Re: Rentals in Cohousing--decisionmaking
From: Richard Lynch (ralynchcasbah.acns.nwu.edu)
Date: Wed, 17 Nov 93 12:45 CST
Hello netters,

Jim Ratliff (jratliff [at] bpa.Arizona.edu) writes:
 
> . . . I raise governance concerns because mixing renters and owners would be
> mixing two groups in a consensus decision process where those two groups
> have very distinct incentives:
> 
> Owners necessarily have an infinite time horizon in their concern for the
> value of the community. (Either they will live there till they die, or they
> will eventually sell, in which case they need to worry about resale value,
> which involves potential buyers' assessment of the long-term prospects for
> the community.)
> 
> Renters on the other hand can take a much shorter-term perspective when
> they make decisions that affect the group.
> 
> So how to mix the two? Perhaps have decisions grouped into two classes: (1)
> decisions concerning investments in the site, etc. and (2) decisions
> concerning currenting operating policies, etc. Then only owners could block
> consensus in type-1 decisions and both renters and owners could block
> consensus for type-2 decisions.
> 

The problem raised here, how to assure that renters do not make a cohousing
group act against its long-term interests, relies on a couple of assumptions
which we might want to question.  Namely, that cohousing members will act
and vote only according to their own self-interest, rather than according to
whatever they perceive to be the community's interest.  In Jim's scenario,
renters voting in their (soon to be departing) interests could contribute to
decisions that were to the detriment of the community.

Now this does seem to be a legetimate worry for any community that will mix
owners and renters, but I suspect that it shouldn't be a large one, and I am
concerned that the formalistic solution that Jim suggested marginalizes
renters (in what could in fact encourage that kind of self-interest voting).

1. Why it needn't be a large issue.

(Again, this is a legitimate concern, I'm just trying to put it in
perspective.) In my experience living in student housing cooperatives, I've
found that socialization of new members goes a long way in instilling the
co-op's values in these members--even those who had never had much
experience with a community before and had moved in simply because it was "a
cheap place close to campus."  So, although ALL MEMBERs were renters, and
many stayed for just a year (and as students, we all knew we were staying
for a finite time), we all were willing to understand thta some
things had to be done if the co-op would continue operating over a long-run:
everything from turning down the heat or buying your favorite cereal
(instead of the house buying it) to changing the way that we accepted new 
members to better fill vacancies.  The point is, RENTERS were willing to act
and vote in the co-ops interest, even if that was explicitly counter to
their own interest.

If the cohousing group does provide a real community, and renters are not
excluded from that community (either formally or de facto, because all the
owners already know and are friends with one another before a renter moves
in) then in I think the vast majority of cases, the renters will pick up
the norms of the community, including the norm of voting in the community's
interest over one's own when its important.  The point: we don't need to
spend a lot of time worrying about this possibility.

2. Some concerns about issue-type formalism.

I have two concersn about the investment-type v. operations type formal
solution tht Jim suggests, one specific and one general. 

Jim assumes a consensus-process. With this distinction between types of
issues, owners would be able to block consensus on all issues, but renters
would be able to block consensus only on operations issues. My specific
concern is that this means renters have no voice in investment decisions. 
If these decisions involve community land or funds, and the renters are
(albeit temporary) members of the community, they should have some
decisionmaking voice.  Two alternatives that would allow some renter
participation while preserving owner dominance could be 1) have a certain
number of renter-delegates who can block consensus on invetment issues, or
2) any 1 owner can block consensus but it takes 2 renters to do so.  Of
course, if wht I said earlier about renters sharing the long-term vision is
persuasive, we could say that all members (owner or renter) participate in
all decisions and if the rare event that a renter, acting in her own
interest to block a consensus on a long-term, investment type decision
actually happens then we deal with the specific case, reasoning with her to
show her why she acts in her own interest rather than the community's and
convince her to change her mind just as we would with any owner who blocked
consensus similarly. (Sorry about the long sentence, I study philosophy.:-)
I think that this case-by-case approach is in fact the best. 

We can turn to the general concen by elaborating on something I said above,
that with Jim's formalism "renters have no voice in investment decisions."
Of course, we can presume that renters would be perfectly welcome to
participate in the debate and discussion before the actual decisionmaking
vote, so that statement seems too strong.  But (if I may draw on cooperative
experience again) I've noticed two trends in meeting/decisionmaking
dynamics. First, people who can't participate in decisionmaking virtually
never attend the meeting -- and thus, no matter how formally open discussion
may be in theory, they do not participate in it. And second, even if/when
they do attend and speak up, those who are voting often know that so-and-so
who has this strong objection cannot vote, and therefore do not take her
concerns seriously (especially if she is a lone voice dissenting to
something the others basically agree upon).  So, though renters would be
open to participate in discussion but not voting on investments issues in
Jim's proposal; in practice, either through self-exclusion (not going to the
meeting) or through others ignoring her, the renter could in fact end up
with virtually no voice.

My general concern: this kind of issue base-distinction between renters and
owners, though initially simply a decisionmaking insurance device, can
suprisingly easily be transformed into a class-divider.  Knowing that they
can't participate in voting, a renter doesn't attend a particular meeting.
Not attending the meeting, others view her as non-cooperative and she feels
left out of the group's activities. This continues, and pretty soon the
renter is marginalized, a second-class member of the community, and bad
feelings run amuck on all sides. Not good.

Now granted, this is VERY hypothetical. Many things could be done to prevent
it, as we could even develop a formal plan to avoid renter marginalization. 
But the point is, I think this is a MORE IMPORTANT worry than the one Jim
initially set out to solve, about renters voting in their own self-interest.
Besides, if we're worried about the renters, isn't it just as likely that 
an owner would act in their own self
interest, trying to artificially raise or lower values so as to make a
killing?  Historically speaking, it is the property-owning class that does
these things. (I also would like to convey a little bit of skepticism toward a 
priori
formalism. It seems to me that dealing with things case by case can be the
easiest, simplest, and FAIRest way to do things sometimes--this being such a
case.)

3. My agenda.

Well, I have an agenda (beyond truth and justice) in pointing this out. As a
graduate student who 1) used to live in cooperatives and would like to live in
a similar community again, 2) knows that I won't be in the same city for
more than 5 yrs until "tenure" comes along, and 3) has very little capital
with which to invest in a cohousing project, renting seems like the only
feasible way for me to participate in cohousing in the foreseeable future. 
So I don't want to see these legitimate issues blown up into worries which
motivate us not to accept renters.  

BTW to Jim: no offense or personal animosity intended, please don't take
any :-) !

Cooperatively,

Richard

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