Communes for the middle classFebruary 16, 2002
On the West Coast of Canada, 100 people live together and share their cars, meals, chores, an organic vegetable garden, child care and holidays. They live on six acres of land (which they purchased together) in beautiful Langley, B.C., and have designed their own neighbourhood (which they all collaborated on). If you looked at the complex from above, their condo-style homes would form the shape of a giant “L”: two wings of condos joined at the heel by a 6,000-square-foot common house. The community isn’t gated, nor do the residents share any particular philosophical or political ideology. And they don’t vote anybody out.
This pre-Survivor, post-commune urge to merge is called WindSong — part of a fledgling movement in Canada toward co-housing. Although only five co-housing communities currently operate in Canada — and all of these are in B.C. — there are nine more in various stages of development across the country.
From Vancouver, the drive to WindSong takes just over an hour. The community is getting ready for Christmas this particular weekend, and I’ve been invited to help string lights and decorate the tree. There’s a conga line of cars in front of me, though, and I’m going to be late. Anxiously, I consider whether the co-housers will be angry that I haven’t made it in time for the community dinner. This notion is quickly dismissed, based on my prediction that co-housers are probably more understanding than regular folk.
“I came here dragging my husband and children behind me,” Val McIntyre tells me when I finally arrive, causing me to reconsider my opinion that co-housers are a kinder, gentler version of the species. McIntyre is a petite 55-year-old who joined the community when it formed five years ago. She lets me in the front door of the lobby after my efforts to convince a young girl dressed as a princess that I am supposed to meet someone here are to no avail.
The lobby of WindSong is enormous. And beautiful — with its high ceilings, cozy couches and leaded glass roof.
Hallways lead to the units on either side. There are Christmas decorations, healthy looking plants, crammed bulletin boards with sign-up sheets for chores and activities, and young children everywhere. Someone is banging out show tunes on the piano in the dining area, and I can hear people singing along. Kids are running up and down the halls, and people are laughing and shouting. It feels like a very happy place.
McIntyre takes me to her four-bedroom unit, which is sponge-painted and hung with the artwork of various members and friends of the family. A former public educator and social justice activist, McIntyre now works with the Canadian Cohousing Network, committing some of her time to promoting co-housing as an alternative lifestyle.
“I realized that I couldn’t solve the world’s problems, so I thought I’d try on a smaller scale,” she says. “When people live this close together, they’re forced to work out their conflicts — to heal unworkable social dynamics.” When I ask if people accuse them of being flakes or hippies, she smiles.
“We’ve been told that we live in communes for the middle class, and I don’t have a problem with that.”
By most standards, the cost of living here is decidedly upper-middle-class. A four-bedroom unit can cost anywhere between $250,000 and $300,000. Prices vary according to amenities, such as the view — people who live in the upper units (there are only two levels) pay a bit more. Compared with what you might get for this kind of money elsewhere, the units are more efficient than luxurious. Much of the cost covers the structure itself, which was built under a glass ceiling to ensure that co-housers wouldn’t be inhibited by the rainy B.C. weather. A community meal in the common house or a visit to a friend down the street can be achieved in your slippers.
The glassed-in street is narrow: Units face each other across a wide lane. It is complete with streetlights, but on moonlit nights they are hardly necessary — the entire lane fills with pale light, glinting on bamboo wind-chimes, elaborate door knockers, sculptures, chairs made out of twigs, and even a fountain. The residents have put a lot of effort into personalizing their units, and the fronts of many are works of art.
But only the fronts of the homes face each other beneath the glass. Stepping into her backyard, McIntyre gathers some mint from her garden. (All units are equipped with private amenities as well as access to shared facilities — there is no forced mingling.) She comes back in soaked. It’s pouring.
“About four times a week, the community eats together in the common house,” she explains, getting up to answer a knock at the door. “Not everybody comes, but whoever wants to can join in. We started out trying to address the needs of vegetarians, vegans, non-vegans, carnivores, allergies … it just became too much. So now the menu is posted and whoever is OK with it shows up.”
