Bob Francis, a sociology professor at Whitworth University, and Yvette Schock, a Lutheran pastor and chaplain at Riverview Retirement Community, have a wide-ranging experience of shared simple living. They each lived in intentional communities as single people, and they have been thoughtful about how they think about consumerism and share experiences with other people in their lives. In 2019, the 40-somethings committed to joining an official cohousing community in Spokane, WA, along with their young son.
In this conversation with Brittany Wilmes, they spoke about the highs and lows of their cohousing experience, how it encourages them to practice Sabbath economics on a daily basis, and how others can take steps toward interdependence — and find that community can be built more easily than we might think.
Brittany Wilmes, Faith and Money Network: So, tell me about your cohousing community. If a visitor were to drop by, what would they see that informs how you live?
Bob Francis: I’m the chair of the public relations committee at Haystack Heights, so that’s a question for me. The short answer is that we’re a 39-unit cohousing community. We own our units privately, but we have lots of common space and common practices to try to help us know and care for our neighbors.
Some of cohousing is the built environment, where the actual design of the place was done by some of our early members along with the help of an architect who understands cohousing. So, intentional decisions were made from the very beginning of the project, even long before we had actual buildings or even land. This includes ideas about how you place your buildings, where you allow or don’t allow cars, how you face things. It’s meant to maximize opportunities to interact with neighbors.
Now that we’re here living on site, we have a series of practices. I think of them as trying to encourage life together. So we share common meals three to four times a week, and we hope to do it daily eventually. Different people pitch in in different ways.
We also have informal social events, like a recent Thursday night when we had a Moth-style story hour where people shared five-minute stories from their lives. We all gathered on our common green and we heard from six of our residents and got to know them better.
Part of the idea of cohousing is that it’s like a village. Of course you don’t have to be in cohousing to know your neighbors and share life with them, but I think cohousing can make that as intentional as possible and not just accidental. We’ve certainly lived in places where you could go months or even years without really doing more than just the casual wave at your neighbor, but here we’re really trying to not just know their names but know their lives, share lives, share work.
Schock: One of the things that I really love since we’ve moved here is coming home from work. I feel like that is one of the moments when I get the experience that the built environment helps to shape because I park on the street and walk up the steps, and then there’s a central walkway between two of our four buildings. People’s kitchen windows face that walkway. Everybody has a front patio or deck and a lot of people have their doors open, so pretty much without fail, I’m walking home and waving at people on both sides. They might be sitting on the patio or working in their garden, and we all stop and chat for a minute. I’m a real homebody and I love being in our home, but I love that part of coming home now.
The built environment is designed so that we cross paths often, and those brief interactions help to build a sense of community in addition to common meals and the intentional social events.
Wilmes: How did you make the decision to join a cohousing community? What inspired you to explore this kind of living?
Francis: When we moved to Spokane in 2019, it wasn’t on our radar that we were looking for cohousing. We were initially renting a small house and planning to buy a small single-family home ourselves.
Shortly after we moved, we heard about Haystack Heights. They were still in formation — they had acquired land but hadn’t done any building yet. They were actively recruiting members at that time, and we went to an informational session. We both went and took it all in, and the idea just resonated.
There’s an orientation process to make sure that you really understand cohousing, and after a few months of going through the process that the community had set up, we officially joined in December of 2019, and we didn’t move in until October of 2021. The origin of the community was about five years before then, and we joined about partway through that process.
Wilmes: So what did it look like in the interim before you moved in? Were you a part of the community conversation?
Schock: Well, it looked like a lot of Zoom meetings.
I wonder what it would have been like to have been in person through the two years of finishing the project. Our first couple of meetings after we joined were in person with a potluck dinner beforehand. I remember attending an early monthly meeting with kids in the room and toys in the center of the room, and the community — we were in a circle around the kids, having our meeting, and as needed, there were adults who would help the kids play quietly and stay engaged while the meeting was happening. I thought, oh, this is really lovely. This is a group of adults who care about the small children who are here that are not their children and are helping without us parents even asking. So we had that lovely experience of community, and then covid hit and we went to Zoom meetings.
