What will the future of intentional housing look like?

Alex Mell-Taylor of After the Storm Magazine recently sat down with members of intentional communities for a discussion around justice and community accountability. An intentional community is a group of people who've chosen to live together with a common purpose, whether that be social, religious, spiritual, or political.

Alex Mell-Taylor is the coeditor and founder of After the Storm magazine, a futurist publication that tells post-capitalist stories imagining a better future. 

About the interviewees

Abi Shakur lives in Baldwin House in Northwest DC. Their community is fundraising to pay off its acquisition loans to actually keep the project afloat, and only have a handful of years to pay off these loans. Support them by donating.

Michael Rios is part of Chrysalis in Arlington, as well as another intentional village in West Virginia.

Ryan McAllister comes from Maitri House in Takoma Park, Maryland. Find Ryan at walkingseed.org.

The conversation was edited lightly for readability.


Alex Mell-Taylor:  When it comes to intentional communities, what do you see as some of the barriers to forming them, both interpersonally and politically? Abi, I think you might be a great person to respond to this because of what you all went through with Baldwin House. So you really experienced a lot of these barriers firsthand just recently. 

Abi Shakur:  I joined the Baldwin House project about a year into it, so I missed a lot of the early preliminary stuff. I'm speaking partially from secondhand experience and partially from firsthand experience. 

One, [when it comes to this issue], Tenant Opportunity to Purchase Act (TOPA) rights are essential and needed to interrupt the trend of gentrification that we're seeing…In order to actually make that sustainable, to interrupt gentrification, we need to empower communities and people to own their own spaces and own their own homes. And TOPA has been really critical [for that]. It's got a lot of problems, but it has been, I think, just in principle, a very good thing to that end, and we need to see more of it.… So there are legislative aspects like having TOPA on the books because, without that, there is little opportunity for real working-class folks to compete with the market, with actual developers. 

But two, there's that aspect of [having the proper] knowledge. Our organizing core at Baldwin House was [familiarity with each other]. None of us had done this before, but there was a long period of working with people who are already in our network or sort of tangentially related to building the knowledge of how you grassroots fundraise and how you can look into alternative forms of financing.

So, technical knowledge can also be a barrier to getting things done in the nitty gritty. There's obviously the social aspect of building a governance structure that adheres to your values. Sometimes, that can take a lot of trial and error. I imagine Ryan, with your work, you might be able to speak to that as well. 

Alex:  Ryan, you said that you wanted to talk a little bit about the “squishy stuff.” So what would you say are some of the barriers there? 

Ryan McAllister:  Well, unfortunately, there are a lot and they add on to the structural barriers. So the structural ones that Abi just talked about are really prohibitive in a lot of cases. I mean, it's almost an amazing feat when somebody manages to pull off starting an [intentional] community, whether it's through TOPA or some other method, right?

And then during that process, or immediately after, you're confronted with like, “Oh, we're also, in addition to having to deal with capitalism and all the finances and all that crap, we're also a group of human beings with feelings and values.” And it's actually hard to operate well together collectively a lot of the time because I think we're not, and let me just speak for myself, I was not personally given a good handle on a lot of those skills, such as turn-taking, balancing advocating for something with listening to others, thinking from a place of "us/we," tolerating and navigating disagreement, providing emotional support, third party support for challenging interactions, etc.

How do you do cooperative decision making when you don't already agree, right? How do you tussle out those things? Like, real values aren't simple, and measurable. It’s [not like orienting toward] how profitable something is. I would consider that to be a pseudo value. 

A real value is a squishy thing, like if we want to widen our circle of care. Do we have empathy for everyone? Do we also care about the environment? And we want everyone to have a nice enough home to live in, but we also don't want to be too luxurious. We don't want to be exclusive. Real values exist in this very tangled, almost gritty structure of tension with each other. And so everyone can earnestly be good people trying to do good things and be in conflict and not see the situation the same.

So how do we talk through that when maybe emotions are high? It's about your home. Things are at stake that matter to you. That's actually really difficult, and I think it requires a whole host of skills. Certain beliefs make that easier or harder as well.

Alex:  Fantastic. I want to talk a little bit more about intention and how you solve conflict. I want to go over to Michael because you've had success in establishing two communities. What are your thoughts here on these issues?

