternative living situations have gone swimmingly. The location allows rural living within a few miles of town, and a small hop to Seattle. Well, the public transit is coming, to within 20 minutes of our doorstep, if you can drive to the light rail station, but that’s progress.

Recognizing that short term affordable housing was more realistic at present, than a farming cooperative, was an important step. There are not a lot of people looking for hard labor occupation these days, and farming is hard labor, it’s also little financial reward unless you’re industrial, and EEC is not, and never will be. That was never the intention, but agriculture was, still is, and it has been sustaining its self since we established livestock production a decade ago. We’re now hosting a viable Katahdin flock of meat sheep and dual-purpose chickens. The farm operation also includes fruit and nut trees, a number of small kitchen and herb gardens, stream restoration project, forest stewardship project, and participation in The Public Benefit Rating System. We still focus on forest restoration, and work to return the majority of this land to temperate rainforest.

Affordable housing is part of our financial plan for the land and the long term financial stability of our infrastructure. Over time, we’ll gradually deconstruct buildings, taking away structures as they become obsolete, and consolidating form and function while reducing the human footprint across the landscape. We are not building a village of collective housing long term. The City of Duvall is building massive housing developments including apartment complexes, duplexes, and multi-unit town homes. Not much of it is affordable housing, so our modest offer of a few under market rental price rooms is important. We don’t have to charge high rates because the land is bought and paid for, so no interest mortgage specter haunting our investment. We’re also not looking to sell, hence the PBRS participation and forest restoration goal. Our land value has dropped considerable, but that also makes the King County taxes more affordable. Still, the rentals provide financial stability where the farm creates food and fertility on the land its self.

Though tenants have their own kitchen and bath accommodations, we still pass each other on the land and connect in social activities like farm dinners, game nights, and general porch hangout time. There is a sense of community without obligation, and that’s a lot easier to facilitate. In the frist few years of navigating social dynamics in a multi renter household, it was sometimes a struggle to keep facilities clean, maintain communal gathering, and embrace open communication where there was little experience in doing so outside a single family home where usually, a wife/mother figure had maintained things. I found myself opting into a den mother like role to keep the house clean, facilities functioning, and dinner gatherings productive. Once the tenant kitchen, bath house, and hangout spaces were established, I could step back from cleaning up after others, and have some personal space for myself and my partner, who are happy to host seasonal farm dinners without pressure. This is a very successful model for sharing the land and certain facilities, but also maintaining proper boundaries with tenants.

EEC also once hosted WWOOFers. We had great success in hosting international adventurers, but when we hosted students, they often ended up abandoning the farm once they got a real job. The WOOFing situation was merely a stepping stone to getting employment in our region, which can be very lucrative once established. The contract with the farm was not honored beyond the first few months, and our housing has become too valuable to risk on mere work trade agreements. The farm does not offer work trade, but be do offer workshops, consulting, slaughter and butchering classes, forest stewardship support, and general small production system setup strategy. I work with several other local land owners in tending their forests, farms, and land stewardship plans. We have hosted schools, small group farm tours, livestock learning, and rotational grazing demonstrations. The land at EEC continues to host a verity of native plants and forest ecology, restoration farming practices, and we recently wrote a letter of support in regards to mushroom cultivation on small farms.

Though our modern upbringing remains dormant to communal living, there is hope that our instinct to take on shared space and network dwelling will win out in the end. From personal experience in survival training, you want to be with others, not alone. Alone, you’ll end up injured and out of luck, struggling to keep everything afloat- including yourself. I could not happily live and work on the land unless I had others willing to be there as paying renters. In return, I maintain the property and cultivate food. As a collective, most people seek healthy living without undo obligation. This means an exchange of cash for place, rather than expectations of usually unskilled laboring under tepid enthusiasm. There are exceptions, and if you can find skilled labor in trade, you might get a good exchange rate, but in my experience, skilled people already have paying jobs, and usually don’t want to work where they live. Still, change is in the wind.

