An Unfinished Story
Our Co-Housing Journey
Claire Harvey Dawson
I share this story with some reluctance, knowing how tremendously ‘unfinished’ it is. But much of life seems tainted with a similar hue at the moment: we now live with a strange mix of anticipation and hope and dread - not knowing what the future holds, other than more change. These are anxious times.
Over a decade ago I began a journey with church friends Andy and Lyndel McGorlick, centred around the idea of establishing some sort of ‘communal living’ arrangement. While we’d first connected at Langwarrin Vineyard Church in 2007, I’d been inspired years earlier by a model proposed by Tom Sine in his book Mustard Seed vs. McWorld (1999). Sine comments:
I am not for a minute suggesting that we all become Hutterites. But I think we can learn from their co-operative stewardship model of ways we can in community, be better stewards of the time and money God has entrusted to us. I am certain we could all find ways to be more a part of God’s loving response to the growing needs of tomorrow’s world (p.298–9).
There was an echo in my spirit: surely there were better ways to structure our lives and households, to reduce our levels of indebtedness and to free up personal and collective capacity for generosity and service? The concept stuck in my mind. Whether the overflow was in the form of surplus time or money or emotional energy, the essentialist in me was inspired by the Gandhian idea of living more simply in order that others might simply live.
Meanwhile the ‘frustrated evangelist’ in me was convinced that those outside the church struggled to find much good news in our many words, when the actual shape of our lives varied very little from their own. I was not preoccupied with looking different per se, but instead keen to create appropriate scaffolding to enable lives of greater faithfulness to the wide-ranging implications of the gospel. Justice, creation care, love of our neighbours both near and far: these are things we know we’re called to, but yet we so often struggle to keep them at the centre of our lives in our frenetic, consumerist and individualist culture.
We took a step forward and roughly a decade ago attended a co-housing information session run by the neighbouring Mornington Peninsula Shire. There were some inspiring models in the pipeline, though none were local to us. It all looked great, on paper. The years passed, and the idea would resurface occasionally in conversation.
There were feeble attempts to take steps in the right direction. As a church, for example, we tried to establish a network for sharing stuff that we had, whether it was lawnmowers or trailers or surplus seeds. Then one day I asked the all-important question: 'Are we going to keep talking about this, or do we actually want to make it happen?' Co-housing was an easy enough concept to throw around; certainly inspiring as an idea. Bringing it to reality has proven much, much harder.
Villa St. Clare
Attempt one involved drafting up a concept document and trying to get traction for the idea, within our church circles and beyond. Being in Frankston, we were generally met with lots of questions—and some perplexed stares—about where exactly it would be, what it would look like, how it would all work. We faced a ‘chicken and egg’ dilemma: join us, and together we’ll figure it all out! However this was too much of a leap of faith for folk. We realised we couldn’t put anything other than a very generic concept design in front of people without the land on which we’d build this dream. So we doubled down and started looking for a site. Andy and Lyndel had already rented previously on High Street, so when a block came up for sale right nearby, home to the rather run-down reception centre ‘Villa St Clare’, the possibilities opened up by the dual-frontage, central location were too good to pass up. In a complete and rather gut-wrenching leap of faith we sold our homes and bought the land!
My thinking at the time was shaped by two central ideas, which at least in part explains why someone so cautious and risk-averse would even think to do something so radical! First, the pursuit of the Kingdom of God is shaped by such an intensity of focus that Jesus employed imagery of a man who sells everything he has in order to gain sought-after treasure, with an almost reckless abandonment (Matthew 13:44–45). Second, having just co-authored a book on climate change, I felt deeply convinced that if we didn’t act radically and soon, all the wealth in the world would eventually become worthless as any kind of ‘security’ for life: in line with the wisdom of the Cree Indian proverb, when the environment has been destroyed, only then will we discover we can’t eat (or breathe, or drink) money.
As the auction day had approached, I remember commenting that I had absolutely no qualms whatsoever about co-housing as a concept, and that if there was a local development underway and I could buy off the plan I would in a flash. What was most daunting to me was the fact that we had to actually bring this thing into being. Not being particularly entrepreneurial in nature, this was a huge personal hurdle.
But, at another level, I felt almost like I was without choice. My deep and heart-felt commitment to live sustainably meant that I often came home from a grocery shop feeling a profound malaise. Did doing the right thing have to be this hard? Whether it was buying organic or fair trade or locally made or packaging-free or low carbon-footprint, I struggled to reconcile how I could continue to prioritise these things while also being a mum to two young kids, juggling work and ministry, while also carving out some time to remain sane. I needed there to be another way, as I felt cornered into a life of constant compromise—a reluctant participant in structural sin. Following the sale of our homes, we rented together with the McGorlicks, which facilitated regular meetings, enabled us to reduce our living costs and, of course, kick-started us on the journey of sharing life more closely. We moved in thinking it would only be for a couple of years - two families sharing as a household of seven. We were seriously wrong.