Earlier members had made decisions about the design and had been working on that for years before we arrived, but there were still decisions to be made about construction and design. When there were bigger decisions that the construction interface committee needed to make, we would get together and talk about that. I remember in one of the early meetings a conversation about what kind of heating and cooling we would have in each of the units. I was a little overwhelmed by the level of detail and had a sense of, I’m going to trust the values of this community that we just joined and the people who’ve been thinking about this for longer than we have.
Francis: It’s an amazing amount of work. It’s almost hard to convey. We had professionals helping us. We even had a retreat at one point with cohousing experts coming in. Everything from the construction and design stuff down to policies and procedures, like our pet policy. Everyone joins a team when you join the community, everything from organizing monthly meetings to public relations.
Wilmes: It sounds like a huge learning curve when you join that is on par with what you would consider for your own family unit. But now you’re taking the community responsibility on top of that, so let’s talk more about what these core values are that help anchor your community through all of this work.
Schock: We make our decisions by modified consensus, which means that we get to a place that everyone can agree on, and any one member can block something if they feel like that would be damaging to the community. The virtue of being a community that makes decisions by consensus means that there’s a high degree of valuing every person’s participation and talking face to face about our life together and figuring things out.
There’s also the value of knowing your neighbor and supporting each other. Our group text is everything from people texting to say like, Hey, does anybody have an egg? I’m making muffins and just realized I didn’t have any, to someone needing a ride to urgent care or someone just got a flat tire. And it’s really remarkable and lovely to see how quickly the response comes.
Francis: One of the animating features is sustainability, both lifestyle and environmental sustainability. We have 39 units on three acres, so instead of 39 single-family lots that we’re heating and cooling and mowing and watering the lawn, we are living more densely, sharing walls and ceilings and floors so that we’re just taking up less resources per capita. We’re going to add solar panels in a later phase of the project and we have a community garden that we eat out of. We’re really trying to just live lighter on the earth, consume less, and reuse what we do use.
Related to that is the simple living piece. The units are intentionally designed to be smaller because we have access to community space. The guest rooms, for example, are in the common house instead of each unit having that guest room that just fills up with stuff. Beyond that, if the guest rooms are booked, you can just send a text to the thread and maybe someone’s out of town or has space for a guest or a community member to stay in their unit.
We don’t have any external storage on the property beyond our own units, so our whole lives are in this 800-square-foot apartment, basically. I think just by disciplining ourselves to live in this space, we’re hopefully accumulating less and living more simply.
We do have community storage for communal goods. We have 39 families, so we don’t need 39 lawnmowers, 39 coolers, 39 pairs of skis. We just store them in common storage and anyone can take them out and use them when they’re needed.
Wilmes: What about the challenges of living in community like this? Are there any beliefs that you’ve found yourselves or your family having to reframe to really commit to cohousing?
Francis: It does feel kind of like a part-time job. We have monthly meetings as a whole community, other committee meetings, work parties. There’s always stuff to do, and we want to do our part. If you had your own single family home, then you still have to mow the grass and do all the things, but probably with fewer meetings. There is a high-touch aspect of living here. If you’re retired and have time on your hands, that’s one thing, but we both have full-time jobs and a young kid, so we’re probably in the busiest season of our lives.
Schock: There’s also the benefit of getting home from work and going to a common meal. There’s dinner someone else has prepared and we share that with other people. It’s time that we get back.
Francis: I want to be clear that this isn’t utopia. It’s both a blessing but also a challenge to be making decisions together. It can be frustrating when something that you would like to see happen doesn’t or can’t happen until you can overcome the concerns and objections of someone else.