When the meals aren’t potluck, they are prepared by a household or team for the rest of the community. The cost is deducted from individual accounts that are kept by a member of the neighbourhood — if you don’t go, you don’t pay. Cooking is done by those who enjoy it, as part of a monthly, three-hour commitment of service toward the community. Those who have no culinary interests can volunteer their time in other ways, such as maintenance, cleaning up or organizing group activities.
The common area of WindSong includes a lounge, dining area, stage, piano, kitchen, fireplace and large-screen television. Birthdays, holidays, soccer parties, movie nights, the occasional candlelight ceremony and myriad other events make this room the true heart of co-housing. Attached to the dining room is a children’s playroom and, on the second floor, there are office facilities, a yoga/exercise studio and a guest bedroom that anyone in the community can book for friends or family.
The neighbour at McIntyre’s door is returning the keys to her car, which he borrowed to take his children to soccer practice. Like everything else at WindSong, car-sharing is not mandatory but many of the residents freely offer their vehicles for a neighbour’s use. It’s done on a personal basis — among the dozens of sign-up sheets posted around the community, you won’t find one offering all non-car owners access to a community vehicle. Keeping many of the choices personal has helped co-housing fend off a reputation for “green fascism.”\
Attendance at the community meetings, held in the common house on the first Friday of every month, also isn’t mandatory, but a general interest in the democratic process ensures most of the adult residents usually show up. A lot of people share common interests, and you don’t have to take a quiz or pass a test to live here — the lifestyle itself serves as an effective self-selection process.
“Only a certain type of person would choose to live here,” says Leslie Wood, an attractive single mother who owns a three-bedroom unit, as we wait for the meeting to start. “People who believe that relationships are more important than a big home or personal things.”
Wood’s two teenage children are, at the moment, nowhere to be found. In fact, most of the kids I see are under the age of 10. Despite a “teen room” in the common house complete with La-Z-Boys and access to a large-screen TV, many of the older children in the community choose to spend time elsewhere, which is frustrating at times, Wood says, but hardly unusual teen behaviour.
A healthy number of the residents here wear Birkenstocks with socks, a fashion statement I — rightly or wrongly — associate with the left. I ask if the majority of the people here are committed socialists. McIntyre tells me that no political agenda dominates the community, and that there are even — gasp — Alliance supporters living here. (“The right feel a need for community too,” she chuckles.)
“This place is a good idea, but it’s enough to drive you nuts,” says one of the residents as soon as he sees me. He’s sitting by himself, comfortable with his reputation as an outspoken dissenter. “There’s a lot of things people don’t talk about. I don’t want to poison the well, though. I’ll wait until you’ve spoken to a few of the others,” he says.
After about a moment’s hesitation, however, he tells me that about 20% of the residents do 80% of the work. He quickly points out that this isn’t unusual in any community, but it stings a bit more here since everyone is supposed to be making an effort to live together in a meaningful way. Shirking your cooking duties or never helping to clean up, organize a meeting or take part in activities is particularly frowned on here: Everyone is supposed to pitch in.
I notice some eye-rolling from a few people who have overheard our conversation. But the meeting is about to begin and before I can say anything, someone hands me a keyring with different coloured flags on it and everyone takes a seat. Rather than interrupt the proceedings, flags are held up by residents to indicate they have a comment to make. Different colours declare different states of urgency, and all flags are addressed before the meeting proceeds to the next topic.
“Ten years ago, before we moved into WindSong, my neighbour asked me what church my wife and I were attending,” says Ray Beaton, who has taken the seat beside me. At 75, he is one of the older residents here. He has been involved since the planning stage and personally came up with the bulk of the money needed to purchase the land.
“We were getting up early every Sunday, getting dressed, and leaving the house for two hours. Then we’d come home. [The neighbour] always thought we were going to Mass, but we were actually coming to meetings every week to plan WindSong. This was the church,” he tells me in a loud whisper, gesturing to the room around him.
Beaton’s reverence is shared by many of the people here. WindSong feels like more than a home to them — it’s a step forward in the experience of being human. But the community suffers a bit under the pressure of expectations — from both the outside world and the residents.
“I get cynical when I see people purposely ignoring the rules,” says Mike Gillan, a well-dressed civic worker who owns a four-bedroom unit.
