The Chicken Problem: What Intentional Communities Get Wrong

People love the idea of values-based, democratic residential communities. So why don't they work?

Jul 25, 2023
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Thesis Driven dives deep into emerging themes and real estate operating models. This week’s letter dives into the world of intentional communities—developments based on shared values and democratic leadership—and explores their pitfalls and potential.

Living collaboratively with friends is a dream for many Americans at a certain point in their lives. Between the high cost of city living and the social isolation often associated with the suburbs—not to mention the challenges of raising children alone—there’s good reason the idea of living in a community with shared values, responsibilities, and even ownership is in high demand in concept.

I get asked about intentional communities a lot given my experience growing Common into the largest coliving brand in the United States, so I finally decided to put together some thoughts on the model.

In those early days of building Common, the team and I visited dozens of intentional communities. Some were single-asset coliving projects in the Haight; others were sprawling complexes of single-family homes in the rural West. Intentional communities are based on a shared set of values, purpose, and rules; most exist somewhere on the spectrum between an HOA and Rajneeshpuram. While we took Common in a more utilitarian direction and avoided the "intentional" label, the intentional communities we visited gave us inspiration—and more than a few cautionary tales.

Purposeful residential communities may begin as simply as a group of friends who want to live together, or they may come together as a larger, planned community. They build some residential structures, elect leaders, establish ground rules and basic financial management, and live in harmony.

Then one day someone decides to get some chickens, and everything goes to hell.

Today we’ll discuss the promise and potential of intentional living communities. But we’ll also highlight the pitfalls they often encounter: social, financial, and more. We’ll also talk about what this might mean for society, governance, and cities.

Intentional Communities in the Wild

Thesis Driven has previously covered new cities under development as well as large-scale placemaking projects. While intentional communities may take the form of a new city (e.g., Kiryas Joel) and often involve some placemaking, it’s a distinct concept.

Intentional communities typically involve shared values and democratic governance. They also don’t have to be particularly large; four friends who decide to buy a piece and land together and build houses on it can create an intentional community. Of course, there are variations in the degree of intentionality: some groups may only pool money for obvious common services like snow plowing and septic maintenance, while others may share childcare, manage a shared garden, and agree on a decision-making process.

Arcosanti, an intentional community an hour north of Phoenix, Arizona

The best-known intentional communities lean heavily on collaborative governance and shared principles. Arcosanti, the brainchild of architect Paolo Soleri, was created in 1970 as a new kind of urban "arcology" designed to maximize social interaction and collaboration while minimizing environmental impact. While the project was intended to eventually be home to more than 5,000 residents, approximately 100 people now live on its slopes in the Arizona desert approximately 60 miles north of Phoenix.

Other intentional communities have been somewhat more successful. Tucson, Arizona’s Milagro Cohousing is one well-known—albeit small with only 28 homes—multigenerational intentional community. Two others also in Tucson—Sonora and Stone Curves—operate at slightly larger scales. The US Cohousing Association maintains an exhaustive list of ongoing cohousing projects in the United States, with a similar effort in the UK ongoing here. The vast majority of cohousing communities are very small; only a handful have more than 50 units.

The exact lines between cohousing, coliving, and intentional community are debated, blurry, and occasionally overlap. In general, coliving implies rental housing with shared units and may or may not be an intentional community with shared values (the largest co-living operators—like Common and Bungalow—are generally not). On the other hand, cohousing implies private dwellings owned by the resident with shared space, shared values, and community-led governance. While all cohousing developments are intentional communities, not all intentional communities are cohousing: the Embassy Network, for example, is an intentional co-living community.

Milagro Cohousing, an intentional community in Tuscon, Arizona

During our research we visited a wide variety of communities fitting into all the above categories. Our exploration returned curious results. While residents would fiercely defend their communities, they didn’t always seem to be happy with their role in them. From interviews with intentional community participants, it became clear that a lot of their time was taken up by various decision-making processes, internal politics, and committees. Infighting abounded, and it felt like the more intentional the community, the more participants’ time and emotional energy was dedicated to petty grievances.

