Ownership structures and their influence on community life

A reflection on experiences in a few Danish ecovillages

After visiting several ecovillages in Denmark, I want to reflect on the effects they experience from their different ownership structures they employ on community life and on the affordability of living in the ecovillage. I noticed quite some differences between the ecovillages in how the land, houses and facilities were owned and financed and talked with several inhabitants about how they perceive the effects of their ownership structures. It seems that whether or not (some of) the houses and land are owned privately can make a big difference to both the communal feeling in an ecovillage and on the affordability. I acknowledge that all ecovillages have a slightly different vision and different priorities in executing it, however, one central attribute to the ecovillage concept is creating a community. For the financial, ecological and social benefits a community can offer, his opposed to living in neighbourhoods where people do not know their neighbours. On top of this, the vision of an ecovillage often includes to be able to live with low monthly costs so that inhabitants have more freedom in choosing jobs, investing time in non-profit projects or gardening. Low monthly costs also ensures that the community is open to people with less financial means. In this blog I reflect on differences experienced in affordability and level of communal involvement of inhabitants in ecovillages with different ownership structures.

At the bottom, as a bonus, I talk a bit about how in Denmark the interest in ecovillages has risen to such a level that commercial organizations have started to capitalize on this in different ways.

Different ownership structures
The biggest difference in ownership structures between some Danish ecovillages I visited lies in how much of the land and buildings is owned collectively by the community and with that, how much influence they have on the conditions under which the houses are build and sold. In some cases all the land of the ecovillage and even all the buildings and apartments on it are owned communally. In this case the community as a whole has full say on how the buildings are build and maintained, who moves into the apartments and for which prices these are rented out or sold. Owning everything collectively can be difficult to finance, manage and organize, therefor many other ecovillages also have (partial) private owenership. For example, in some cases only the land is owned communally and the houses are privately owned by the families. In this case there are several varieties: sometimes all the land remains in communal ownership, including the land under the privately owned houses. This ensures that the community still has a say in the conditions under which the houses are sold and who moves in. In another case, the houses including the land underneath their foundation are privately owned but all land around the houses is still collective. In other cases, (part of) the communal land is split in housing plots which encompass a footprint to build a house and private garden space. In the ecovillages where the land under the house is also privately owned, the community loses the possibility to have a say about the house, for example to whom it is sold and for which price.

Some ecovillages I came across have a diversity in ownership structures, offering a mix of private houses and small collectives with rental apartments in communally owned buildings. This resulted in a richer diversity in financial capacities of the members, as well as a diversity in level of community involvement between community members.

Influence of ownership on community life
Who moves in?
One of the reasons the ownership structure is of big influence according to some inhabitants I spoke to, is that because in the ecovillages where the housing plots are privately owned the community does not have a say about to whom the houses are sold once the original buyers leave. This way, they cannot determine who their new community members will be. Not everyone sees this as negative, as most of the time ecovillages attract like-minded spirits or house-owners sell their house to friends of the community. However, it is by some experiences as a risk for the community as they fear that the houses are bought by people who are not so much interested in contributing to communal life or whose vision does not fit with the existing community spirit. One ecovillage tried to take some measures against this by making all future buyers participate in at least two communal activities (for example a general assembly or a working day). However, the members comment, in the end they have no legal say whatsoever over who buys the house.

An aerial view of part of the ecovillage Hallingelille. Most houses here are on privately owned plots of land. The community therefor does not have a say in who moves in there. However, their philosophy is that people choose their ecovillage, rather than that the community chooses new people

How much do inhabitants participate in community life?
A second thing community members notice when the housing plots are privately owned is that over time the involvement with community life can lower. If the individual households have all facilities needed inside them, the need for the inhabitants to go out to the communal house or to contribute to communal projects decreases once construction is completed and inhabitants simply live in their own house. The communal diners are often voluntary, as are the working days and the general assemblies, so ecovillages with a lot of private ownership notice that quite a big percentage does not take a very active part in these communal activities. This lowers the overall communal feeling, which in some cases gives rise to conflicts. One explanation for this might be that in this situation, neighbours only have to communicate when they are bothered by something and without taking part in fun, meaningful communal activities tolerance can drop.

Some ecovillages try to solve both of these issues by simply keeping communal ownership over all property. This way they have full say in who comes to live in the communities and the conditions for living there. Because all facilities and maintenance have to be organized communally as well, people meet often. However, some of the private house owners I talked to do not see the issues named above as a problem at all. They like to be free in determining how much they want to be involved in communal life, and like to have the assurance of being able to sell their house to whoever they want to.

