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No Fences Make Good Neighbors… and a Healthy Planet

Some people call them co-living (or cooperative living) environments. Others call them ecovillages or intentional communities. Whatever the name, it’s clear there’s a growing interest in lifestyles that knock down fences, connect with neighbors, and respect the natural resources that give us life.

By Sara G. Stephens

In 1985, Jim Ohmart and his wife, Eileen, bought a house in the Japhet Creek area of Houston, just a few turns off I-10’s Waco St. exit. Over time, the couple started buying and remodeling other homes in the neighborhood as they became available and renting them to people interested in a community with a focus on sustainability and resilience.  Such were the humble origins of today’s Japhet Creek Community (JCC), a small neighborhood of 16 families spread over seven acres in the near northeast side of Houston.  All Japhet Creek Community homes are older single-family residences, except for one duplex. Four homes are owner-occupied, and the rest are rentals. Four of the houses were moved onto the property and remodeled.

The rents at JCC are cheap, making this unique country-living-nestled-in-urban-convenience neighborhood particularly appealing. The rental application process is pretty straightforward, with the single most critical questions being, “What skills and talents can you share with your neighbors?” and “How would your living here make our neighborhood a better place?” The Ohmart’s review the applications and pick who they think would be the best fit for their neighborhood.

Just about everyone has something they can offer, whether it’s working in the community garden (currently growing cool-weather crops like kale, broccoli and chard); tending the chicken coop, from which eggs are collected and shared with residents; or any other form of creativity, labor or skill that can facilitate the neighborhood’s goal to become more socially, economically and ecologically sustainable.  One resident couple cultivates beehives from which honey is gathered and shared with the neighbors.

In 2005 JCC neighbors launched a community project to restore the small spring-fed creek that flows through Japhet Creek.  Ohmart says the efforts have resulted in getting the creek designated a city park. And with the help of hundreds of volunteers over the years, they’ve accomplished a lot: removed over four hundred tires, tons of trash, and hundreds of invasive plants; built a nature trail; planted native plants; and helped students learn about the urban wilderness environment.

Although JCC residences are not communal, the neighborhood does demonstrate some aspects of a shared economy: a shed where tools are shared; a pick-up truck available when someone needs one; a spare bedroom (an RV) that can be moved to a neighbor’s yard when they have company; occasional neighborhood potlucks; a fenced dog park; and a fenced kid park with a huge sandbox and playground.

But Ohmart declines to attach any movement-oriented label to JCC, including that of “ecovillage” or “intentional community” (“We’re really more of an unintentional community,” he confides).

“We’re just a really tight community,” Ohmart says simply.  And that’s enough to fulfill what Ohmart sees as necessary for building a more environmentally sound world. “People learn by example,” he explains. “We hope the children growing up here and the people who have lived here and moved on can build good, strong, resilient communities wherever they go from what they saw here.”

Specifically, Ohmart is talking about a lesson of social connection. “Most people go to work, go home and turn on the TV,” Ohmart continues. “They don’t have time to meet their neighbors or to participate in community.  It takes extra time and effort.”

The cost of this isolation is an increasing dependence on nameless, faceless, external entities, a prospect that Ohmart finds both distasteful and unwise.  This leads to the primary lesson he hopes residents will glean from living at JCC:  “Don’t count on the government, count on your neighbors.”  It’s a principle he strongly believes in and one he thinks applies to all families, not just those who make their homes in his community.

The simplest of efforts can yield stronger human connections in a neighborhood. For Ohmart, the greatest pleasure he derives at JCC is “sitting down at a neighborhood potluck or full moon bonfire and hearing everyone interacting, trading stories, ideas, recipes… just acting neighborly.”

These neighborhood gatherings are a picture of diversity.  “Our youngest [neighbor] is 3, and was conceived and born here,” Ohmart says. “The oldest is a great grandmother who was born in the house across the street—I wouldn’t dare ask her age.”

Over all, JCC is home to around 30 residents, plus the couple who owns the bees and is in the neighborhood only on weekends to maintain them.  “We have had all races and at one time were about 20 percent Buddhist,” Ohmart recounts. “About 20% of the current residents are vegetarian. Some residents have a high school education, at least one has a PhD, several have completed master’s degrees, and many are entrepreneurs who own their own businesses.

“There’s no joining, no meetings, just neighbors looking out for each other.”

