Landlord/tenant agreement vs. Intentional Community

Some people feel that intentional community should be a place where there is so much trust and good will that there is no need to make a contract. Surely we can work things out as we go? But this lack of clarity is risky for both sides. An intentional community that offers rental space can have a clear landlord/tenant agreement and still be a place where people are respected and treated with compassion. Let’s dig into this thorny issue.

Best Intentions But Too Much Uncertainty

I’ve been in touch with a landowner past retirement age who owns a piece of land with several houses in a high-income area. The landowner does short term rentals but is tired of managing it. She can’t afford to continue to meet all the expenses alone and has a tremendous debt burden. The landowner has been interested in finding others to buy in, but hasn’t approached them with a solid offer. She’s a lifelong activist and generous with her time. She believes her years of sacrifice and service should show others who she is. She feels it should be obvious that she would always treat others fairly.

My idea of nice next gens here—maybe with kids who are plugged in locally, learn the ropes, take on some of the stress instead of me, and then earn to be the heirs—is like banging head against concrete wall. … I have hinted to hundreds of people who pass thru here about this general idea, and no one picked up that ball and ran with it.

Here’s my response to the note above:

It seems a lot of landholders have a similar hope that if they just could find the right renters, there could be a feeling of family, a respite from the self-serving norms. Some renters have a similar hope that their devotion, going the extra mile, will pay off with them being treated like family. This approach usually leads to disillusionment, because eventually there will be some kind of conflict. Even a small conflict, such as a request to let a friend in need stay for a while in their same space, brings up the hidden assumptions. Often this results in a feeling of betrayal on both sides. The renter thinks they’re not using extra space, so it seems to them a fair request that shouldn’t cost them more. The landlord thinks, obviously an extra person means extra utilities, so of course they should pay extra.

What I’ve seen happen in intentional communities, including the one I lived at, is lots of good intentions but not much reckoning with the shadow side of human nature. The realists are the ones who make a contract because they acknowledge more the shadow side. Many idealists think we don’t need to make an agreement or contract, because we feel we are more generous than most. We are sure our good intentions will enable us to navigate any issues that come up. This idealism can be problematic for both the landowner and the community seeker. Both may have a nebulous idea of good will and care, but the lack of a detailed written signed agreement is a risk. It means both sides almost always have assumptions that are likely unfounded and that the other party has no requirement to uphold.

Your intentions are great, and you are sure you would never make someone leave unfairly. The renter can’t be sure of that. If you want buy-in of others who can help you with the financial burden long term, you need a plan that gives contributors a legal right to some share of the physical property or option to sell their financial share. They also need to know they’ll have a say in decisions about joint property. Otherwise, it’s a landlord/tenant agreement, not an intentional community. Most potential contributors recognize that without a contract, it would not be wise to devote themselves to improving the property and investing heavily to establish a financially solvent situation. So if you’re suggesting the idea that they take on some of your stresses, without offering to set up a contract to make sure they can share the benefits, they see you’d be in a position to take advantage of them.

Psychological Research on Bias

Both sides lack awareness of how they fall into typical self-serving biases.

  • Contribution estimates: Both sides, landowners and renters (or slow-buyers in rent-to-own), as humans tend to do, are likely to overestimate their own contribution and underestimate the contribution of others. Both sides thinks their contributions are fair, and probably consider themselves generous compared to what should be expected. They end up feeling undervalued.
  • Attribution bias: Both sides, when something unexpected comes up, are likely to see their own less-than-exemplary behavior as an understandable reaction to a difficult circumstance, while others’ less-than-exemplary behavior is seen as evidence of consistent traits (i.e., how they typically are).

Renter/worker Perspective in a Landlord/tenant Agreement

Many people who have few resources are looking for ideally some kind of a rent-to-own arrangement, sometimes with sweat equity as all or part of the rent. They will accept simple small spaces and/or shared accommodations. They are looking for an assurance that if they work long and consistently, they will eventually get to share in the property long term and enjoy the fruits of their labors. However, with no contract, whenever there’s conflict with the owner, they don’t feel like they can be honest or critical. If they openly disagree with a decision, they can be dismissed easily by the landowner. Then it seems the landowner took advantage of all their work. I’ve seen workers put in months of sweat equity then get nothing out of it, except a lesson learned the hard way, which means they probably won’t try “community” again. There’s a power imbalance. The renters can be challenged, but the leader’s blind spots or bias can’t be corrected. The whole community is hindered by this. It creates an us-against-them dynamic that’s hidden under a grudging compliance, like workers have with bosses.