Sunward, a cohousing community in Ann Arbor, Michigan

The committees were a particular problem. One small community had over 50 separate committees, each with its own marginal domain of decision-making power and authority. When that community decided to build a chicken coop and purchase several chickens, they naturally formed a new Chicken Committee to manage everything chicken-related and staffed it with a half-dozen residents (who were each already on a number of other committees) with regularly scheduled meetings. Since many intentional communities had chickens, Chicken Committees abounded, sucking up residents’ time and energy debating the finer points of managing chickens.

This became known to us at Common as the Chicken Problem.

On Tribes

Understanding the Chicken Problem—why it arises, and why it’s so tough to solve—requires spending a bit of time discussing tribes.

Wifi Tribe, one of many tribal-branded intentional living communities

Intentional communities often embrace the aesthetics of a tribe: from the common presence of Native American art to tribal vernacular, these communities draw inspiration and (often) legitimacy from our species’ origins in small, tribal bands. Many intentional living startups have also explicitly embraced tribal imagery and terminology. After all, they argue, humans evolved to live in small, tight-knit groups—not massive, anonymous cities far away from family and friends.

Tribes, well-known for their luxury living experiences

Non-native intentional communities borrowing native terminology include Tribe (student housing and coliving company), Wifi Tribe (remote work startup), Tribe Coliving (recently rebranded Hive Coliving), and Tipi (coliving brand). And that’s not including many more subtler elements of branding and design that borrow from Native American artistic motifs.

It is certainly true that humans’ adaptive environment looked a lot more like rural intentional communities than urban agglomerations or cookie-cutter suburbs. But genuinely replicating that environment would require a lot of choices we’re probably unwilling to make, and producing a flawed version a tribal environment seems to foster a lot of weird and unpredictable behaviors.

Specifically, real-world human tribes have three things that are absent from most Western intentional communities:

  1. Familial Bonds. Most members of early human tribes were related by blood, and inbreeding to varying degrees was common and helped retain bonds between tribe members. Genetic diversity was usually gained by raiding other tribes or being raided. This approach to building community would be frowned upon today.

  2. Clear Leadership. We’ll discuss this in more detail in the next section, but tribes weren’t generally democracies—or at least not how we think about democracy in the West today. Typically, leadership was clear and often came with quasi-religious mandate if not implied otherworldly powers.

  3. Obvious Out-Groups. Tribes in the adaptive environment didn’t exist in isolation; rather, they had rivalries—often violent—with other tribes. Being in a struggle for survival against a clear and defined other helped tribes stay unified and avoid infighting.

Kiryas Joel, an ultra-Orthodox community 60 miles north of New York City, is debatably the most successful intentional community in the US of the past 50 years. Notably, it has all three of these things—tight family bonds with low rates of intermarriage, top-down (religious) leadership, and clear out-groups in the form of neighboring communities and modern society writ large.

Kiryas Joel, New York

Without those unifying factors, tribes can unravel rather quickly. My hunch is that living in an environment completely alien to our evolutionary instincts—like an urban center, for instance—may in fact be easier on our lizard brains than living in a tribal-like setting that happens to be missing a few critical ingredients that make tribal living work.

For someone looking to start an intentional community, two of the three factors are fairly difficult to change: genetics are genetics, and not everyone can convince their parents and siblings to pick up and move to a piece of land out in the country. And spending time defining and ostracizing an out-group is rightly discouraged in modern society.

Leadership, on the other hand, can be addressed.

On Local Democracy

The Chicken Problem is fundamentally a symptom of a lack of leadership—or more specifically, an intentional decision made by a community to institutionalize a lack of leadership.

In theory, democratic rule is appealing to those looking to live in a purposeful community. From a young age, Americans are taught that democracy is an objective good, and more democracy is always better. And at a national scale, that appears to be true: Democracy is famously the worst form of government except for all those other forms that have been tried.