You won’t find a website for JCC.  If you’re interested in becoming a resident of the community or in helping with its creek restoration project, just email Ohmart at [email protected]

“There will always be a small number of people who are willing to put out the extra effort and enjoy the challenge of being a good neighbor,” Ohmart concludes. “I hope they find us.”

Considering Ohmart’s input on definitions, JCC is most closely identified as a group-living alternative. Other group-living alternatives similar to this community would most likely be called an intentional community or an ecovillage. Such living environments usually involve multiple housing units and perhaps some shared structures, too.  In contrast to communities and villages, co-op living arrangements are generally thought of as occurring within a single dwelling unit, shared by all.

Most importantly, while co-living environments vary in size, structure, and unifying principles, the communities discussed here all tend to share a common vision to cut dependence on consumerism, implement sustainable living practices and elevate the process of human understanding.

Green Co-Ops

Houston Access to Urban Sustainability (HAUS) formed in 2010 aiming to provide affordable, sustainable, cooperative housing in the accessible, urban core of the Houston region within close proximity to Houston’s growing light rail transit system. The HAUS project goal, according to its profile on the Fellowship of Intentional Communities’ website (www.ic.org) is to open five green co-ops in five years. The houses will be of various sizes and appropriate for a variety of lifestyle options, including at least one student-focused house and at least one house appropriate for children and families.

The profile further details the HAUS mission as follows:

  • Provide affordable housing operated cooperatively by residents;
  • Provide greener, more sustainable lifestyle options;
  • Educate the general public about cooperative organizational principles and greener, more sustainable lifestyle options; and
  • Assist other cooperative and sustainable efforts in the Houston region and elsewhere.

The project’s first house, Rosalie, opened on January 1, 2011 in Midtown and now houses ten people in its ten rooms. It has since expanded to include a second 15-bedroom house on Ruth St. The house was named Ruth, but residents thoughtfully rearranged the letters to unofficially rename their home “Urth”—a proper tribute to the home’s focus on sustainability. Its Facebook page (www.facebook.com/1917RuthHTX) posts cheerful notes and updates to its residents, affectionately termed Urthlings.

Scott Gregory moved into the Ruth residence when it first opened and now acts as Chair of the Board.  Describing the living environment as “sustainable co-op living in Houston,” he describes the aspects of the house that lend to this definition. “The first thing that comes to mind in terms of sustainability is what we do with our utilities,” he says. “We have solar-heated water fueled by solar panels in the roof of the building.”  The panels were installed less than five months ago, and the residents have not suffered in the transition.  “The water gets quite hot. In fact, we could stand to turn it down,” Gregory admits.

The Urthlings also work toward sustainability via their intense gardening habits.  Eating food grown in the house garden means fewer resources are spent on transporting food from farms to distribution warehouses, to grocery stores, and then to the house kitchen. Ruth house has a 40 square-foot garden, and there’s another in back of the Rosalie House, allowing for significant food production on the premises.  Everything grown in the gardens is used in meals. “We’ve been eating a lot of broccoli lately—a lot of greens—and okra, which grows so incredibly fast” Gregory points out, adding that most meals contain at least herbs and greens grown in the house gardens.

“There’s something magical about knowing it just came out of the ground about an hour ago,” Gregory marvels.

Ruth house also puts a gray water system to good use. In four of the house bathrooms, water goes into the garden after being used in the shower (they use only environmentally friendly soaps, which don’t harm the plants). Rosalie house sports a rainwater catch system.

Sustainability moves beyond the necessary and delves into pure recreation at Rosalie house, where residents enjoy a wood-powered hot tub. “It’s kind of incredible,” Gregory muses.  “There’s a big wood stove underneath the tub, and that’s how the water gets hot.”

That just about covers the “systems” aspect of the HAUS Project’s sustainability efforts. “The rest of it is how we run our lives individually,” Gregory says, explaining that a lot of the houses’ residents bicycle to their destinations. Both houses—and any house developed by HAUS—will be within one mile of Houston’s metro line. This criterion is a mandatory consideration in determining where the project’s houses are placed.

To keep the Ruth house running, the board has created a “labor scheme” which parcels tasks out among the residents.  Everybody has a “lead position” and a “helper position,” meaning each resident is responsible for one task and helps someone else with another task.  The tasks revolve around keeping the house clean, keeping it running, maintenance, and having meals ready. “We put a lot of thought into the labor scheme, and we randomize the order, so everyone gets a turn picking which job they want to do,” Gregory explains.

