Cohousing begins with the premise that we want to share things. We think first of big, tangible things, like lawn mowers and guest rooms. Then there are smaller things, the proverbial cup of sugar, a ride to the airport. We anticipate and cherish this sharing as part of our identity as a cohousing community. We are less likely to anticipate the intangible sharing that comes with living together, the sharing of values represented in policies, agreements and rules. Policies about outdoor cats and free range kids and pesticide use to name a few.
One of the most challenging places for sharing and cooperation is around financial risk. Forming communities get a taste of this early on as they begin to invest in feasibility studies for land that may or may not work for them. What may less expected, and longer lasting, is the challenge that comes around liability risk. We live in a litigious society and we have a vast spectrum of perspectives about this. The topic comes up in everything from playground equipment to lighting design, accessibility questions to signage.
Cohousing probably has a disproportionate number of folks who prefer not to be tied down by the possibility of a lawsuit, but there are just as many who depend on the value of their home for their security and even if the risk is small, are not willing to open themselves up to any possibility of losing it to a liability suit. These are the folks who will consult an attorney about any proposed project and find the most secure path forward, much to the dismay of some of their neighbors.
At its core this is a dilemma about values and there aren’t clear answers. One way or another however, each community will find a path and that path will become part of its identity. One cohousing community found itself consulting its attorney often and when one member didn’t like the answers they were getting, she called another community in the same urban area. “Who is your attorney?” she asked. The answer is a vivid illustration of the range of community values on this topic: “We don’t have an attorney, but we do have a therapist.”
The trick is to be conscious of your assumptions, state them clearly, and be open to the possibility that someone will have different, and equally valid, assumptions about the same thing. The fact that the thing someone fears is highly unlikely to happen does not make the fear any less real or important. The fact that someone doesn't share your fear doesn't mean that they lack compassion or are reckless. It simply means you have uncovered one more layer of diversity. With care, conversations and some compromise, you should be able to find a way to approach risk that each person can tolerate. That is what deep sharing looks like, and in the end, it is what cohousing is all about.