How we could maintain a decent social life in cohousing unit Slottet in the midst of the Corona restrictions
By Bertil Egerö*
Slottet (“the Castle”) in Lund is a building created in 1924 to give good housing to poor households with four or more children. Over time the need for this type of social housing disappeared, and in 1984 it was bought by a group of people and converted to a cohousing unit. With sixteen flats, there are currently eleven adults in working age and seven minors. We, the remaining twelve persons, are retired and aged 70+ years. On the groundfloor we share a common kitchen located next to a dining room and a living room. We have two guestrooms, washing machines, a workshop, bicycle store, TV/film room, sauna etc. On the top floor there is a big room useful for table tennis and other activities, which also serves five small rooms to rent.
Slottet is ours, in the form of cooperative ownership by the 16 households. An annually elected board handles the economics of maintenance, loans etc. In addition, every adult has to be a member of our ‘social association’, where we in monthly meetings deliberate and decide on how to live, keep common spaces clean, cook and other joint matters. Joint cooking is on average done four times a week.
In early March 2020, the Corona virus began spreading over Sweden. One of the decisions taken by our government was to strongly recommend all people 70+ to isolate themselves, i.e. to go into quarantine.
Our normal meeting routines consist of monthly house meetings plus, when need appears, open “sofa” discussions that would not lead to any decisions. Now, however, we needed to find a good answer to what our government had recommended. Until then, common dinner had been served four times a week, with people sitting close to each other and enjoying the food. The dining room was also used for house meetings, where we had to sit close to each other.
What to do? A few of us decided to call an informal meeting where we could exchange over how to adapt to the recommendations. Two such meetings were held, one week apart. The second was intended to verify – or not – what we had agreed in the first meeting.
My rough guess is that around two thirds of us adults were present in the first meeting. A few questioned the need for such a meeting, probably meaning that it was up to each one to change according to what that person (or family) saw best to do. But the majority felt the need for such a discussion. One person offered to take note, and a lively discussion took place. These were the guidelines finally adopted, to be followed by everyone:
1.Those working etc. outside of Slottet, called the migratory birds, and their children, should no longer use our common kitchen, dining room or living room (common washing machines etc. excluded). We 70+, the stationary birds, were free to cook for each other and generally use the sitting room for reading papers or watching TV.
2. We, the stationary birds, took it upon us to keep the interior of the house clean, the migratory birds should take care of outdoor space. The stationary should clean all banisters and door handles once a day, on a voluntary basis.3.
3. In order to minimize risks, we were not allowed to use our two guest rooms for visitors, and the stationary birds should keep their contacts with friends etc at a minimum, and always outdoors. Even the migratory birds were encouraged to see friends etc outside the house.
“Today, the system appears to work. The stationary birds occasionally cook for each other, and generously allow the migratory birds to check in to get a share of then food.”
At the end of the first meeting we who were present decided that those who hadn’t attended would still have to accept our decisions. Interestingly, no objections were heard from those who had been absent. Today, the system appears to work. The stationary birds occasionally cook for each other, and generously allow the migratory birds to check in to get a share of then food. A trampoline has been purchased to the enjoyment of all the kids who no longer are allowed to play around in the house. However, the challenge we hadn’t discussed was: how to hold the next house meeting?
The TV in the living room is a kind of computer. Our master of all technical issues arranged for a meeting with the stationary birds sitting by the TV and the migratory birds using another TV (or was it a computer?) in the common space existing on the top floor. Personally I tested using my laptop or my smartphone from a different room (in principle what the majority of us could have done but many would not master). The arrangement did work sufficiently well, but wasn’t perfect. Why not try to have the meeting outdoors, on the lawn?
Two annual meetings should be held during the Spring, one by the social association (see above) and the other by the cooperative ownership association (in Swedish called bostadsrättsförening). Fortunately, weather served us well when we held them outdoors and back-to-back (see picture). The only problem was how to hear what the chair person or a member said, surrounded as we were by birds and children playing around us.
Today, three months later, we all feel that we have found the best possible arrangement: we who have to isolate ourselves can still enjoy the company of the other stationary birds, the migratory birds have to keep their risks of contagion low when they move around in our little town. One stationary couple has decided to avoid all contacts, i.e. they stay isolated in their flat. There are always migratory birds available to support them with food shopping.
The Corona period in no way affects the economy of our cohousing unit; those who work are lucky enough not to be dismissed. We have all found a way to live with the restrictions, and I see no signs that this will be changed. What will happen if one of us falls sick and dependent on support from the health system (a few elderly could be the first) is nothing we have touched so far. Perhaps it is too sensitive to raise?
Reflecting on how we live, I realise that our organizational model is highly dependent on the spatial organisation of Slottet: there are two sets of stairs (and no lifts) serving the flats on either side of our common space. They are connected either through the basement corridor with washing machines etc., the ground floor where the collective kitchen, dining room and living room are found, or the open ‘corridor’ – in fact a big common room – at the top floor. This allows all stationary birds to make use of the ground floor common rooms, while all migratory can check in to get a plate from the occasional common stationary meals.
“…it also matters that we, the 70+, can enjoy the sound of children who play on the lawn and jump on the trampoline. A substitute to absent grandkids, their presence confirms how well we are in our cohousing unit, compared to all those living alone in the flats.”
Luckily, we are not very anxious about the Corona, and haven’t allowed it to completely dominate our lives. Perhaps this sentiment, shared by I believe all in Slottet, reflects the fact that southern Sweden unlike for instance Stockholm has very few cases of Covid19 sick or dead. But I think it also matters that we, the 70+, can enjoy the sound of children who play on the lawn and jump on the trampoline. A substitute to absent grandkids, their presence confirms how well we are in our cohousing unit, compared to all those living alone in the flats surrounding our common yard, where contacts with neighbours so often are nil.
* Bertil Egerö, born 1936, social scientist, since the early 1980’s activist in and former board member of the Swedish cohousing movement Kollektivhus NU; since 1986 living in a cohousing unit, whereof since 1990 in Slottet Lund. Member of the group that organized the First International Collaborative Housing Conference, held in Stockholm in 2010.