We engaged an architect, and sustainable design consultants, and arranged for arborist reports and soil tests. Meetings. More meetings. And even more meetings. Then legal consultation, to begin work on the structural stuff of an owners' corporation and residents' association. Deliberations around how to preserve the DNA of the community, while also providing freedom for people to buy and sell, while ensuring we weren’t at risk of being accused of religious discrimination. Should it be a specifically faith-based community? How could we ensure a continuity of vision and values, over time, without being too prescriptive?
We prepared an explanatory video for Frankston Council since, under planning laws, it was the type of development that triggered escalation to that level. Few of the Councillors engaged meaningfully and it quickly became apparent that some neighbours were not at all happy about our plans. There were many frustrating delays, but finally we had a date for our plans to go before Council, with the support of Council planners who commended it for approval. Without much discussion, a decision was made to defer discussion and decision, which was devastating. More of a wait. More time for neighbours to rally together in opposition. Then when it did finally go before Council again, it was the last meeting before local government elections. Tensions were rather high. We were commended for being ‘gutsy’ by one Councillor and accused of building ‘rooming houses’ by another. It was unanimously opposed. Inadequate car parking and visual bulk were among the issues of concern. This process catalysed a deep weariness of soul.
We pressed on, amidst more delays, to take the plans to VCAT and appeal the Council’s decision. While we did eventually receive approval, it was not long after this that I went through separation and divorce. By this stage my emotional, psychological and financial buffers were gone, along with my capacity to embrace risk. But by then we’d also gathered in a number of interested parties and we were almost at a stage where all but one unit were ‘allocated’—despite not being legally sold. But then some upward revisions were made to building costs and, consequently, unit prices. Rather suddenly we were on our own: timing and finance and stage of life had meant that others chose to move on. Despite our approved plans, it felt like we were all the way back at the beginning. And I was spent.
Artist's impression: Frankston Sustainable Cohousing Initiative
By this stage we’d been sharing a house (not ideally designed for communal living) for four years. This too had taken a toll, yet it was hard to separate out the challenges of the co-housing dream and the challenges of renting that particular house in that particularly difficult season. The support of caring, adult company within the home had certainly helped me weather the storms of the unexpected breakdown of my marriage and the transition to being a single mum. Still, we collectively sensed that it was time to go it on our own. After separating our homes and stuff, still conveniently located in rental properties just minutes away from each other, we faced the hard decision of whether to let the dream go altogether.
When we announced to our Facebook ‘followers’ in June of 2019 that we’d be pulling the pin, there was a resounding echo of disappointment. However, while people had caught the vision, for a range of reasons they remained on the sidelines. We tried unsuccessfully, through auction, and then private sale, to divest ourselves of this expensive block.
And then COVID happened.
While an inevitable consequence of a pandemic - and the associated financial fallout - is an aversion to risk, we also now sense a new and rare window of opportunity. Like perhaps no other time in our lives, we have received a stark reminder of the central place of the home and the need to be good neighbours to one another. And coming off the back of Australia’s devastating summer bushfires more and more Australians seem to agree that a ‘business as usual’ trajectory is just not viable for a flourishing and habitable creation. There is so much about our plans that seems so good and right and even necessary, in these troubling times. So we’ve picked the project back up and are trying once again to see if it will all come to fruition.
We remain vulnerable, both financially and emotionally. But also hopeful. And determined. We do know that we really need each other. We know we can’t do this on our own. It’s our heartfelt prayer that others will also come to see that co-housing makes increasing sense in our rather precarious world, and that some people of vision and courage will be prepared to take a leap of faith with us.
Perhaps you could pray? Perhaps you know someone who’d love to be a part of leaving a legacy and helping bring a fresh sign of kingdom love and justice to life in this dark world?
Or perhaps you have a dormant dream of your own that you feel called to pursue again, right at a time when people need to see faith and hope and love enacted in their neighbourhood?
How else might we respond, as households and communities, to the prayer of Jesus - that God’s Kingdom would come on earth, as it is in heaven?
Claire Harvey Dawson is part of The Village (Uniting) Church in Mount Eliza and works as HR Manager and Careers Coordinator at Bayside Christian College. Mother to Sarah (age 11) and Micah (age 7). Claire shares Manna Gum’s interest in a Christian discipleship that takes economic and environmental stewardship seriously.
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