In Svanholm community all land, buildings and facilities are communaly owned. A cook even prepares meals in their communal kitchen. For some members of other ecovillages this is too intense: they like to have their own space and stuff.

Having a community building
Another observation made by many community members is that it is very important to start with the realization of a communal building. They have noticed that when community members get access to their private plots and want to start building, they have less energy and time for the construction of the communal building. This is off course only natural. But to ensure a communal feeling, where people can meet over dinner, have space for meetings, celebrations and hanging out together, a communal building is crucial. In some ecovillages they have solved this by having a temporary communal building at first and constructing a permanent one after most of the private construction is finished. Others start by building a communal building, after which the work on their private homes.

The communal building in Hallingelille ecovillage, built as first building on the land, in the middle of all the private housing lots. It includes shared laundry and drying machines, guestrooms, a big gym, therapyroom, space for screening movies and off course a kitchen and space for their communal diners twice a week.

There is a wide variety in types of communal buildings that are build and used in the ecovillages I visited. It really depends on what happens and how many facilities are shared in the community building, how much it can contribute to community life. If there are for example laundry machines, a sauna, bathrooms or food storage, people meet here naturally more often. Especially in ecovillages with private households this can really help keep the communal feeling. This can also be helped by other buildings in an ecovillage, for example in the community shop or kindergarten.

The community store in Munksogard community, this store is by some perceived as the heart of daily life in the community. All members meet each other here on a daily basis and catch up on chit chat.

Accessibility for people in different financial situations.
After talking with several community members it became clear that the ownership structure also has a big influence on how accessible ecovillage life is for people with less financial means. This influences who can buy a plot of land and build their own house, but also who can rent or buy an already build house or apartment in an ecovillage. It seems on the one hand that living in ecovillages has grown to be quite popular in Denmark and with that, the prices that can be asked when selling a private plot or renting out a room in an ecovillage have become high. On the other hand, it seems that families building their own houses on private or communal land often run into the problem of ending up with a high mortgage and therefor high monthly costs. This can be either because building their own house became more expensive than expected, or because the banks ask high interest rates on loans for houses on communal land. In most of the ecovillages I came across, this has led to some households where the inhabitants were forced to work many hours to pay off their loans, lowering their capability to contribute to or enjoy community life.

Making private ownership accessible
Since in many cases part of the vision of a sustainable community is to live without being bound to a fulltime job to pay off a mortgage and to be accessible for people with all manner of occupations and financial means, some of the ecovillages I visited have taken on strategies to prevent their communities from becoming exclusively accessible for people with good financial means. I came across communal and individual strategies.

As communal strategies for keeping the housing prices low and the mortgages acceptable there are several, both successful and unsuccessful, examples. In one community both the land and the houses have remained in communal ownership, making it relatively easy to keep prices for living there low. However, the initial investment can in this case be difficult, it is more difficult to get private loans for investing in communaly owned houses. In some communities with private housing plots they try to make people build cheaply by setting a maximum square metres that the house can be. In another community they had kept all the land in communal ownership, which means they can influence the conditions for selling the private houses built on this ground. They set a limit on how much money the house owners could ask per square metre when selling the house. Hoping this would make members keep the expenses for building the house low. Unfortunately, this let on the one hand for the bank to ask very high interest rates on the loans for these houses, as the bank found it risky that the land under the house was not also privately owned. The interest rates for these loans were set around 6-7%, compared to 1-2% normally. Some years after the construction of the houses, this led to a big discussion in the ecovillage on making the maximum amount they could ask when selling the houses higher. This was also partially caused because the members had not build quite as cheaply as they had envisioned. They have now allowed the houses to be sold based on a bit more market based prices, though still relatively low compared to other ecovillages with private houses. In most of the other ecovillages with privately owned plots of land, the community has absolutely no control over the height of the mortgage a household gets, or the amount of money asked when a house is sold. Having led to some situations with high loans, and also to houses that are sold for relatively high prices.

One of the houses in ecovillage Fri og Fro where all land has remained in communal ownership, only the houses on the communal land are privately owned. They tried to keep housing prices low by setting a maximum on the amount that could be asked per square metre when a person wants to sell their house. The inhabitants have also cut costs by designing and even building the houses themselves.

