Take time to venture out in the city and often very quickly you will experience a conversation, whether it be in a pub, a church, or community center, that someone has an opinion on the topic of housing and the issues facing our city. And no matter where it lands, know that you are not alone as this is not unique to just our region.
What is unique are the many opportunities one still can find here like the topic of co-housing — a concept rooted in history and roaring back into fashion as folks look at solutions.
Rapid Growth's former editor, Anna Gustafson, reported on this local matter with her piece, "The search for affordable housing in Grand Rapids: How housing co-ops are making a difference
" in 2016.
This month, I sit down to chat with artist Alynn Guerra
of Red Hydrant Press, someone I know who has been in a co-housing living space for more than 17 years, to glean personal insights beyond the stats and stereotypes.
It is our hope that these rooted-in-community conversations we have had over the past year will free up fears of the unknown. At the same time, we look to continue to showcase distinct solutions that local folks have discovered for others to consider as they, too, seek ways to build a home, but ultimately a meaningful community, in the city.
The Future Needs All of Us,
Tommy Allen: The Koinonia House or K-House, as I have heard from friends over the years, has been your home in Grand Rapids for many years. Can you share what the name means in your own words?
Alynn Guerra: It’s Greek and is hard to translate exactly but it means to be “in community with.”
TA: That is quite beautiful. I know a lot of people have different ways of naming their housing activity, so how do you describe you and your community members within K-House?
AG: We use the term housemates and we are an intentional community with a desire to be part of a community that we build within the house with people who, like me, want to spend time with or get along with, or you want to support or be supported by.
TA: How does that work in reality?
AG: The thing is everybody brings to the group their perks that help define the personality of that community. And it has changed over time as many have lived here since it began many decades ago.
TA: You have lived here since 2001. How has the community changed over time and what can we learn from your observation?
AG: Sometimes [that history] has been very vibrant and lively. In those times, we have had lots of festive gatherings. And sometimes things are a bit slower with folks off doing what they love in this world. I have been here long enough to have experienced a good cross section of those experiences.
TA: And as I look around, I see your daughter is in the other room playing, so what period is this now?
AG: Either because we're all getting older — and not as lively as much — or maybe because we are busier now — but we still enjoy spending time together — it is a quieter period. We all have such busy lives who live here, so we do not gather as much to converse as we used to in the past.
I have my art practice [at Red Hydrant Press] and our other housemates have full lives as well. One works in the city, but he also works as an animal activist, while our other roommate, also an activist, is a musician.
TA: I imagine the changes are natural or maybe a product of age or the times as well, no?
AG: I think back on the years when we had very strict rules that we needed to have followed to bring some organization to the home. I was younger then and we probably needed that schedule. [In those days,] we used to take turns making the meal and gather not just at the table together for supper but on Friday nights, we would gather at the Cottage Bar.
But as time has progressed and the housemates change (and maybe again it is age), we find that the strictness is not necessary since we honor within each other that folks have different ways of working or living now. So the rules might have given us a good structure at the start. And as we have moved through time, we have adopted new ways of living as any community does with the changes.
TA: Those communal meals sound lovely. I know how much I value those I have spent with friends.
AG: I still love when I come home and discover someone has cooked a meal to share. On those occasions, I am like, “Oh, we’re having dinner together! That’s so cool.” I get excited when we have a meal but don’t feel bad if we cannot since we all are busy.
TA: I am sure living with so many over the years you must have learned much?
AG: The one thing that I have learned from living here as a life lesson is for me to learn to be very accommodating. You can't be passive aggressive. You have to be open to communication if you have a problem.
TA: That is the secret to a good marriage as well (laughs). What is the most amount of folks you have lived with here and then maybe the least?
AG: The most at one time was seven — and that was not for very long — with the very least being just myself before I got married.
TA: Who makes an ideal housemate for folks who may want to also consider a co-housing model moving into the future?
AG: I would not suggest moving in with a friend. That is hard on the friendship. So it is not so much getting the right people but getting people who form a certain connection. When you live long enough, you begin to pick up on those items that make a good fit.
TA: We live in a time of great housing stress as cities all over the world begin to swell with a surge in population growth as folks flock back to cities. It's not just a Grand Rapids problem, but we have been reporting it here in Rapid Growth about the growth of co-housing
and how there is a real need for creating local solutions together. What are the benefits that you see to co-housing with others?
