Then last December, with construction costs rising, the group walked away from the Fort Greene building. It was a dramatic moment—not to mention pricey (they lost a six-figure sum to design costs and a walkaway fee). At this point, it was easy to imagine the group disbanding, yet another ambitious experiment that couldn’t make it in New York. But remarkably, the group essentially stayed together. It picked itself up, and in a few months had signed an option to purchase the old mattress factory on Eighth Avenue and 19th Street in Park Slope. It was time to start the design phase again.
The new building is not as large as the first—it will fit 30 units, rather than 45—but as the economy crashed and the housing market destabilized, the group found itself frozen out by mortgage providers. And so they continued to give monthly presentations and to open their weekly business meetings to the public, in hopes of attracting more members and growing the size of their kitty. (“We’re not Tishman Speyer,” said Marion at one point this summer. “But we’re playing with the same crowd.”) To conserve money, they met in church basements. It’s not because the group is affiliated with any religion. It is not. The group is not affiliated with anything, really, and members are at pains to stress this, though, again, they understand that just by being a group they are not going to be to the liking of some New Yorkers. “People who aren’t attracted to the whole sharing thing are not going to be attracted to this idea,” Rob admits.
The sharing game they are playing today at this midsummer business meeting in the basement of the Memorial Baptist Church on Eighth Avenue in Park Slope is one that you will absolutely not see at the next Tishman Speyer meeting, and it would likely scare a non-sharer far, far away. It’s played with yarn and facilitated by a group member who, while attending the meetings, often knits. One person takes the ball of yarn, imagines his or her life on a Friday night at “our home” when the building is at last built, then tosses the yarn across the circle, group weaving.
A father imagines young people performing in a rock band on a small stage. Several people imagine being in the roof garden of the green building. One woman imagines a small dinner in her apartment. “Maybe we’ll have a Zipcar and I’ll go somewhere with some people,” another woman says. (A group decision on car sharing has not yet been made.) Lissa imagines setting up a screen on the roof for a Fellini film festival.
“I’ll probably be on the roof avoiding the concert,” a man says. Group laughter.
“As you can see, this is a very complicated web that we have woven,” Nancy says as she wraps up the game, “and the thoughts that we have of our new home make me very energized and touched.”
The energy is indeed impressive: These meetings can be long and extremely detailed. Still, it’s clear that everyone is anxious to get this stage of the process over with—to start actually living with one another—and that the ongoing hunt for new members is beginning to fatigue some current ones. (On the other hand, you can also get the feeling that certain members enjoy living in the planning fermata.) This morning’s meeting has featured a lot about “provisional members,” a recently created status meant to make joining the group a bit easier. The provisionals put in a nominal fee to express interest in fully joining the group, and are expected to kick in their 5 percent of the apartment cost within three days of securing financing. The meeting has come to a discussion of what constitutes seniority—i.e., the order in which provisional members will be allowed to choose their apartments.
A poster board lists the handwritten ground rules for discussion: “Let others speak before you speak again … Stay on topic … No side conversation or cross talk … Silence = Assent.”
“We’re basically unclear about what creates seniority,” Rob says.
“My guess is you are going to have a flood of new members when decision day comes,” says ScottHanson, who has flown in from Seattle for the meeting.
“We need a new decision,” Kristi says.
A decision is made to make a decision. Blue cards go up. The Brooklyn co-housing group follows a “consensus process” for all discussions and decisions, and this involves each member holding a set of cards. During the decision period, green means “agreed.” Blue, neutral. Yellow, unsure/unclear. Orange, reservations. Red means, “I am opposed, and I block consensus.” If a red card goes up, the group will start discussion again. The group records all decisions in a log book (currently hovering near 100 pages) that describes everything from the decisions on kitchen tiles, which took several rounds, to the decision on the dog policy, which had to be broken down into small groups, because, as Rob explains, “most of us didn’t have a dog in that race and the key was to let people who did work it out.”