Michael Rios: Well, I think Ryan's points are excellent. People come into the community for all kinds of different reasons and from all kinds of different backgrounds and assumptions, and getting through that is challenging. One of the things that we do is that, in fact, part of our community work is putting on events that help people grow emotionally and become more in touch with what's going on inside.

In fact, there is an intentional community in Germany called ZEGG. It was very much an activist community. They participated in demonstrations and all kinds of stuff of that sort. They found that they spent almost all their time arguing and never got around to doing anything. What it came down to was that they decided that an important dynamic was that most people have a lot of unresolved emotional issues. They were using the meetings as their way of working out and expressing those unmet needs.

So they invented a process called Forum. They would do it before a meeting, where people could stand up and really just spill out what's going on for them, with very skilled guidance. The result would be that they would do a forum for an hour or two before a meeting, and then the meeting would take 20 minutes. Because there were a lot of people who weren't even aware of their own hidden agendas. And the forum process gets out those agendas. 

It's not just that the person's saying what they have in mind. Most of the time, they're discovering what they have in mind. And so by focusing on dealing with the human process first, with the individual, you know, what's really going on for you, you go into a meeting after that, and things get a lot simpler. Not simple, but a whole lot simpler. 

Alex:  That is fascinating. So that forum mechanism sounds like a great way for helping resolve emotional disputes, or at least providing a release valve for them so that they can properly be addressed. 

Michael: Well, it's not so much resolving disputes—it's more a matter of a lot of disputes coming from a person's internal challenges. I wouldn't call it a therapeutic process exactly, but it's a discovery process of “Why am I feeling upset?” I'm sure almost everybody's been around someone who gets upset. And then they yell about something that has nothing whatsoever to do with anything, because they're upset, but they don't know what they're upset about. 

The forum process helps you come clean with yourself. So when you go into the meeting, you're not [doing so with] anxiety and stress. 

Alex:  Abi or Ryan, have you found a similar process, or have you discovered other things in addition to that? 

Abi: Yeah, I think any kind of intentional community, you're going to come up on disagreements, obviously. There will be moments of conflict — that is inevitable.

But it really, really helps if you have a solid foundation of community and interpersonal connection with the folks that you are living with or relating with. To that end, I think Baldwin House has been fortunate that our project mostly came out of the Ward One Mutual Aid Network, which in more specific terms, came out of folks who had been practicing mutual aid and those kinds of common values for years before the project actually started. And so, there already was that foundation of shared values and relationality, which, ultimately, I think, benefited our organizing. 

In hindsight, I've been part of other groups where there wasn't quite as much of a foundation of relationality. We had a goal, we wanted to do something, but without that foundation already in place conflict kind of sprang up, and sometimes was a lot less manageable than some of the disagreements that have popped up in the Baldwin House space. Because, again, there was a shared foundation.

Ryan: Yeah, I think affinity is really valuable. I think that's part of what you're speaking to. I've been working with a number of communities and seeing our own ups and downs, I've come to view a community as an organism, and cooperativity as one state that an organism can have. In fact, it is my preferred state, the state I want, but it's not the only state — you can have a number of other states.

And so if I think of [a community] as an organism, there's something called allostasis, where it will actively try to maintain the conditions that allow it to continue thriving, whether you have the right salt levels, pH levels, etc. 

I think communities have to do the same thing, or actually, any group, whether it's a community, or a group of friends, or a business, or a grassroots activist group. You have to do active maintenance of the things that allow you to stay in a cooperative modality, which means among other things you need a distribution of third-party support skills. 

You have to have a norm, or it's helpful to have a norm, so that if two people are having an escalating challenge, it's okay and even encouraged for a third or fourth person to go over and support them, and it’s important that we know how to do that. You want to have norms in your community that help with cooperation, like consent norms, and things like that can be really valuable. It's a whole cultural package. You can't just say, “Oh, we need a decision-making system, and plug-in consensus, or sociocracy, or holacracy, or whatever.” You can't just do that. You actually need the cultural package that allows that system to flourish.

Alex:  Taking that ecological metaphor, what would you all say are the conditions that prevent something from not rooting at all? What are the factors in our society right now that are salting the earth, if you will, and preventing these community structures from flourishing at all? 

