Community Building for Socially Just Urban Development

Jonathan Bet-Zall, Northwest Intentional Communities Association

Of the many ills of civilization, the one that hits me hardest is widespread, and continuing-to -spread homelessness. Traditionally, even the poorest person could find a place to live at the edge of the village or out in the woods, but under the present system every square inch of land must be “owned” by someone, be it a person, corporation or agency. And those “owners” have set up the legal system to increase their profits, keeping prices high by excluding others in need.

Many people who feel secure in their own housing are worried about those who don’t feel well-housed. You can see that in the posts on “Next Door” bulletin boards, concern about unsanctioned encampments, worry about crime and crazy behavior, and so forth. Do intentional communities offer some partial solutions to these problems? If so, how could public policy help them do so?

Intentional communities function by allowing people to live together more efficiently than under the individualist ideal of nuclear family in a single house with a white picket fence around it. But the benefits extend far beyond simple economic efficiency, which usually translates into individual experience as lower rent. I like to say that living in a community means that “I’m never bored and never lonely”, even though I only see my housemates a few minutes each day. As a result I’m calmer and happier, as well as more economically secure.

People living on the street often collect organically into temporary communities, the most successful of which develop their own governance and collaborative procedures. Examples include Nickelsville, in Seattle, other tent cities, and SHARE/WHEEL, which have operated city-supported shelters for decades. Here is a graphic presentation about how this is done at Portland’s Right 2 Dream 2: “Inside Life at a Self-Organized Homeless Community”. But when residents of these communities leave them for more established forms of subsidized housing, they may become isolated and function less well, eventually landing back on the street.

What if the governments funding those housing projects were to provide training in group process techniques, at the same time organizing the projects into self-managed pods? This example from New York City is aimed at employment, but the model could easily be adapted to housing management.

Intentional communities present urban North America with many opportunities to better reflect socially just values in urban and suburban development. As economic pressures force many people to abandon the single-person housing unit, enlightened public policy could offer those people specific kinds of training in how to live successfully in group situations. Once they discover the non-economic personal benefits that those situations provide, they may continue to live in them, even as their incomes rise and they could afford other arrangements. On a larger scale, enlightened land use planners have come to embrace intentional community style arrangements, especially cohousing style building layouts, for their efficiency both financial and in resource usage. Therefore, municipal and county governments may be good foci for community activism to promote more conscious community growth. Additionally, intentional communities provide, at least in theory, opportunities to educate the more privileged members of society on how they could participate in and promote efforts to make society more just.

Some examples:
Land use planning: A city’s comprehensive plan may already include elements that intentional communities could carry out: increased housing density, provision of open space, reduced areas of paving, which reduces water pollution demand for stormwater services, and concentration of demand for transit and other public services, making them easier and less costly to provide than in developments sprawled across a landscape. Many staff people from planning agencies attend professional conferences, where intentional community concepts [mostly cohousing] have been discussed for years. An outline of the process was provided in an article in Communities Magazine: “Land Use Regulations, Urban Planners, and Intentional Communities” by Robert Boyer:

Cross-class solidarity: One of the most tragic elements of the present housing situation is the way gentrification is splitting up historical communities of people of color and working class people who can’t afford to live the way they used to in the places they call home. Veteran community organizer Yana Ludwig called on community minded people to “celebrate the ways that cross-class cooperation can be a form of solidarity” in her article “Cross Class Cooperation and Land Access” 

She points out that “class is similar to race and gender in that oppression based on these categories needs to be addressed by the folks who have the power: you have to take seriously that classism is a thing, and ask what you can do to end the power imbalances you are currently benefiting from to others’ detriment. Just as sexism will only end when men do their work and racism will only end when white people do theirs, people with class privilege are in the responsibility seat with ending classism.” She offers a number of challenging suggestions for sharing power and assets, which at the public policy level could be translated into taxes and subsidies for people in specific situations. As a good example, she mentions the People of Color Sustainable Housing Network:, which is now organizing a project in the San Francisco Bay Area.