Many people I spoke to referred to an ecovillage initiative that is started by the founder of an older ecovillage on Jutland Denmark, where they hope to achieve mortgage free living in community through a building plan with modular, prefabricated houses. Check out the project: https://grobund.org

Some individual measures are also taken by community members to live a free life with low monthly costs. Off course it starts with designing a house with a small footprint because a smaller house means less building materials, using second hand and cheap materials is a second strategy often used. Many inhabitants also try to keep costs down by doing a lot of the design or construction work themselves. Another strategy used is by designing their houses in such a way that they can rent out rooms when their own financial situations changes. Others invested in self-sufficient technologies that would keep their monthly costs for energy and water usage low. It can also safe in costs if facilities like laundry machines and storage space are housed in communal buildings.

Ecovillage Hallingelille, the houses in the front are examples of houses that are privately owned, in which the owners rent out rooms to other community members.

Making rental apartments accessible and communal
Several of the ecovillages also provide rental apartments in different ownership structures. Basically, when the community is in ownership of the rental apartments they can collectively decide on the monthly costs and keep them low. They then also have a full say in who will rent these houses, allowing them to make sure the future inhabitants will fit with the community spirit.

In a few ecovillages (some of) the land and houses with rental apartments are owned by an external organisation or the local municipality, who can then determine the rental prices. In these cases the rent is most of the time market-based and relatively high because ecological, communal housing is in high demand. In another case the rental apartments are owned by the municipality and rented out as social rent houses, again with relatively high monthly costs and long waiting lists. As I introduced in the paragraph above, one other, often occurring situation is that private house owners in ecovillages will rent out rooms in their homes. Because the houses are privately owned, the community has in this case no influence on which prices they ask for the rooms or which people they allow in. Sometimes this results in house owners subletting rooms for high prices, but in other cases also in for very friendly prices.

One block of rental appartments in community Munksogard. They are owned by the municipality, but all the inhabitants have a say in who becomes their new neighbor through a selection process. They also share a communal building (on the right in the picture) for diners and shared facilities.

Taking ownership into account when realizing an ecovillage
I am sure that the sample of different ownership structures that I came across in Denmark is only a glimpse of the many different constructions in ecovillages around the globe. The experiences do however provide a good source for discussion for groups of people wishing to start an ecovillage. The ownership structure that is chosen will in practice depend on many more aspects than just how much involvement of community members they envision and how accessible the ecovillage should be. However, as we have seen, the ownership structure does have a big influence on these elements, especially in ecovillages that have finished construction. When starting an ecovillage it would be good to open the discussion on what the initiative holders want to prioritize. Whether that be building with a small ecological footprint, being accessible for people of all different financial capacities, or wanting to create a lively community feeling.


Capitalization on ecovillages in Denmark?
The last couple of years commercial parties have realized that living ecologically and in community is in demand in Denmark and they have started to respond to this. Several organizations are now active in Denmark that provide or facilitate ecovillage living, through different business models. There is for example a commercial organization who buys a plot of land, has the whole village designed and constructed, including commercial facilities like vegetable gardens, a communal building and communal energy and water solutions. The organization then simply sells housing plots in this ecovillage. Other organizations are focused on supporting and facilitating the social process of starting an ecovillage. These organizations can be hired by groups of people interested in starting an ecovillage and will facilitate the process. There are two varieties of organizations like these. Some have their own vision on how the ecovillage should be designed and implemented, and they guide the group of interested people in designing a village along these lines. Other organizations leave much more of the contents and way of realizing the ecovillage up to the people interested, and merely facilitate the social and administrative process.

The rise of this type of organizations could be seen as the next step in scaling up the ecovillage movement. Making ecovillage life more accessible and easier to realize for a wider public. However, some members of existing ecovillages that I spoke to are sceptical of this commercially oriented organization of ecovillages. They doubt whether the ecovillages will turn out to be just neighbourhoods with ecological houses, rather than lively communities. They are also sceptical about the often low level of involvement by the future inhabitants during the designing stage, which could result in communities being build with specifications that do not actually meet the demands or needs of the inhabitants. They are also sceptical about how ecological the end product of these commercially orchestrated ecovillages will be. They fear the developing organizations might make deals with construction or building material companies, lowering the free choice for ecovillage members. They wonder how much involvement of members there will be in a community where the inhabitants did not have a say in the development. When inhabitants have not themselves made decisions for certain technologies or communal gardens they might not feel ownership over it. Or there might not be the right expertise amongst the community members to maintain those aspects. They also wonder if the communal building will be used if for example all the households have all essential facilities included. They also expect there to be a big difference in communal feeling depending on whether the group of inhabitants know each other before moving in there or not. On top of all this, they fear that the commercial parties ask a lot of money for the advice; making ecovillage life less accessible for people with little financial means.

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