Michael: Well, I really see community living as something that is going to work for some people and not others. It has to do with personality, values, and 100 other factors, so the number of people who I think will ever live in any kind of intentional community, at least anything more than co-housing, requires some massive changes and very specific personality types. And even co-housing pushes that edge. So, if we got 20% of the population in co-housing and 5% in something more intense, I would be stunned.  I think that would be unrealistic to ever expect that kind of penetration.

The other thing that I wanted to touch on that Ryan was talking about is that there are a lot of different ways to do the decision-making process. But in my experience, if you have a group of people who have some kind of emotional peace with each other, they don't necessarily have to be in a relationship, but they have to be trusting of each other to some degree.

If you have trust, any system will work. It can be a dictatorship, it can be holacracy, it can be sociocracy, it doesn't matter, consensus, whatever. And if you don't have trust, it's going to be sand in the gears and any system is going to be fingernails on chalkboard.

Abi:  Yeah, I think to this question of what systemic things sort of salt the earth, several come to mind, but starting with the most obvious from Baldwin House's history is that people don't necessarily know what the benefits of cooperative living are, and also, people are tired. They work a lot of jobs. 

Intentional living does take more energy in some senses. You need to take the time to co-govern and to also be relational with your neighbors or who you're living with. I think, in a lot of ways, capitalism primes us not to have the energy, or want to have the energy, to do those extra things because we're more primed to see our living situation as very insulated.

Folks sometimes have trouble thinking outside the box, outside of how we're trained to see our living situation, as very insulated. And then I think another obvious thing is the money. We raised almost $4 million between cash donations and loans, both traditional and through our community fund program that we wound up running. Four million is what it took to establish just eight affordable units in DC. The money is obviously an issue. 

And, like I said before, I actually do believe that the money is out there. It's not a scarcity issue per se, as much as an issue of knowing how to fundraise or knowing how to actually go out and get that money. And we relied on fundraising through a very relational framework. We tapped our community members, our neighbors, folks who we knew were values-aligned, who care about wanting to redistribute what privilege or wealth they have because they understand that that is an essential need for our communities and even for historical progress. Being able to tap people like that and pitch to them why that is a need and why it's something that they should invest in, and building that kind of real material solidarity across class lines, I think is huge. But again, it requires a lot of knowledge and ambition that folks don't necessarily always have from the jump. 

Ryan:  I concur. The economic course of events in the US over its existence has led to an absurd economic situation as far as housing is concerned. Predatory investments and that sort of thing have ruined it for all of us, and that's a big problem. 

Secondary to that we're pushed from everything from [the media we consume] to how the family is structured to the economic forces [around] us, to think of ourselves as individuals. The neoliberal economic model is very individual-centric and has this bizarre idea that rational behavior is what maximizes your personal monetary access. That's the economic model that our culture is based on. And it's obvious nonsense, but it's also taken seriously with how everything is structured. That means that, given [how] we're raised, we also have a harder time accessing the “us” sort of frame of reference, which is what being together, in my opinion, is all about. There's not just a me, there's not just a you, there's an “us” or a “we” or whatever you want to call it.

And I know, I do have a bias. I've chosen a very non-traditional family structure with the many people involved to take care of my daughter. I live with 11 people in one house, so that's really bizarre in terms of the normativity of our culture. But I think there's so much benefit to that…There's this false dichotomy between individualism and collectivism…I think that's nonsense. I think that a stronger collective creates stronger individuals, stronger individuals can compose a stronger collective. So I hope that wasn't too word-salad-y. I'll stop there.


Alex: I like the diversity of perspectives that we're getting. I'm excited for the next question because I think y'all are going to have very different answers to this. We've talked a lot about communal, systemic, and individual barriers when it comes to these communities: I want to imagine a world where they don't exist. What does that world look like? What does your day-to-day look like, possibly? Is it different? Has it changed? 

Abi:  Oh, geez. Wow. I mean, beautiful question. I think it's hard. I'm going to start off meta, which I feel is annoying, and I apologize for that. But I feel, to me, the question is almost bittersweet to answer, even as I'm reflecting on what my answer would be. I feel like it's hard for me to actually divest myself from considering what the barriers are. To me, the ideal scenario would be one that allows us to heal from those barriers. You know what I mean? To me, the answer is still kind of a reaction to the historical barriers that we've faced. 