AG: One of the biggest perks is that it frees up your time because you are sharing expenses with others that a traditional house does not offer. If you live with your partner or wife, you are on the hook for the expenses as a family unit. But when you co-live, you are free to explore your passion more freely.
TA: So co-housing can remove the delayed gratitude of following one’s bliss in this life that is often reserved for retirement and moves it to the now?
AG: Co-housing frees you from having to have a traditional Monday through Friday, 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. lifestyle. It is freeing to know that you are not tied to a job as you are able to navigate this world differently as a result of co-housing. I have seen a lot of the people who have lived at K-House be able to go self-explore our world. It enables one to explore their passion whether it be activism, an art residency, or something like non-commercial music.
We recognize that we all have to have some form of income to pay our bills. But if you share bills with, say, four people, you are only on the hook for a fourth of that total.
TA: But there has to be challenges, too, with co-housing?
AG: Well, there are always personality matters that arise. Look, you don't have to be friends with all the people that you live with. But we can choose to be respectful. And I feel that's a very helpful community lesson in the political climate of today.
TA: Have there been other co-housing places in which you have lived over time or visited?
AG: Oh, sure. I have visited the Beehive Collective out East and they have a lot of rules because they have a lot of people …
TA: ... and a lot of young people. I knew an artist who was with them for a while. (Editor’s note: Pat Perry
, whose show is on display at UICA, lived and traveled with the Bees after leaving Grand Rapids.)
AG: I have also stayed at the Chicago-based Stone Soup Cooperative, which is very diverse in many ways from ages to welcoming families. And there are benefits to both a smaller house as well as a larger one.
The best part of larger communities is that there is always food on the table so you are not hungry. But on the other hand, while living here in our smaller setting, once I was just $1,000 short of securing a printing press for my art. I’ll never forget that day when I came home to discover that my housemates had gathered the monies needed to get me set up with the press quicker. I paid them back, but the generosity coming from within our community was really touching.
TA: This might seem like some wild hippie dream but in reality, it is not when you experience it as you have shared but also witnessed around the nation.
AG: The way we often look at home today is that you start with your family and, yet, as soon as you get older, all you think about is leaving that family. Instead, I advocate that we begin to unlearn what we have been taught, since so many families for generations have lived together. It is not a foreign concept in the history of humankind.
TA: Are there other examples of how having this community has helped you out during a difficult time in your life?
AG: When my mother was diagnosed with M.S., I had to travel to Mexico to be with her. I had so little money to get there, so my housemates threw a gathering at K-House that helped me cover those travel expenses.
TA: What happens when one leaves?
AG: Oh, the bond stays there because of what we experienced and created for each other together. You may not be friends, but the connections you formed are very real. So when I do run into them in life, I hug them and tell them how happy I am to see them again. It is the bonds that remain between us because of this community experience.
TA: So what do you think is the future of the Koinonia House, but also what do you think the future of co-housing is in Grand Rapids?
AG: Well, sadly, I feel like here we have reached our final point. After living in the Koinonia House over all these many years, I have learned that the problem, I feel, — and if I ever do it again — I would know going into it that when you own something in a co-housing setting, nobody really owns it and so nobody ever takes ownership of it.
You know it's very hard to take ownership of something that you know also belongs to six other people. And the problem there is that you don't take very good care of it you either if you are thinking you're going to leave.
I'm always contradicted by the notion of ownership, but I am also a person that likes to be rooted. So while I don't like the sense of ownership, in practice I feel like I need to make sure that I own it.
TA: Systems of ownership are changing from when K-House was set up and while I hear you, I am hopeful there are changes still coming as this style of living returns to be a viable practice for people seeking to remain in the city. The concept of co-housing has many layers for folks. Some have shared others can make them feel like they are weird or possibly shame since it does go against what has become contemporary America's dominant narrative, but it also has some very real benefits, too, and so is worth discussing here in our city. Any closing thoughts on these diverse emotions and maybe where you might land after living nearly 18 years here in one of the city’s longest-running self-organized co-housing units?
AG: I am going to sound like I don’t care, but if you really care about what folks think, then don’t do it. You care too much about others’ opinions. But we don’t care what others think because we know we work in a space that may not be others’ American Dream.
But for us who choose to live this way, we are way past worrying about what others think of us. We have chosen a life that we understand breaks some other folks’ ideas of living. However, we do know that we are, by living, creating new opportunities in our community. And if new ideas do not happen in a community, then we become a stale society.