Re: Work or Pay Systems
From: Tim Mensch (
Date: Wed, 30 Jul 2008 11:56:18 -0700 (PDT)
Kay Argyle wrote:
It seems to me that increasing assessments across the board to hire out
community work creates a worse class division than the work-or-pay option
does.  Instead of having no choice but to work off the assessment,
low-income residents have no choice but - not to be residents. Or be overtly
subsidized, if the community wants to.
If the community values diversity, then yes, low-income residents would be subsidized, as I explained. Handle the money problem in the money domain, rather than adding layer upon layer of additional work (a work-or-pay system needs to be managed, after all) and conflict to a system that isn't getting enough volunteer labor and is already facing member burn-out because of conflict. Does it really make sense to add an entire layer of bureaucracy that everyone has to deal with to prevent people from having to ask for a reduced fee?

As an aside: Diversity in income means that some people do have more money than others. If you value that diversity, isn't it important to keep those with the higher incomes happy as well? Aren't there fewer of them, which would imply that it's even more important to keep them happy to make sure they stick around to help subsidize the folks with less disposable income? I would posit that it's a lot easier to find community members who have lower incomes to move into affordable units than it is to find folks with higher incomes to buy the units which have been marked up to subsidize the others. So, thinking strategically, shouldn't the community be designed to attract the money? And how many people with lots of money also have lots of free that they want to spend cleaning toilets?
> I think the opposite conclusion--NO ONE has to work, nor do they need to
> pay--is more humane: Spread the community maintenance costs evenly among
> all members, instead of trying to penalize folks for not putting in
> work. > Tim Mensch

If I understand this correctly, far from, "No one has to ... pay," it means
everybody pays.
Everybody pays means the burden is shared more equitably; it's the same reason that everyone pays for social security: If only the people who would likely need social security paid for it, it would cost much more. With proper planning, you can get economies of scale that reduce the overall cost, as opposed to trying to hire folks to do work piecemeal on an "as-needed" basis.
Why is it "more humane" to require a set, highly regressive, payment of
money, while allowing each resident to decide for themselves how much time,
if any, they will offer to the community?  I've never understood this -
however "American" it is (a country with no national service requirement).
First, I specifically suggested income-based progressive HOA dues, possibly not charging low-income members the abovementioned fee at all. Second, while I'm not proud of everything American at the moment, bashing America doesn't contribute to the discussion. Are you saying that it should be more important for me to use my time cleaning toilets than, say, volunteering to provide expert computer assistance to a non-profit? (Something I've done more than once) Or should I need to buy out work hours for the privilege of donating my expert skills? If I want to have enough time to get a reasonable amount of exercise in a week, should that cost me money? As someone who likes to save money, it bothers me to "waste" money (i.e., pay buyout dollars) instead of getting work done, and so I'm stuck either being annoyed by spending the money or using up my free time doing something that I hate.

Rob's community seems to have a reasonable compromise: You can get an HOA discount if you jump through the right hoops to document and submit your work hours. I know it's functionally equivalent, but psychologically it makes a world of difference to me--in part because of the framing, where instead of having to pay what feels like a "penalty" for not working enough (and what frequently seems to be set at punitive levels rather than at actual costs), you need to seek out a discount if you need the extra money.
The amount of discretionary money a person has is their income minus their
fixed expenses. Incomes vary widely. The amount of discretionary time a
person has is their total time minus their obligations. Yet everybody has
the same 24 hours in the day.
On the face of it, yes. But with long commutes, longer work hours, and family commitments, where exactly is the time supposed to come from? If you enjoy work parties, then it can come from your recreational time--but I don't, so if I want to have any time to spend doing something fun, I have to pay extra for it? Why would I want to live under those conditions? Answer: I don't. I moved out of one community already as a result.
However, we've already given people the choice not to work. Asking someone
to pay for the privilege at least gives those who are willing to work the
possibility of hiring out some of it, instead of doing their jobs and the
other people's too.
Your community culture includes an expectation that people do work. It's common--it's almost a tenet of cohousing. With that expectation--and that framing--you can make statements like "...doing their jobs and the other people's too." But if there's no built-in expectation that people need to work, then the resentment you're expressing doesn't exist. There IS NO OTHER PEOPLE'S WORK. There's only work you want to do, or you don't. And the folks who can afford it contribute to what needs to be done. The folks who can't, don't. Much, much simpler. I've never met someone in a traditional condo who complained that other members weren't doing enough gardening, even if they liked to garden themselves.
> The costs to handle all jobs that weren't being done under the
> existing system in a previous community were estimated at
> $6-$12/month/household. I would hope that any homeowner should be able
> to afford an expense of that magnitude ...

That had to have been an extremely high-functioning community.
Not to hear them describe it at the time. :)
We estimated this spring that it would take a special assessment of $25 per
month (or preferably a lump sum of $300) per household to hire sufficient

... If we'd had the full assessment, maybe we
wouldn't be coming back to square one.
Not that this will help much to hear, nor will it help in your community, but if from square one the expectation was that the work would be hired out, then the $25/month would simply be a fact-of-life extra expense in your community, and folks would have needed to decide whether or not to move in based on whether they could afford HOA dues of that level--or if you ended up with a sliding scale, then low income folks would pay less or none of that amount, and higher-income folks would pay more.

In an existing community, it's almost impossible to change the expectations, however--because in part of built-up resentment from folks who don't want to pay so "someone else doesn't have to work," and because of the "We Want To Do Our Own Work!" attitude common in cohousing. The best "retrofit" you might be able to adopt is a pay-or-play system. But I would argue that just adding that $25/month permanently to your dues (with or without a progressive scale based on income) is not only the right thing to do, but far, far less hassle than the alternative. One way or the other, that work needs to be done, or the community could face a lawsuit based on the fact that the HOA isn't performing its required duties, and thereby hurting property values. Note that a "work requirement" of 5 hours/month/unit with a buyout of $5/hour would get you your $25/month--though as I mentioned, flipping it around, adding $25 to dues, and allowing people to do extra work to get a $25 discount, might be much easier to swallow.

A good investment might be to hire a facilitator like Tree Bressen to come and help your group determine how best it can climb out of the hole it's dug itself into. Tree in particular was able to help Pleasant Hill adopt a pay-or-play style system (over my and others' reasoned objections, but then again, they are getting more work done now, and have money to pay for even more work). And having a system that generates money and/or gets the work done, one way or another, is more important than what the system is. I just won't be buying one of those vacant units if pay-or-play is the result. :P

Good luck, in any case,


Tim Mensch

Currently at Wild Sage (Boulder, CO):

Moving out! Our unit is for sale!

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