One of the most commonly asked questions about collaborative housing is ‘what if I move in and I can’t stand living with my neighbour’. Less commonly asked, but equally important is ‘what if I move in and find out that people can’t stand living with me?’. As in all aspects of life, disagreements, arguments and conflict will inevitably occur. Every prospective collaborative housing group should make sure to prepare members for the complexities of collaboration when they join, and know what to do when issues do arise.
What if I don’t like who I’m living with?
Often in collaborative housing, you will have a chance to meet your future neighbours during planning and co-design stages of the development. So if you really do not get along with anyone, you’ll know that before you’ve committed. This often is not the case in the standard housing market, where you often have no idea who your neighbours are before you have signed a contract and moved in.
However, it is true that getting along is particularly important if you want to live in a more collaborative community where more spaces and things are shared. To give your community the best chance of getting along, there are a couple of things you should do. First, accept that conflict will arise, and prepare everyone with the skills to deal with conflict effectively. Second, have strong processes in place for working through disagreements and resolving conflict. Finally, make sure a clear process is in place for people to leave, or potentially should conflicts be unresolvable.
Learn the skills to get along – “How do we resolve disputes?”
The collective decision-making of collaborative housing creates more opportunities for disputes to arise. There are a number of tools and training that can help deal with these disputes. Common Equity Co-operative Housing provides training for all tenants of their cooperative rental housing prior to moving in. Murundaka Cohousing Community provides additional and ongoing training specifically regarding living in a cohousing community.
Training in conflict resolution and mindful and non-violent communication processes and skills can allow people to express disagreements in a way that doesn’t escalate conflict, and leads to constructive interactions and meetings.
Other communities a number of formal meeting procedures, such as coloured cards that people can raise to silently signal a desire to disagree, build upon, or question something a speaker is saying. The community has also created different meetings, as well as committees, to divide issues and proposals in a way that hopefully allows issues to be discussed in the appropriate forum.
Create processes to manage and deal with disagreements
There will always be decisions to be made by community members that are contentious, so not everyone will agree to begin with. Community meetings where these discussions take place will be common times for disagreement. Many communities develop specific processes to allow disagreement during meetings in a way that doesn’t completely derail discussion.
For instance, Bundagen Cooperative Community has coloured cards that can be held up during meetings to signal agreement, disagreement, a question, a clarification or having something to add. These can be used to communicate to the group and meeting chair without interrupting whoever is talking. Murundaka members all signed on to a community communication agreement that describes how members should talk and interact with one another with respect and compassion.
These processes are designed to prevent discussions or minor disagreements from escalating unnecessarily. What if an issue can’t be talked through privately?
Unavoidably, there will be times when issues escalate further. Processes for airing concerns and nipping problems in the bud before they become bigger issues are therefore vital. When disagreements go further, Murundaka has a mediation process members can use. The ‘Hard Held Yarn’ process is a facilitated session between two community members who are experiencing conflict with one another. These sessions are facilitated by other experienced community members. In difficult circumstances, a third party mediator can be called in to help work through issues and reach resolution. Establishing these processes up front avoids needing to decide what to do when an issue is ‘hot’ and conflict can more easily escalate.
There are general avenues available for escalating conflicts that can’t be resolved at the community level. This may be going through a process within the housing association or retirement living provider if that is the community structure, or mediation provided by the NSW Department of Fair Trading or private group work organisations for strata and community living groups.
Recognising that living in a more collaborative manner may require additional skills that people may need to learn is important. Being open to learning is essential for healthy living in community. Many communities work on developing residents' skills such as conflict resolution, non-violent communication, as well as creating formal processes for discussing and resolving grievances that may arise.
What if a solution can’t be found?
If conflicts are unresolvable, it is important to have a clear process for people to leave the collaborative housing community. This may be as simple as ending a tenancy or selling a property, but can be more complicated in some company and cooperative housing ownership models. Finally, depending on the legal and tenure structure of the community, there may be mechanisms for evicting very difficult community members. This is invariably a stressful and difficult process for all involved, however again it is something that is better discussed before the community is faced with a situation where this is required. Processes for dealing with the most serious issues should be developed in consultation with experience community facilitators or legal experts.