Since the pandemic, our area has seen a great rise in working from home, especially in the tech industry, which is an apex industry here in Western Washington. People who were cramped up in apartments have come to the edge of suburbia and started looking at quality of life in terms of green space and outdoor enjoyment. Some of the best tenants we’ve hosted have worked for big tech, and some have even walked away from it after settling in at the farm and discovering healthier ways to live with less consumption assumption. Even without giving up on tech, tenants discover that things like composting toilets and a short walk outside to the shower house, even in cold weather, is refreshing and connective. Tent living offers new appreciation to hot water and an enclosed kitchen with electric range top cooking in seconds. Passive learning though the use of grey water from that kitchen demonstrates without a lecture, you can walk outside the tenant kitchen and hand pick a few herbs from the garden to flavor your meal, getting a gentle kiss from the sun as you harvest.

Not all those who rent here care about such luxuries, but they pay to support them, and at least have the experiences at hand if they so choose. We do like to find renters who will appreciate our unique setup, but are also careful to look for a diversity of people to live with, and what people say in an interview can look quite different in practice once they’ve settled in. So, rather than weave a tangled web of great expectations, applicants are judged on a first come first served basis through Craig’s List and word of mouth. Our demographic tends to be 20 and 30s because of facility setup- you have to walk to get places and there are stairs. We’re a working farm, so there are not a lot of sidewalks and well lit avenues (none in fact). Again, we’re not a multi-family housing development, but a main house with surrounding single unit accommodations with some shared facilities. EEC Forest Stewardship rents rooms.

two single rooms of our “double cabin”

I’d almost reckon it to a boarding house, but I do not clean up or serve meals. I did try that for a year and struggled to distribute food in a timely way and grew quite bitter about constantly washing a pile of dirty dishes in the sink. Tenants did not come to the table at the same time, and even rotating food in the fridge went bad with neglect, as tenants struggled to reheat leftovers or compute meal components, even when they were labeled. In larger communities with food systems build in, there are once or twice a week sit down dinners and a crew of cooks preparing, serving, and cleaning up. In recent years, I’ve noticed a huge drop in use of the kitchen by tenants. It seems less a priority now than ever to cook food. Yes, buying fresh materials to execute a meal in this culture is a privilege. Having the time to do it seems even more the issue today. Though even when I offer fresh, free produce from the garden, few take me up on it. They explain that they can’t cook it in time before it goes bad, or they don’t know how to cook, or prefer microwave only. Eating is not a priority any more.

Well no wonder! Without shared responsibility for the monumental task of prepping three meals a day from scratch is daunting. There are lots of tricks to the trade in large portion prep for multi-day use, some instants like granola and milk, along with occasional take out or quick mix instant foods (our favorite is Annie’s Mac and Cheese). But cooking for an individual is a little empty, and Ii get why so many now opt for single servings, and much of the supermarket world has dialed into single packaging, what a sad nightmare in plastic disposable BS. But I digress, though it’s all pertinent when you step back and look at the divide and conquer strategy now leading consumer culture. Every individual needs their own thing- and hey, from experience in shared living- communal tools for instance- without collective mindset upbringing, which is rare these days, the tools are mishandled, left in the rain, covered in mud till they rust and ruin, then a wooden handle brakes, and someone throws the tool away. Who will pay for a new one?

It is a story like this which turns people off to communal living, and rightly so. We’ll have to make extreme adaptations if necessity ever arises again. Until big changes forces us out of our derisive cocoons, we’re not easily committing ourselves to collective survival. In much the way EEC is a bridge between suburban and wilderness, our collective living remains separated into personal spaces and some shared space when we want it. Still, everyone can retreat behind a door or tent flap, into a personal Shangri-La of their own making, and at this time, especially in a pandemic, that’s not always a bad thing. It’s working at EEC, and allowing social connection on one’s own terms, limited community, because we don’t yet rely on each other in the ways I think it takes to truly cohabit like a tribe. I think that’s the skewed fantasy many think of when communal living comes to mind. Yet the options are endless, and I recommend looking into all kinds of alternative living situations if you are inclined.

Here are some ideas-

Community Roots Housing– urban focused long term housing collectives in Seattle

Modern Housing With Village Virtues– NYT Opinion piece on co-housing

List of cooperative housing near Seattle– lots of local options to look at

PBS spotlight on communal housing– great video on cohousing (including international)

Co-housing Association– great national listing of community housing

Is it Time for America to Bring Back the Boarding House?- article on bringing back Boarding Houses

How Cohousing Can Make Us Happier– Grace Kim TED talk

Common Living– interesting search site for housing

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