Whole Village

We were a little later getting to Whole Village than we planned, but our host Brenda met us and they had a big spread of cookies and brownies and banana bread they had made for us, so we had some of that and some of the food we had brought with us, then sat in the large common room of the house by the fireplace and she told us a bit about the creation of the community. She said it started in the late 1990s with a Rudolf Steiner-influenced community north of the area, and they looked at the farm site but they didn’t want to be too far from the Waldorf school, so a few couples split off and eventually bought the farm in 2002.

They started building the house in 2004 and moved in in 2006, but along the way they ran into an issue with the township, their neighbours were afraid they were going to build a huge complex or be a cult or something — someone made the mistake of saying they were thinking they might have as many as 100 people. So the community fought them and the township wouldn’t agree to the zoning, one councillor supported them but wouldn’t say so publicly. Finally a planner they met said that he knew the plan they had was legal, so they fought it and eventually won — the key was that none of the suites have stoves that are wired in. They have sinks and fridges but only hot plates for cooking, and apparently that meant it was considered a single dwelling.

They bought the land and got a conservancy easement on it, so it is held in trust for 999 years — that allowed the owner to claim a tax deduction and she passed some of the savings on. There are two 100-acre lots, 28 acres is tax free because they protect it and it helps protect the watershed of the river. They pooled their money and got a $560,000 mortgage which has since been paid off. It cost $2.4M to build the house, which consists of the common areas and 11 apartments or suites, each of which is attached to the main house but has a separate entrance as well. Some are two bedrooms, one was six bedrooms but has been divided up into two smaller units. They talked to TD but wound up getting a collective mortgage from their credit union, so if someone can’t make the payments then the rest are on the hook for it. You can rent or sell your unit, but the community has to agree to accept the renter or owner.

They did a lot of it themselves, until they got out of their depth. One member was an architect and he designed the house but made some mistakes or bad choices, so the roof leaks because the material used didn’t last, and some of the skylights leak. The common area is 6500 square feet, which some people think is bigger than they need. Brenda’s one-bedroom suite is 600 square feet, everyone pays for their unit plus a share of the common areas and a share of the farm. The house took two and a half years to build, which was way too long. Right now they have half and half ownership and rentals, some people are renting because they are trying to sell. You have to rent for a year before you can buy as a trial to see if the community wants you; a two bedroom is $1200 and that includes the common areas and a share of the farm.

Whole Village Property Co-op Inc is the parent, technically a for-profit, under that is Greenhaven Co-op, which is a non-profit, both share a board of directors. They started as a corporation and then became a co-op. They use CT Butler’s consensus process for decision making, renters get same rights as owners but only owners can block a decision. They have a series of committees or mandate groups like legal, financial, communications, education, community dynamics, farm/land stewardship etc. There are three levels of membership: you can be an associate member and pay $10 a month, or you can become a provisional member for a year at $50 a month, and then full members pay dues for heating and electrical etc as well as maintenance and taxes for the barn. Brenda pays $321 a month in dues and maintenance and $300 a month for the farm. In order to be a full member you have to be assigned a mentor, read certain books, come to events, can do three month trial or intensive for two weeks, write a biography and then two interviews, one informal and one formal; fill out a questionnaire; one couple we had to ask them to leave, another guy we presented him with evidence from his past and he decided to leave so we decided we had to get to know people better.

Members pay $115 a month for food basics and have to pay for meals separately, the cooks work out the cost of a meal and then divide it by how many come. They used to do five meals a week when there were more retirees, but maybe two or three a week now. So if you buy a unit you have to pay the owner $12,000 for the membership share, $2000 is admin costs; $50,000 for a land share (the price of the land divided by 11) and then whatever price you negotiate with the owner. They use geothermal heat with heat pumps, hot water pipes under the floor; some of it didn’t work out at first, had to add a separate hot water heater; two septic tanks, wetland cells, leaching beds and composting toilets; a masonry fireplace heater heats the whole common space; 55 skylights but many of them leak so they’re covered with plastic; They have several fields that they work but they also rent out to local farmers, and they have a large garden and several pigs, two cows and a bunch of chickens. They get volunteers to help with the farm and do work bees for canning, making char, etc.

Mark, a young man who is doing a trial membership with his girlfriend, gave us a tour of the farm and the rest of the grounds (there is an old farmhouse they are renting out and renovating, and also a couple of small cabins they rent and use for volunteers). He said he is thinking about buying into the community if he is accepted, he likes working on the farm (he is an arborist) but he did say that there was a certain power difference between the older members and owners and renters like himself. All the members commit to doing nine hours of work per week, either in the house or on the farm, and there are sign-up sheets in the kitchen. Some people do a lot of farm work and no housework and some do the opposite.