But the meta-ness aside, I think I want to see a community where folks who grew up in a Black, queer, [or] in a predominantly low-income area household in D.C. and Baltimore see a sense of community that is shared in neighborhoods…where it is popularly understood that you can rely on your neighbor. And not just in a sense of you're going to break what little bread you have, but that there is actually an abundance of shared resources and that those resources belong to us and are nurtured by us in the community. I [want to] see a lot of access to public resources that are nurtured by the people who need them.

I think a big anchor [for] Baldwin House right now is our community garden space…We want to grow things that we were able to use, but also we want to be sharing those skills, and for it to also be a place where people know that they are always welcome. So not only are we producing things that will actually help us in a material way, we are also sharing the skills among each other to help us continue to create those things, and then it's also popularly known that everyone is welcome to those things, no matter where you are coming from…That's what I want to see. That's what I'm trying to fill.

Alex:  Well, thank you. That was fantastic, and it's a tough question. Michael, I want to hear from you.

Michael: Well, I think [we are undergoing] a critical shift. The way things are going at this point, there will soon be very little useful work that a human being can do that AI or some other technology can't do better, and cheaper, of course.

So, if we're looking at a [future] world—and we're nowhere near this at the moment—where people have enough to eat and also leisure time, we can start working on healing all the traumas that people experience growing up, and hopefully get to a point where we have generations where trauma is the exception rather than the norm. Right now, it's very much the norm. At that point, people can start reconstructing a more tribal reality.

Like I said, the number of people that I think will ever live in an intentional community is small; 5% would be beyond what I could imagine.  But what is very real is a tribal thing that hopefully would replace what churches sort of do right now. It would be smaller groups of people who know each other, hang out with each other, and take care of each other's kids, much like some of the situations I had growing up, [though] I moved around a lot, so it was not as fixed. 

But where you have a neighborhood, a tribe. It's the kind of thing where…if you had a kid, you never knew where that kid was, but you knew they were in one of the following 12 houses, but which one, you'd have no clue.

My thought would be seeing a world where we're dealing with people who have had a chance to heal and hopefully produce another generation that doesn't need to do so much healing, that creates a sense of tribe, that creates a sense of connectedness to the people around them, caring for the people around them and so on. Where does the joy come from? The joy comes from connection. Where does the peace come from? Peace comes from a sense of security, which again goes back to connection.

So, many different dynamics of creating connection, but from a peaceful place, not because you're being threatened by a preacher or taught to hate. Not that kind of connection, but a connection coming from a place of peace and wholeness. And at that point, as the saying goes, you have a thousand flowers blooming. It'll manifest in all kinds of different ways.

Alex: I have never heard that saying, but it is, it's beautiful. I love it. Ryan, what are your thoughts on this question? 

Ryan:  I think that it's a little bit unknowable. I mean, how can we know what we could be like if we hadn't been raised in this environment that was so messed up in so many ways? I like to think that a big part of our focus in such a hopeful future environment would be that we live in ways that make us healthy. And I believe that I've seen some of that for me, living in this community with 11 people under the same roof. [People] who all feel like friends and can support me when I'm not feeling well, can step in to take care of my daughter if I have an emergency and who I also get to support when they're not feeling well. It feels really nurturing.

And I actually feel like I'm in a better place as a person. My mental health is better in this situation than in any previous situation I've been in. I can't say that that would be true for everyone. And I can't say what would be true for me if I hadn't been traumatized in the ways I've been traumatized. And so I can’t say what would be true for anyone else, but I do believe that this idea of healing, connection, the things I also hear Abi and Michael referring to, those feel very salient to me. The idea that there's possibilities we can't even quite visualize. 

When I was interested in starting this community and trying to get a group together, most people objected to the idea because they thought it would just be terrible fighting all the time about menial things like chores and the cleanliness of the sink. That was where the vision was for most people. It's like, “oh, I've had a roommate before that sucked. I want to be by myself.” I always try to remember that, and maybe this is disappointing. 

