Cohousing and membership criteria, Nancy Winfield

AT Canon Frome Court cohousing community, we do not have a binding vision, keeping us all together. The community is 40 years-old and interested visitors become prospective members through a process which is well-structured and quickly weeds out those who find it will not suit them, after all.  

It is important, in an established cohousing community, that new members move in, having first understood the commitments and got to know the other members. 

At Canon Frome, the process starts with an open weekend – where visitors get the chance to work, eat and socialise with residents. 

Following that, a prospective member can book a minimum of three visits to stay, where they join in more activities and further get to know the residents. 

They can then attend one of the decision-making meetings and, if all that has not put them off, they can request to apply for membership. 

If they are accepted (in 40 years, only one person has ever been turned down at this point) then they need to wait until a suitable home comes up for sale. 

In this spirit, cohousing groups are advised to keep on top of their prospective members list, so that, when a property becomes vacant, there is already someone (who everyone is comfortable with) in the pipeline, in a position to move in.

Among other things, we operate a 40-acre small-holding (comprising fruit, vegetables, chickens, milking cows and goats and sheep), and the expectation is that members volunteer around two days a week towards it. Some do more, others less, and everyone is relaxed about that.

I would say that there is no one set of membership criteria that every cohousing group should consider adopting; it’s for the members to decide.

And different members will have different ambitions; for example, a mechanism to deliver ‘affordable’ housing in perpetuity. Others might wish to include clauses limiting sub-letting, or having houses built to Passive House standards of energy efficiency, or a detailed system of allocating homes when they become vacant.

It might be that the motivating factor for a group of people is how they identify, by age, diet, politics or by sexual orientation.

At Canon Frome Court, which is based in Herefordshire, we have none of these possible clauses in the lease, though that’s not say it might change in future. 

At another cohousing group I was involved with – the Threshold Centre in Dorset – the lease is very comprehensive about time commitments, attendance at meetings, etc.  There is even a clause stating that if you cannot do your share in hours then you may be expected to contribute a financial equivalent.

Membership criteria can act as a glue, with everyone feeling they can buy into them.

But of course other forms of ‘glue’ can exist. At Threshold, there was a shared love of meditation.

Since cohousing is formed by its members and since the membership is likely to change over the period of time it takes to purchase land and build houses on it (or to refurbish an existing building), it may be better, in the early stages, to keep the criteria broad.

It probably mostly comes down to the plot of land (or property requiring refurbishment) found by the prospective cohousing group. Membership criteria are likely to form around the build options that later emerge. 

That said, I know of one project – to set up cohousing in the south-west of England – that has narrowed, fairly early on, its aspirations.

In its vision statement, Project Q has included deep spirituality and also education among its ambitions.

Nancy Winfield was part of a small team who set up the Threshold Cohousing Centre in Dorset and lived there for three years. She now lives at Canon Frome Court, Herefordshire, a cohousing community which shares a 40-acre smallholding and many other facilities. She was recently a project manager for Herefordshire Centre for Community-led Housing and is an accredited CLH advisor working with community groups. 

Picture credit: Canon From Court

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