What Housing Cooperatives Taught Me about Intentionality

Break out discussion at DC Coop Day

Intentionality is one of the four core values of UnSectored. Critical thought to the best possible solutions is a necessary check to the change we hope to create. I’ve always understood the importance of intentionality, but have had a hard time wrapping my brain around its practical application now that I am a part of UnSectored. Fortunately the importance of intentionality was illustrated to me at DC Coop Day hosted by Coop DC at The University of the District of Columbia last month.

During a panelist discussion on housing cooperatives, Dominic Moulden, Resource Organizer at One DC, listed the three biggest lessons he’s learned from more than two decades of work with housing cooperatives. I found this one particularly insightful:

“Always be skeptical when housing is created in an emergency situation”

Dominic elaborated. When people end up in dire situations– such as not being able to afford their rent –they search for alternatives. One of these alternatives can be setting up a housing cooperative, which has lower costs because in cooperatives costs are tied to operating expenses rather than the capital market.  The housing cooperative becomes a short-term solution to fulfill an immediate need.

But the purpose of housing cooperatives is not lower costs. That’s merely an outcome. The purpose is a commonly held belief in shared ownership and a more democratic environment.

This lack of intentionality causes serious problems. Dominic explained that treating housing cooperatives like an economic commodity undermines the sense of responsibility and ownership required to manage and maintain the property. Without the necessary support from each member, the cooperative model quickly falls apart. This not only has a negative impact for the residents, but also for the entire housing cooperative movement. The practicality and sustainability of the model comes into question, deterring grassroots and policy level support.

It is amazing how much color this example lends to the importance and difficulty of intentionality. The pace of change is accelerated by urgency. But urgency can also undermine our critical reflection of important considerations. This dilemma applies to all forms of unsectored change. We are often only motivated to look beyond our own sector when we are in need of a solution rather than to find the best solution.

The purpose of UnSectored is to discuss the best solutions before any decision becomes necessary. We hope to uncover the opportunities and challenges of an issue across all sectors so that we may build a more comprehensive solution and drive more inclusive action. In this way we balance urgency and intentionality.

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What I find particularly interesting about what Dominic described is that, in the end, weighing all of the options like we do at UnSectored is not always practical. Emergency situations demand action. A piece of the solution is education and reflection, but these alone are limiting. As stated above, the real dilemma lies in motivating us to consider change without urgency.

At a minimum, I now a much greater respect for the importance and difficulty of intentionality, but, with your help, let’s take this one step further. How would you build more intentionality into unsectored change?

photo credit: Gerri Williams