I guess I've become over-tired as an older activist, a beaten-down activist. I've lost some of that revolutionary edge, and I'm more of an incrementalist, in part because I don't think we can see far enough. We have to get part of the way there to see the next part sometimes. I have maybe instead of an incrementalist, an evolutionarist sort of feeling about it. I think that [in an ideal future] we'd be focused a lot on work that I don't think machines can ever do, which is nurturing each other, nurturing our children, holding each other when we're sad, thinking about our dreams. Stuff like that. That would be a lot of our time and energy if we weren't strapped to this economic machinery, making money for billionaires or whatever the hell it is that we're all stuck doing. Another long answer. 


Alex:  No, I've loved all these answers. Okay, so we've been talking a lot about intentional communities. If someone wanted to form one of these communities, what would they do? What advice would you give them? 

Michael:  Step one: go spend time in existing communities until you get the hang of it. The number of intentional communities that people try to form and the ones that actually survive more than a year is in the less than 10% category. And I think if people went out and actually experienced intentional community for a couple of years first, it'd be a whole different story. Many of them would decide, “Okay, no, not for me.” That would help. 

Abi:  I think my advice would be to listen, learn and trust. I feel very strongly, in many ways, those are all the same thing from slightly different angles. But I feel like if you go out and you have in your head a perfect vision for what you want to have or what you want to build, it'll be hard to do. Having that brittle commitment is almost a non-starter. It's better to have some sort of motivation or inclination towards the vision, but then to also be, I think, trusting and vulnerable enough to take your hands off and to look around and learn and consider that as part of the process, maybe even the most important part of the process. 

In that sense, I think I agree with Michael in that you'd want to see other communities, learn from those communities, and see how those experiences can change and form and evolve what you want to do. But even as you approach what it is that you're trying to build, even after you have it, it's still important to hold on to that virtue of trust and being able to take your hands off of a thing and let it carry itself. 

I think in a lot of organizing spaces, whether you're talking about intentional communities or other kinds of efforts, there's always a balance. It's a push-and-pull. You might have your vision or your ambition, but there are moments that call for you to push that vision forward, and there are also moments that call for you to fall back and let the community that you're working with move things.

Understanding that sort of ebb and flow, that push and pull, understanding which moment is calling on you to step up versus which moment is calling you to step back, is always so important, both in trying to build a thing, but also in maintaining a thing. That's what trust is. That's turning capitalism on its head, learning how to be just comfortable with trust… 

Ryan:  I think there are two important reasons to start a group as a group instead of as an individual. One is the obvious, if you're the sole leader or initiator of a project, there's a fragility there. 

I think the less obvious reason is that we don't actually think well as individuals. We need the feedback of other human beings in order to think and feel well. And so even if you're not starting a community, if you just want to start a blog, it's a lot smarter to run your content ideas past other people. So they can be like, “Are you sure about that?” And you can get constructively challenged. Human beings are not meant to be individual units. I think the whole individualism thing is a lie, but that's a very controversial position. I think that for communities if you want to start a group, start as a group. 


Alex: So we've hit our last question, which is, what type of media would you recommend to our readers, either about this particular space or just a piece of futurist media that you really enjoy? And if you do say Star Trek, please give us your favorite trek. 

Ryan:  Gosh, that's such a tough question. Okay, I would read, or watch a lot of Miki Kashtan's work. She's an activist and an organizer and talks a lot about group culture and emotional stuff. I would watch all of philosopher C. Thi Nguyen's talks. I think there are a lot of brilliant, important points about particularly how we hold values in ways that don't make them dysfunctional. And, you know, read some of the Browns, adrienne maree brown and Brene Brown, read some of both of them.

Abi:  I am infamously not that well-read, honestly, which is sad. I've read enough, but I feel like I'm generally bad for media recs. I feel I've gained so much of my knowledge just by being hyper-observant and living through poverty. It's funny to have that kind of knowledge already and then to see it reaffirmed in the theory that you do read.

Anyway, I digress. Since you brought it up, Star Trek, I feel has been a heavy influence on my life practice, whatever you want to call it. I don't know which Star Trek, probably for this question, Next Generation is most resonant. I grew up on it. In many ways that I wasn't even aware of until now, looking back, I think it challenged my imagination in a way that was really important to my beliefs. [Made me think] “Hey, maybe there is hope for humanity, or maybe there's hope if we keep it alive. If we have a vision of what it means to truly embody our highest ideals. In a way that might demand sacrifice.” That's been incredibly inspiring to me throughout my life. 