Landowner Perspective in a Landlord/tenant Agreement

The landowners may intend to share decision-making, but they usually hesitate to share important decisions, for good reason. They’re the one with real equity or money to lose. They let the group make minor decisions. What’s often missing is a landlord/tenant agreement contract that gives community seekers a real way to buy in, to share responsibility, and not get kicked out on a whim. Leaders think they wouldn’t ever do that, but the renters don’t have any assurance that a leader would always be fair. On the other hand, renters think they would never be ungrateful, would never take advantage of a situation, but what if they are in a difficulty they didn’t foresee? Let’s admit a difficult fact about financial contributions of community seekers:

  1. Resourced and idealistic: These are people with marketable skills, good health, emotional maturity, supportive family, and/or adequate social skills. They have enthusiasm and a lot to contribute. If community life doesn’t work out, they have other workable options. You need to have an ideal setup to attract and keep these desirable renters.
  2. Less-resourced and in need: These are people to some degree tired of life’s challenges, who failed to make it on their own, or who have anxiety about future needs. These may lead to seeking community with people who will accept labor and company as full or partial payment for a safe place to sleep and consistent meals.

The truth is, none of us remain forever in the first category, at a point in life when we seem to have it all. These well-resourced people may be the least reliable community members, because they can leave easily when the slightest challenge emerges. They may leave simply because a new opportunity is available and they’ve gained what they came for. Many intentional community seekers in the less-resourced second category are willing to put up with the inconveniences and uncertainties of community life, because they have few better options.

Consider the possibility that a renter gets a long-term illness, depression, or reverts to an expensive addiction. They can’t pay rent and have nowhere to go. The landowner is likely paying a mortgage, taxes, and may barely make ends meet in their rental situation. They may be supporting children too. The landowners may be compassionate people in general, but they might not have signed up to be social service providers. They aren’t getting money from the government to do so, and it can take years to get non-profit status. It can be a challenge to qualify to receive social service funds that might subsidize payments as a housing provider for a low-income or vulnerable population. Most landlords can’t afford to have a rental unit not bringing income, because they have taxes and maintenance expenses. It may take a legal battle to make the non-paying, non-working resident leave, as they may insist they will come up with the rent money as soon as possible. Meanwhile, the renter is thinking, where’s the love now? The renter may have contributed a lot of extra work, but not in a way that pays the bills. The other residents may feel either more secure or less secure, based on how they see the situation handled. It would certainly feel awful for everyone if you send someone away knowing they have nowhere to go. The landowner would do well to let the others in on the decision, to keep a sense of solidarity for the community. Yet the residents are more likely to side with the renter unless the residents’ own financial interests are threatened by the dead weight. A compassionate landlord might find a way to rally the other residents to help support a non-paying renter in crisis. The main point is, it’s better for contingencies to be considered in advance and agreed on.

A Good Match Accommodates Needs of Both Sides

I don’t want to paint the second (needy) category as undesirable. Some find a way to match up strengths and weaknesses in a way that works for everyone. For example, there are older folks who don’t want to leave their farm. They can share or divide their home, or add a residence, to bring in young able-bodied workers. The young farmers can meet physical demands, learn from the owners, and pay off the place with a rent-to-own agreement that keeps the owners living there as long as they choose to. The owners sometimes make a more affordable offer because they love the land, don’t want to see it become a suburb, and trust that the human connection is more enjoyable and brings more security than a bigger pile of money in the bank. The young farmers may have no chance in the current economy to come up with a down payment or make a farm work financially before they level up their skills. With a Landlord/tenant agreement, the landowners can accommodate for declining mobility without leaving the home they love. It can be a near-perfect win-win. One organization, Young Agrarians in Canada, helps facilitate these arrangements. Similarly, land trusts often can arrange for financial arrangements that alleviate tax burdens. See also the Benevolent Dictator description.