His personal favorite task is preparing meals. “Cooking is a lot of fun for this many people,” Gregory says.  “It’s definitely the most engaging task. If you’re not cooking, you could be cleaning a bathroom, which we all know how that goes. But the cooking invites creativity and exploration. I enjoy seeing what ingredients I have to experiment with for each meal.”

One need only visit the house’s Facebook page to witness the reality of this culinary experimentation. One post displays an image of a beautiful arrangement of flowers in a crystal vase. Sitting next to the bouquet rests a note: “Hey hungry person—We are nasturtiums (spicy, yummy flowers) from your garden! Try us by ourselves or in a garden today!”

Gregory agrees with the note’s recommendation. “They’re tangy and delicious,” he raves. “They’re acidic flowers and give a nice tang to a salad.”  But like the gray water at Ruth house, the nasturtiums serve another purpose. “From a gardening perspective, they do something like cleaning out the soil,” Gregory says with uncertainty. “I don’t know what it does, but it’s good for the garden in the future—and we can eat it.”

Like Ohmart, Gregory does not align the HAUS Project residents with a particular movement. He characterizes the group dynamic in a word: family. But they do share a common thread: a value of local community.  “People who want to live in a co-op are very into human relationships, which is a good thing.

“As humans, what works is to be primarily engaged with people around us,” Gregory continues. “That has a lasting value. It’s a sustainable thing. If you have good relationships with the people and the land around you, nobody can take that away.”

Ruth House and Rosalie House can hold only so many people. But there’s plenty that non-residents can learn from the community, according to Gregory:

  • The value of experimentation. “We’re mostly experimenting here with the labor system, and it’s total experimentation in the garden,” Gregory says.
  • The value of “green.”  “Living here has absolutely raised my environmental consciousness,” Gregory admits. “On paper, I was interested in it.  ‘But living here, I’ve made it a part of my life. The value of compromise. “By living with this many people and making something work you run into all the stuff of being a human,” Gregory observes. “Everyone is dealing with stuff, so it’s really an awesome opportunity to see human dynamics and relationships.
  • The value of drama. “There’s a huge benefit in seeing so many perspectives on so many issues—having a lot of people looking at one problem and to be able to talk things over with others around you. I grew up in the suburbs, and I found what was missing in my life was outside perspectives. I felt very isolated, and now I’m learning how to be integrated.”

Anyone interested in tasting everything Gregory mentions is welcome to attend a community dinner on Sunday nights at 7pm. Check out the group’s Facebook page for details. “Potluck style is great,” Gregory says cheerfully, “To some degree that’s nice. But, honestly, we’re prepared to feed a lot people.”

It’s About Connecting

When two spokespeople for two very different co-living environments stress the importance of developing human connections, you know it’s an issue to explore. And that’s Laird Schaub’s job. Schaub is Executive Secretary for the Fellowship of Intentional Communities and has spent more than 25 years as a community networker and group process consultant.  “I believe people today are starved for community—for a greater sense of belonging and connection,” Schaub says on a blogspot post.”

The tie between cooperative living and sustainability is strong, according to Schaub. He describes these environments as being “R&D centers for sustainability,” experimenting at an intensity for which most people are unprepared.

From a consumer standpoint, these communities puzzle over achieving quality of life without owning so many things. Most things we own sit idle, but if we share them during their downtime, then we don’t all need the dollars to purchase one of our own.  “If you can have access to things, that can be an adequate substitute for owning them,” Schaub explains.

Environmentally speaking, the air we breathe and food we eat are more questionable than ever before, and these communities attract people who want more control over what they put in their bodies. Schaub also speaks to the U.S.’ overconsumption of resources. “We’re better off than most of the world, and they’re just trying to survive on the margins,” he says. “If we’re trying to find a lifestyle that would be accessible to everyone in the world, we have to find a way to make a living using 1/10 of the resources we currently do.”

Schaub believes the need for a more highly attuned human awareness is a primary driver behind today’s heightened interest in co-living environments. “There’s a broad-based dissatisfaction with competitive life, with people feeling too adversarial, hierarchic, and having no connection, no sense of belonging,” he notes.

Schaub sees humanity today as being more self-centered than ever before. “In a pendulum swing, we are way on the “I” end. And that’s not how the human race developed. We are herd animals, and connecting is just one of our basic impulses as humans.”

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