Honestly, in a similar vein, I grew up reading a lot of comic books, which, in ways you might not realize until you're looking back in hindsight, might affect your development as a young radical revolutionary or visionary. At their core,  comic books [or superhero literature] challenge you to embody your highest ideals and to be unafraid of sacrifice or the barriers in your way. To maintain those ideals and really live by them. I think I definitely did internalize that a lot as a young person growing up in a way that I think has benefited me in my community in a lot of ways. 

Alex:  Thank you for the recs. And yes, Star Trek Next Generation. It's a family ship, right? I feel like that's very topical. Michael, what about you? 

Michael:  There's no one media I focus on in that way. I mean, early in my life, I read vast amounts of science fiction. And there's a subset of science fiction that, I'm not sure it has a label, basically, where you have a positive future. Not necessarily utopian, but [the text is] like, “okay, where can we go from here?” I had hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of different scenarios to look at [growing up]. I can remember reading Stranger in a Strange Land, not for the literary value, not for vision, but to [think of] what things can we apply in our own community that they're doing? It was more of a nuts and bolts appreciation of it, which, of course, it was all fantasy, but still, there were ideas that [made me think], “can we do that?” Clifford Simak was another favorite in terms of that kind of positive future stuff.

Then, of course, everything from Twilight Zone to Star Trek. Of both versions, clearly The Next Generation was a far superior product to the original one, but when I was watching the original one, Next Generation didn't exist and didn't for a long, long time afterward.

I'm a folk singer and so a lot of the songs that I choose are visionary. They're ones that talk about seeing [how the world could be.] There's a long list of songs there. Everything from Leonard Cohen's Sisters of Mercy to this one called Everything Possible, which is a beautiful song about a parent telling the child, you can be whatever you want. You know, you can be whatever you want, and I will love you. Gay, straight, upside down, walking on your hands, doesn't matter. And that was actually very similar to the message I got from my own mother. She had not tough love, but intense love.

Alex:  Oh, that is very sweet. Okay, so we've reached the end. If anyone wants to give plugs, now is the time for all of your projects. It can be for your community. It can also just be where people can find you more broadly on the web. Give us your plugs.

Ryan:  It would be a dream for me to support other communities that are trying to form or that have fun in their squishy stuff. I do that as a hobby on a pro bono or sliding-scale basis. You can find me at walkingseed.org. I also like to work with activist groups that are trying to accomplish stuff. So, you know, “will work for good.”

Abi:  So you can find more general info about Baldwin House at baldwin-house.org. Website needs a couple updates, so be gracious with us. But all the requisite necessary things are there. 

Also, if you want to give more directly to us, we are fundraising to pay off our acquisition loans to actually keep the project afloat. We only have a handful of years to pay off these loans and we are running into systemic barriers to being able to do that easily. So we're looking for as much support as we can get. And you can give to us at https://givebutter.com/debt-free-futures

Michael:  OK, first thing, the nonprofit arm that we use especially for the healing work that we do and the challenge, social change work we do, is called Center for a New Culture. We do a lot of work supporting other communities by teaching them things like the forum process that we talked about, where that helps people come together and deal with their own internal stuff so that they can deal with their community on a more effective level.

The other thing is the actual community we have out in West Virginia. We don't call it an intentional community, we call it an intentional village, because, unlike many rural communities, we're not trying to be separate from the people around us. We want to be meshed with them. Most rural communities are kind of like an island of liberal people surrounded by a sea of much more conventional people. We want to be a swamp where they all blend together. And we're pretty successful with that. There's dozens of people, local people, who count us as friends and do things with us and so on. So that's the exciting thing is expanding that. 

We're also like Ryan, we'll do things pro bono. We'll do things for whatever somebody wants to pay us. We're set up so we don't need the income, but any income we do get, we use it for good things.

Alex:  Fantastic. And readers can find us at afterthestormmagazine.com. We have Patreon. We also recently put out a book called Storms of the Revolution that is available at online bookstores, and it is an anthology of speculative fiction about better futures.

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