The following article appeared in Communities magazine #106, Spring 2000, available from Fellowship for Intentional Community, RR 1 Box 156, Rutledge, MO 63563; 660-883-5545; fic@ic.org; www.ic.org.

Decision-Making in Cohousing Communities

by Tree Bressen

Last summer a cohousing community about to break ground contacted me. They were facing a lot of urgent decisions, not the least of which was what to put in their bylaws about decision-making process. They wanted to know how other cohousing communities had handled these issues, so a research project was initiated. What did we find out?
Most existing cohousing communities make decisions by consensus. While many groups technically have a voting fallback procedure, most have used it never or only once, or at most twice, even after five or ten years. I did speak with a member of one community who said, "Oh, we hardly ever go to a vote," and when asked how often "hardly ever" was replied, "We've only done it three or four times"—in a community that had only been living together for 18 months! When asked if they'd received training in decision-making, the representative replied that they had lots of professionals living there who were already knowledgeable and didn't need any training.
While this defensive response came from a newer community, experienced cohouser Zev Paiss says it is more typical of the older communities. At the time cohousing was first getting off the ground in North America, awareness of decision-making skills was not as widespread as it is now. Kevin Wolf, of N Street Cohousing in Davis, California, tells of a community he conducted a training at which had been going for eight years without agreements on meeting ground rules, communication, setting agendas, how to block, or budget authority for committees. These days, cohousing communities starting up are far more likely to see the need for early training in consensus and facilitation skills, and occasional fine-tuning later too.
If the voting fallback is hardly ever used, why include it in your community's procedures? One prominent reason is to satisfy bankers. While some lenders may not care, most are likely to look suspiciously on an organization that requires unanimous consent for every decision. It is not uncommon for a community to maintain two sets of agreements, one designed for external legal purposes and a second set that actually explains how the community operates.
Another reason to include a voting fallback is to provide some comfort for people who have never experienced well-functioning consensus process and therefore haven't learned to trust it yet. And finally, such a fallback is there just in case it is ever genuinely needed to serve the group. However, even when the voting fallback is invoked, no cohousing communities were discovered that would pass policy based on a 51% majority. Rather, a "super-majority" is needed, typically 75%.
For both consensus and voting, groups set boundaries to determine who is empowered as a full participant. For example, limits might include a minimum number of meetings previously attended (such as three meetings, or the previous meeting on that topic), time period of residency (e.g. three months or more), or an age (18 being the most obvious). Rules like this help keep the process orderly and prevent those who lack basic information from affecting immediate outcomes.

When to Go to a Vote

Examples of when to go to a vote include:

  • After "x" number of meetings on an issue without resolution—reported numbers ranged from one to six.
  • If 2/3 of the group want to vote.
  • If the group consenses to a vote.

Sharingwood Cohousing in Snohomish, Washington, has adopted the following guidelines to distinguish when to vote and when to use consensus.

Use voting:

  • When the greater good of the community is not at stake, AND
  • When the issue has no individual stakeholders (people whose property, family, finances or well-being would be directly affected by the outcome).

Assuming the above two conditions have been met:

  • When there is a time deadline more important than resolving everyone's preferences.
  • Design and detail issues which have conflicting but equally valid opinions.

Use consensus:

  • When the issue involves or affects the whole group or the future of the community.
  • When there are one or more individuals who have a personal stake in the outcome.
  • When the issue relates to ideals or principles.

Some communities also use a form of voting such as ranking priorities in order to allocate resources, say for the annual budget. In this case voting is usually seen a tool within the regular meeting process, rather than a departure from consensus.
If a vote is needed arising from an unresolved consensus meeting, the vote is usually taken at the next meeting, with adequate notice.

Consensus Systems

In CT Butler's Formal Consensus system, a member may only register a block to consensus if the rest of the group concurs that the block is based on a genuine core principle held by the group. The difficulty in applying that model to communities, according to Rob Sandelin of Sharingwood, is that communities usually do not have a clear mission or purpose. In contrast to a political group whose aim may be very specific, most intentional communities are created to serve a variety of needs of their members.
However, people who use consensus know that it only works if the participants have a cooperative attitude, and that at times this means a willingness to lay aside one's own preferences in order to allow the group to move forward. Blocking must be based in the interests of the group, not one's own priorities. Therefore, creating this as a firm ethic during early training and practice is an essential condition for success.
Groups may find ways to formalize such expectations. For instance, N Street Cohousing insists that anyone blocking a proposal attend bi-weekly meetings for three months with a rotating committee including people who support the proposal, in an effort to work out a common solution. It appears most groups rely on a combination of training and goodwill, with some amount of policy or documentation to back that up.
Decentralization is also an important component of keeping consensus effective without wearing everyone out. For example, when Sharingwood needed to make a bunch of fast decisions about their common building, they set up an "Emergency Bullshit Committee" to deal with the details. Rob Sandelin recommends using a Decision Board where committees and managers can post notices, such as "the grounds committee will meet at Judy's house on Thursday at 3 p.m. to decide about landscaping around the common house," and anyone who is attached about that is expected to show up. Or the notice might say, "No pets in the common house will become an official decision unless someone indicates within the next two weeks a need for more process." Sharingwood has a list of criteria for what can go to the Decision Board.
During general meetings, many cohousing communities use colored cards to give the facilitator information before speaking. At Winslow Cohousing on Bainbridge Island, Washington, for example, participants hold up yellow cards if they have questions, green for answers, blue for opinions, ideas or statements, orange for something that's more emotional or personal, and red for "stop process, we are off track.."
Experienced practitioners of consensus have a variety of approaches available. They may take a straw poll using hand gauging (e.g., "hold your hand up high if you enthusiastically support this proposal, and lower if less enthusiastic, with no hand out if you don't support it at all"), ask two parties in conflict to try switching roles and arguing each other's points, or go through a list of concerns one by one to see how they can be resolved. Training four or five facilitators to work as a team for a year or two can provide a very solid base for community decision-making, with occasional hiring of outside facilitators as a back-up if needed on especially challenging topics.
Groups who rely on a published source for consensus procedures refer either to Butler and Rothstein's Formal Consensus, or Building United Judgment, available from FIC. However, several cohousing communities have written their own meeting or process manuals to meet their specific needs. The very process of writing such a document forces a group to greater clarity, as well as being a valuable resource for orienting newcomers.
Finally, when starting a new community it's easy to get caught up in the needs to simultaneously work with architects, research ecological design features, approve bylaws, and decide how you will handle perennial issues like parenting, pets, money, food, and guests, not to mention earning a living! In the midst of the impossibility of doing all this at once, it's easy to overlook building community together. No official decision-making or conflict resolution procedure can replace the person-to-person relationships that are the basis of community living. So amidst all the urgency, remember to take time to eat together, play together, and simply be together!

Tree Bressen, facilitator and teacher, has been assisting intentional communities, nonprofits, and other organizations with group process since 1994. Pages from her website are available for copying and distribution free of charge as long as you continue to include these credit lines and contact information.

Tree Bressen
Eugene, Oregon
541-343-3855