Schock: We have had lots of opportunities to discern, I have an opinion about this thing. Does the whole community need to know my opinion? That’s a challenge and an opportunity that can be kind of clarifying — what are the things that you really care enough about to argue about, and what are the things that you can let go?
Another challenge is that it can be hard feeling like you’re parenting in a fishbowl.
Francis: Our cohousing consultant said the three Ps of cohousing that are challenging are pets, parenting and parking. That’s where disagreements tend to arise, and there has been some truth to that.
Because we are sharing this intimate community, and parents are making decisions about even simple things like curfews, it’s different than if you had your single-family home. Different parenting decisions can be magnified in that setting.
Wilmes: Have you seen your son grasping what this means to your family?
Francis: We’ve moved around a lot with him, and he’s pretty flexible and an easy-going kid. He’s only eight now, but in the long view, I hope he sees that we’ve made some intentional decisions. Because there are lots of other kids here, I think in the short term it probably doesn’t feel too weird because we’re living here along with other families.
Schock: We’re still in the process of rightsizing, and we have had some conversations with him about his room and his stuff. We’ve said, “We have less space than we had, and so we have to make choices about the things that you want to have, and things that aren’t that important.”
Wilmes: And right now, you’re both in a Sabbath economics covenant group with Faith and Money Network. How has the experience helped shape your decisions around finances and values?
Francis: We’ve had these values probably before we knew about Faith and Money Network, but the organization and our Sabbath economics small group do help us put words to some of these decisions. For us, it’s a focus on sustainability, simplicity, trying to consume less and use less.
We are careful to say that our community is not an affordable housing community. Generally, it’s market rate. Spokane is a little more affordable as a city than other places, so we’ve benefited, but we’re market-rated for Spokane. We are living out some of our values here, but maybe not all values.
When it comes to solidarity and other Sabbath economic principles, we have to find other ways to do that. Cohousing for us has been one way to live out our values.
Schock: Our Sabbath economics group started in January, and we moved into cohousing in November of 2021. Cohousing was one very big decision that we made that aligns with our values. So our Sabbath economics group has been a good opportunity to look at the decision and the experience of living in cohousing within a much broader context of our life and our practices.
Other members of the community are supportive of the values we’ve identified that we can stretch toward. One of my goals that I stated as part of our Sabbath economics group was to ride my bike to work, and people in the cohousing community are so ready to help me, sharing routes and offering to ride to work with me. There are members in the community that share those kinds of values in such a way that will support the other practices that we want to hold.
Wilmes: What would you recommend to others who are interested in taking small steps toward interdependence? Any resources or ideas that have helped you?
Schock: I was talking with someone recently who was thinking about starting a tool library or sharing a lawnmower with her existing neighbors. There are cohousing communities that are neighbors who decide to share a particular set of resources, or who tear down the fences in their backyard and share that common space and share meals. Exploring those ways of sharing resources in existing neighborhoods holds some possibility.
Francis: There is a Cohousing Association of America and an international cohousing association, as well as in other countries. Most cohousing communities are open for informational tours. The book Creating Cohousing profiles different communities.
It is a long haul — it takes many years of planning and preparation, but I think the demand for cohousing is much greater than the supply.
Yvette’s right, too, that you don’t need a formal cohousing community to share resources and experiences with your neighbors. It could also be block parties or a monthly potluck on the block.
I think the big decisions in life that we make about where we live and how much space we take up have a bigger impact. To the degree to which people have some choice, I would encourage making sure that you’re thinking through the underlying cultural values that we adopt without thinking.
Schock: My first congregation as a pastor was on Long Island, and I lived in this four-bedroom rambling parsonage by myself. It was great, but I also had way more space than I needed. There was a conversation about sharing that space with a family who taught English classes in our church. It didn’t end up happening, but it made me think about how it doesn’t have to just be making choices about living in a smaller space, but also about sharing the space that you do have with others. Thinking creatively and beyond cultural norms about how you share your space with other people could be powerful.
Interview by Brittany Wilmes | August 24, 2022