Fourteen years ago, when Wendy Cheney moved to Soda Brook Cooperative, a resident-owned mobile home park in Northfield, she expected a peaceful, egalitarian community that diplomatically ruled itself – a place where everyone worked together, and respectfully spoke up.
“When I first heard of a co-op, I envisioned it as a commune with community gardens and neighbor helping neighbor,” Cheney said – a pint-size utopia without landlord rent hikes or oversight - or too many unpleasant surprises.
What she found was a slightly different story. In mobile home parks, homeowners’ associations and co-ops and organizations where members decide what happens to other members, democracy has bumps and bruises and sometimes fatal blows, and often ends up as a power struggle between competing individuals or factions. Civic life can take on the drama of high school, and mirror the political world at large, residents say.
Leaders want to stay leaders – a little too long. Followers are happy – or cowed - to be followers. And most people don’t want to be bothered to attend meetings or pay close attention as long as everything gets done, mobile home co-op members report. Undercurrents fester and civility can go out the window.
“You end up with a lot of tension between neighbors, in the way that neighbors communicate,” said Megan Hanson, who moved to Old Lake Shore Cooperative mobile home park in Gilford in 2012, and drew on skills she learned in early childhood education to deal with difficult neighbors and serve on the board. “I’m very good at framing things in such a way that it’s not offensive to hear. People have gotten on the board and when something needs to be said, they yell, they scream, they cuss,” Hanson said.
The result can be a powder keg. “That type of communication makes it difficult to communicate,” said Hanson. Criticism is stifled, including constructive suggestions. “Nobody wants to go against them because nobody wants to be the target of the wrath of that individual. It’s like high school. That’s everywhere, from what I’ve seen. Every time you get a group of people together, it tends to go that way.”
At resident-owned mobile home co-ops, neighbors govern neighbors typically with little training, experience or skills at managing people in high-conflict, frequent-contact situations. But their insights gained from experience hold valuable lessons for any community.
“The trick is to rise above it and learn to work with the group that you don’t usually associate with,” said Hanson, a mother of two, who received conflict resolution training from the park’s funder and start-up coach, ROC-NH. ROC-NH has roughly 132 affiliated resident-owned mobile home co-ops statewide which it helped covert from landlord-owned to resident-owned. Some co-op members have said there wasn’t enough active help from ROC-NH to make a financially stable, soundly-run and sustainable cooperative lead by novices who are volunteers, and in-fighting has gotten in the way of management. Others have said the problems lie in human nature.
Conflict resolution tactics can apply in many contentious situations, including beefs between neighbors, Hanson said. “Sometimes it works. Sometimes it blows up in your face. Sometimes you step back and regroup and decide if it’s something worth having a battle over. If it’s not life or death, or failing the co-op, sometimes it’s best to say it’s not a battle that needs to be fought. It’s a battle that needs to be walked away from.”
What usually works to defuse anger and reach compromises is active listening, said Hanson, which means carefully listening to what an angry or frustrated person says, repeating it back so they know you’ve heard them, then asking what they think might be some fair solutions. It’s important to start directly with the person involved, then take it higher up (to the co-op board) if it can’t be settled, or if the neighbor reverts to bothersome practices, she said.
When a hunting neighbor hung fresh kills from a tree in his front yard, Hanson asked if he would be willing to move it behind his house because her young children were disturbed by the constant sight. He refused because it wasn’t required in the by-laws. Other neighbors said were upset by it, too, so at the next co-op meeting a by-law change was voted in, requiring hunting kills to be hung behind homes, and the matter was solve. But it required interest and participation and working through channels properly, Hanson said.
“I’ve had problems with my neighbors, just like anyone else,” said Hanson, who advises others to document incidents, when they occurred, and what was said. Once a written complaint is submitted, the co-op board determines whether it’s covered by regulations or by-laws. The boards sends a friendly rule reminder to the person at fault. The aggrieved party can choose to be identified or remain anonymous. Sometimes there are blowbacks and vindictiveness, Hanson said, and rules need to be changed so people don’t feel their personal enjoyment of their home and the co-op is being violated. Regulations and by-laws need to be updated regularly. “Sometimes they get written and they’re not enforceable or timely anymore,” Hanson said.
Participation at meetings and running for board positions make the community survive long-term. “Each person brings their own experience. When you have the same group playing musical chairs with board positions, it stagnates the board. When you bring in new experience, the co-op flourishes,” Hanson said.
It’s critical to remain watchdogs, but let the board do its job with checks and balances in place – such as oversight committees, she said. Sometimes community members try work system by getting by-laws changed to further their own interests, and aren’t shy about circulating falsehoods to raise support.
At Soda Brook Co-Operative, one co-op member facing eviction for ongoing rule violations despite repeated warnings tried to get the community to agree to a by-law change that would require co-op members to vote on whether a member could be evicted – something which is usually handled by the board, with requirements outlined in by-laws. The solution was to give both the member and the board a chance to state their cases at a co-op meeting. After hearing the details, members sided with the board, and they were angry to have been misled by spurious claims, Cheney said.
Poking the bear
Sometimes co-op functioning gets stymied by chronic instigators and complainers, said Cheney. “After a while, you can tell who’s poking the bear, who’s into fighting to be right, not to solve the problem. You get a lot of that at municipal meetings, too,” said Cheney, who served as co-op board secretary for 14 years before someone was willing to run to replace her.
“There are people in (any) community who know it all – nobody does it right but them, so they fight to be right. As a community you have to decide whether they’re working for the community or for themselves,” Cheney said.
At one point, some of the members asked for by-laws training, but when it was offered, they never showed up, she said. “I think they just wanted to bash the board.”
Sometimes disagreements fester because members don’t understand that boards have the responsibility to make day-to-day operating decisions, choose contractors and spend cash within limits. If something is listed in capital improvements, the expense doesn’t need membership approval, Cheney said. “They think every time the board spends a penny it has to be voted on. We’ve had people going around with false petitions” because they don’t like they way things are done. One person changed the wording and meaning of a petition after all the signatures were collected, just before it went to court, she said.
People should consider the facts, not hearsay, before stoking controversy - especially if the issue is critical to the co-op. “If we succeed or fail, this is my home. I’m not going to risk my home to fuel a personal vendetta,” Cheney said.
Some things seem to by by-laws of human nature. “People don’t want to step up” to do the job, or participate, “but they sure want to complain," Cheney said, "like the person who doesn’t vote for president but spends the next four years complaining about who was elected." The ones who cause the most trouble in co-ops are usually the same people who cause trouble elsewhere, including at bank teller windows or supermarket check-outs, she said.
“You have to be open and learn that everybody’s not going to think like you,” said Cheney. “We have people in here that no matter what the board does, they’re going to disagree. If you’re always looking for conflict, you’re always going to find it. In the end, you’re not fighting for change. You’re fighting to be right.”
“In co-ops, you have people who want the authority - but not the responsibility,” said Cheney. “Some people are inclined to help. Others just want to pay their rent.”
The best solution to dissatisfaction with management and unwise decisions, said Tara Reardon, director of ROC-NH, is to vote new board members in. With small streets, neighborhoods and membership rule, co-ops have "all the pieces to be a great, inclusive community if folks will let that happen."
The Sunshine Project is underwritten by grants from the Endowment for Health, New Hampshire’s largest health foundation, and the New Hampshire Charitable Foundation. Roberta Baker can be reached by email at Roberta@laconiadailysun.com