“We started this five years ago, and five years later we’re still not sure what community really is. And that hurts people, but you have to be really committed to the idea — not just all-talk-no-action,” says Gillan, leaning back to let a string of children pass by.
They are carrying lengths of wax and jars of glue to the playroom, where supervised candle-making is the activity for the afternoon.
“I get frustrated with the process sometimes,” says Howard Staples, the 44-year-old founder of WindSong, “but I’ve seen the overall benefit and it’s worth it. We aren’t trying to create a Utopia here, which is a common misconception.” Long before he discovered co-housing, which originated in Denmark but which hadn’t yet reached Canada, Staples had been talking to his wife about a need for community. He had never heard of a non-ideological, intentional community without a strong leader, but when his wife bought him a book on the subject he knew it was exactly what he had been looking for. Meetings with like-minded folks began in 1990, and the structure was completed five years later.
“I moved the community trampoline once without consensus and it caused some problems,” says Staples, “and raising kids together can be difficult because of the different parenting styles. Some people think that parents should keep their kids from yelling in the lobby, others encourage them to express themselves … things like that. But that happens in any community,” he says, pulling out photo albums and flipping through pictures of WindSong in various stages of growth.
“The single biggest drawback is the development process. It’s insanely difficult. Finding the money, designing the units and the structure — it was incredibly complicated.”
Regardless of difficulties, 26 of WindSong’s 34 households remain occupied by the original owners. The resale value of the units has increased slightly — one resident’s unit was recently appraised at $12,000 more than she paid for it — but there isn’t a huge amount of turnover. A few years ago a Korean couple moved in as soon as they came to Canada, but quickly discovered that it wasn’t a typical neighbourhood and left. Most of the families, however, have gotten to know each other over the years and wouldn’t consider living anywhere else.
“I have three young boys, and we lived here for five years,” says Leah Manson, a friendly mother of three who moved out of the neighbourhood just a week ago. She has visited WindSong every day since she left.
“We’re not really leaving for good,” she says. “I home-school my boys and there just wasn’t enough space in our unit. But I loved it here, and we’re hoping to move into another co-housing community.”
One of the major advantages of living at WindSong is how safe the neighbourhood is for children. There are more than enough kids for a good game of hide-and-seek — 35 at various ages. And there is always someone around to babysit: Many of the families share child-care duties.
“A lot of people don’t understand why anyone would choose this type of life, and it makes the people who live here a bit defensive,” says Michael Khoo, a handsome X-ray technician who lives here with his wife, Maureen, and their young daughter. “But we aren’t saying that we’re better than anyone else — we’re just trying something different.” Khoo credits WindSong with helping to lift him out of a severe depression.
“I knew there was a bigger way to live life than I was living. The foundation of this community is consensus decision-making, and when I got here I realized that people could be a lot happier,” he says, helping eight-year-old Anna peel a pomegranate. “My parents don’t understand it — they left Hong Kong to get out of this type of neighbourhood, where you can look out your window directly into your neighbour’s home.”
“Not everybody here needs to buy a lawnmower, or a washer and dryer, or a car. We like to share,” says McIntyre after the meeting. “And we have community events almost every weekend, so people aren’t getting into their cars and driving somewhere else for entertainment.”
We end up back at her home. While she gets me a copy of the co-housing newsletter, I check out the books in her den. On her shelves next to some weighty literary classics, I notice a book titled Crystal Awareness.
“Some of the New Age stuff that goes on here defies belief,” Mike Gillan tells me later. “I came home one day and the people across the street had put a giant mirror on their balcony, directly facing my unit. It was a bit weird, and when I asked what it was for I was told that it was to reflect my negative energy back at myself. Can you believe that?”
He never spoke to the feng shui enthusiasts again — no small task in a community that emphasizes neighbourly contact.
“The thing I love most about WindSong is that it takes 40 minutes to take the garbage out. There’s always someone to talk to,” says Robert Harvey Sawatsky, a 48-year-old single who lives in a one-bedroom unit.
“And the thing I hate most about WindSong?” he laughs. “It takes 40 minutes to take the garbage out.”
Shannon McKinnon is a segment producer for Media Television on CityTV.