Fearful Symmetry or The Many Ways to Skin a Cat

Innumerable paths lead to intentional community. Doug Tindal, his partner, Mardi, and another couple have taken a businesslike approach to getting there. Their destination, it turns out, is not cohousing, but a co-living community. These are not the same thing.

But there are similarities. Both involve people choosing to live together for reasons that may be spiritual, intellectual or emotional, but these reasons are in all cases shared and explicitly stated. Both involve making a commitment, which, because it involves property, has legal and financial ramifications. Finally, attempts to create and sustain either co-living or cohousing communities involve the participants in an adventure. Adventures involve surprises, not all of them welcome.

Doug, Mardi and their friends had been talking for years about how they wanted to live as they got older. Almost inevitably, Doug observed, at the end of every relationship, there is a single survivor. How much better would it be to live in a community with like-minded people who would support and care for one another through the vicissitudes of old age? Better, certainly, than the kind of institutions to which too many seniors have been consigned. Potentially, much better.

Being of a practical turn of mind, Doug, Mardi and their two friends decided to act. They took rooms—and a boardroom—at a hotel for a weekend (it was off-season and relatively cheap) and settled down to make a plan. As far as they were aware at the time, they were inventing something new: they had no model in mind to draw on. What they came up with was a document that described an arrangement in which a number of people occupied rooms in a single building or complex. Crucially, there was a central kitchen. This was to be a close-knit community in which the main meal would be shared on most days. Breaking bread together is important to them.

This is how Doug described the plan in April 2016:

“Our proposal … is based on a single home containing six units, housing six to ten people, plus common areas. Although each unit offers private living space, we like the idea of the greater intimacy of a shared home. We assume, for example, that most meals will be prepared by members of the community and taken in common…”

In legal terms, the community members would own equity shares in a cooperative corporation. To join or exit the community meant buying or selling shares in the corporation. The corporation, not the members individually, would own the property. This, combined with the underlying desire for community, describes what is generally called (though the terminology is amorphous) co-living.

Doug & Co (that is, Doug, Mardi and the other couple) spread the word to their friends, and through them, to friends of friends. He wrote an article that was published in the Globe and Mail that elicited a remarkably robust response: their idea was clearly alluring and their timing propitious. In November 2016, they held the first of two presentations in which they described their proposition. Attendees who said they were ready to explore the idea further were given a few parameters that Doug & Co had established—for instance, one kitchen, no pets—and an estimate of the cost. By the end of the process, early in 2017, they had eleven people, four couples and three singles, committed in principle to one day occupying seven units in their self-designed seniors’ setup.

They met every three weeks, ate meals together and drank a little wine. They were getting to know and like one another. Gradually they came to believe that they trusted one another enough to take the plunge. And then …

Doug tells the story in his blog, www.wineontheporch.wordpress.com, but one by one the singles left, leaving four couples to wonder if they had the critical mass they needed to proceed. They held another retreat and decided they did. They wrote up a detailed memorandum of agreement. There were a couple of outstanding issues that they agreed to hash out over lunch a couple of weeks later. They met on the appointed evening and that was when … two couples withdrew, leaving the original four people pretty much where they started, albeit somewhat wiser with respect to the ups and downs of community-forming.

There is a certain diabolical symmetry to this narrative. And more, there is a warning: agreement in principle is one thing; converting principle into property is another. The guidebooks all tell us this. But somehow, when it plays out in your own living room, it can still come as a shock.

Doug and Mardi (that’s them on the left, with Vivian, Wendy and Al) recounted the saga in the living room of their apartment near High Park in Toronto. They were philosophical about it and, indeed, determined to move ahead. Their plan now is to buy a property they can live in, while, at the same time, renovating and expanding it to contain the six units they originally envisioned. When the time comes, and they have a property and an architect’s drawings, they’ll show them to prospective new members. In the worst case, if no one joins, they will still have a place to live in and, if need be, a property to put back on the market. And the best case? Doug quotes the Kinsella novel, Field of Dreams: “Build it,” he says, “and they will come.”

It worked for Kevin Costner. Why not Doug?

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