However, the benefits of democratic government appear to erode into annoyance at smaller scales. If given a choice, people will often claim to want a say in even the most minute of details. But having that say—or worse, having to debate those details with a committee of their peers for hours on end—doesn’t appear to make them happier. And counterintuitively, creating more forums for democratic input can actually make the whole system less egalitarian and representative.

Local community board meetings are an example of this at work. Many elected officials choose to defer to decisions about new apartments, bike lanes, and other changes in the public realm to community meetings. These meetings can take many hours and often happen at inconvenient times for people with jobs or kids, which usually means that the voices of the wealthy, childless, and retired are prioritized. Matt Yglesias wrote an excellent piece about community meetings here, and we previously profiled a developer who went through 450 community meetings to get their project approved.

Intentional communities tend to replicate the worst elements of community board meetings, offering their residents what they claim to want—a voice in all decisions that are made—rather than what would optimize for their happiness and well-being.

The Cautionary Tale of Campus

When we started Common in mid-2015, there was already an established, venture-backed coliving operator based in the Bay Area: Campus. Campus operated hundreds of coliving rooms and had raised millions in venture capital from top-tier Silicon Valley firms including Founders Fund.

Campus homepage circa 2015

About a week after we closed our first round of financing for Common, Campus abruptly shuttered and filed for bankruptcy protection. While this came as a surprise to many, the early Common team wasn’t shocked: we had watched them struggle with vacancy, operations, and other problems. And many of their problems could be traced back to the amount of decision-making power and control they had given their residents.

Unlike Common, Campus considered itself to be an intentional community. More accurately, Campus considered itself to be a network of intentional communities with each coliving home with its own rules, values, and membership standards. On the surface, giving each community control of its own membership process made sense: how can an intentional community function if it can’t control who gets in?

But from a business standpoint, handing control of their leasing process to existing residents spelled Campus’s doom. Even if those residents were fully aligned with Campus’s goals—and they weren’t—it’s unreasonable to expect that a group of busy individuals with full-time jobs and lives could effectively conduct their own tenant vetting and selection process. (Not to mention the fair housing concerns.) And as the master lessee of most of its buildings, Campus’s financials suffered as resident communities dithered over approving new members.

While it’s easy to say that Campus gave their tenants a bit too much control, I don’t believe there’s an obvious middle ground between "total control" and "no control". Without a final say over membership, a group of people living together might be a community, but it’s not really an intentional one. And once they have that control, I don’t believe a manager or landlord can put any limitations on that control—say, a time limit to make decisions or a veto right—without provoking ire and creating a high-thrash, frictional relationship.

It’s also not clear to me that communities are happier when they have that control, which can lead to fights and second-guessing not to mention the tremendous amount of work required on the part of residents who are not getting paid to be leasing or sales agents. If given the choice, they’ll take it. But it doesn’t necessarily make residents happier or more comfortable in their living situation.

Paradoxes of Choice

I want intentional communities to work. The concept holds tremendous promise, particularly in a world that suffers from more loneliness, social isolation, and polarization than ever before.

But building these communities right requires acknowledging that we live in the modern world, not in a familial tribe on the African savannah. Residential management is far too complex for normies who want a fairly predictable set of services and amenities. But without the normies, intentional communities degrade into bickering over minute details among people with too much time on their hands—a mutant, super-powered HOA that makes everyone miserable and scares away all but the most committed.

And it may turn out that the best route for intentional community may be familial after all. Developers like Urban Pacific have seen success building extra-large homes for multi-generational families to live together, a way of living that’s particularly popular among immigrant communities but has gained popularity among native-born Americans since the pandemic.

Intentional communities can be a path out of loneliness and isolation. But we should keep it simple and pass on the chickens.

—Brad Hargreaves

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Jul 25Liked by Brad Hargreaves

This very much resonated with me as a chicken owner!

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