The Problem with Urban Communes

by Raven

Three months ago, in July, there were three urban communities in the FEC. As of now (October, 2019), there are none. Zero.

The reasons for their demises were different.

The Mothership in Portland, Oregon, fell apart because of major financial problems, plus the resulting interpersonal conflict.

2017-12-16 15.21.55
Door at the Mothership

Cotyledon, in Queens, NY, ended when we felt it was no longer working for any of us. (For me, the problem was that more than four years ago, gil, DNA, and I began talking about creating community and, after two and a half years of discussion and almost two years of living together, it was still only the three of us interested in doing it.)

There were major interpersonal and other problems at Compersia, in Washington, DC, last spring leading to a situation where they went from eight adult members to three. As far as I know, they are still continuing as a group, but they recently announced that they were leaving the FEC because they felt that the FEC was insufficiently interested in pursuing racial and social justice.

One of houses Compersia was in


This is true but I think that it’s somewhat difficult for rural communities to deal with racial problems.  I was in a meeting not long ago where people were talking about how safe communities are for people of color and an African American woman said she would never feel safe at Twin Oaks, if only because of its location. She said that she had heard that that area of Virginia wasn’t safe for people with darker skin.

In the 1990s I helped create a commune in Cambridge, MA.  I remember that the FEC (which also had two communes in Seattle which were getting involved) was then struggling with how to deal with urban communes.  Since then the FEC has had communes apply from Baltimore, Richmond, VA, and Columbus, OH.  All are gone.

I am still in New York City as I write this but by the time it is published, I will be at East Brook Community Farm, in rural New York. I love the people that I will be living with, but I am going to miss the opportunities that come with living in the city.  I think that Point A had a point.  More people live in the city and we need to build urban communes. It’s just very hard to do.

The duplex that housed Cotyledon

It’s not that you can’t do community in the city. I know from experience that the Boston area has a lovely network of co-op houses, plus two cohousing communities in Cambridge and one in Jamaica Plain, and Brooklyn, in NYC,  is filled with collective houses.   I’m sure that most cities across the US have co-ops, collectives, and cohousing.  But it’s doing income-sharing that seems impossible in urban settings. (Ganas, in NYC,  seems a major exception to this, but they have a small income-sharing group with a larger non-income-sharing community built around it.)

I don’t know the answer to how to make urban communes work.  If I did, I would be living in one now.  But I have a few ideas.

The first is something gil, who I lived with in Cotyledon, has been talking about. Instead of starting by creating a commune, begin by building a cooperative business.  Once that is going, it is easier to create a community around it.  It would be much easier to do income-sharing in the city if there was already work for people to do.  (If you join Acorn or East Wind, they already have a business they can plug you into, and Twin Oaks has several.)

Another thing I have thought about is starting communities in large towns or small cities. Rent or property ownership is likely to be less expensive and it might be easier to network with rural communities. Maybe with a network of communes in towns it would be easier to build up to the cities.

Again, I don’t have the answer as to how to make lasting urban communes. I just know that it’s an important question to consider for those of us who care about the future of egalitarian income-sharing communities.


Thanks for reading! This post was made possible by our patrons on Patreon. The Commune Life team works hard to bring you these stories about our lives in community, and that work couldn’t happen without support from our audience. So if you liked this article, and want to help us make more like it, head on over to to join us! 

Deep gratitude to all of our patrons:  


  • Acorn Community
  • Compersia Community
  • East Brook Community Farm
  • The Federation of Egalitarian Communities
  • Twin Oaks Community


  • Aaron Michels
  • Brenda Thompson
  • Cathy Loyd
  • Em Stiles
  • Jenn Morgan
  • Jonathan Thaler
  • Julia Elizabeth Evans
  • Kai Koru
  • Kathleen Brooks
  • Laurel Baez
  • Lynette Shaw
  • Magda schonfeld
  • Michael Hobson
  • Nance & Jack Williford
  • Peter Chinman
  • Sumner Nichols
  • Tobin Moore
  • Warren Kunce
  • William Croft
  • William Kadish





The Problem with Urban Communes

Organizing the Mothership

from the Commune Life Instagram account



Organizing the Mothership

The Mothership Clearness Process


from The Mothership website

Clearness Process  

    Clearnesses are intended to facilitate communication and bonding between individual community members, ensure that small interpersonal conflicts are addressed on a regular basis so they do not grow into major fires, and bring private challenges and excitements into public light.

Going through the whole clearness process is called “getting clear.” All residents of The Mothership are required to get clear at least once per year. This means each pair of crewmembers should be getting clear twice a year; once during each of their annual clearnesses. For any number of reasons (including the suggestion of a crewmember) an individual may choose to get clear more often, and non-residents may also choose to get clear.  A request for a clearnesses must be treated as a high priority and we agree to meet within 7 days if expediency is requested.

    In order to “get clear,” the focus person (the person who is having  a round of clearnesses) must seek out each crewmember of The Mothership to have an individual clearness. We encourage folks to be as open and honest as they can in these clearnesses, since this is a good opportunity to clear up interpersonal issues. If two people have particular difficulty with each other, they may ask for someone else to be present to help the conversation go more smoothly. Clearnesses should be guided by the focus questions  described below. If concerns come up, the two people should seek to first understand the concern and then work to resolve it or work on defining a path towards resolving it, if possible. Ideally they will reach a state of sufficient clarity with each other that when one of them summarizes the concern and conversation in the group the other will not need to clarify, correct, or argue.

2018-08-25 18.06.35.jpg

    You are encourage to discuss your consent relationship within the clearness process; how we’re accessing each others bodies, time and engagement.  This helps create a culture of consent for our community.

    Some focus questions should exist within any clearness, while others will depend on the specific context in which the clearness occurs.

Focus questions for all clearnesses:

  • What am I excited about in our current relationship?
  • What do I find difficult or challenging about our current relationship?
  • What do want to change about our current relationship?
  • What would I like our future relationship to look like next month? In a year?  In a decade?

Focus questions as part of a long-term guest application:

  • How do I feel about our relationship in light of the possibility of you/me continuing to be a guest at The Mothership?
  • Do you/I have any unmet needs during or as a result of your visit to The Mothership?

Focus questions for a crew member in their trial period (first 3-6 months):

  • How do I feel about our relationship in light of the possibility of us continuing to live together for an extended period of time?

Focus questions for a crew member eligible to exit their trial period:

  • How do you feel about our relationship in light of the possibility of you/me exiting your/my trial period.

Focus questions for senior bridge crewmember:

  • How do I feel about our relationship in light of you/me being a senior bridge crewmember?

If a special clearness is called for, the person requesting the clearness(es) or the group as a whole may define additional focus questions.  It is encouraged to define whether it’s a residency, long term guest or special clearness you want so people can think about the clearness within those parameters. A person requesting a special clearness is encouraged to offer a brief description of the topic when requesting it.

Once the focus person has completed an individual clearness with each resident of the Mothership, a group clearness will be conducted at a single item meeting scheduled by the focus person.  The focus person may choose to invite non-residents to sit in on their clearness if they wish.

    To begin, the focus person will reflect on their relationship with the community as an institution, guided by the focus questions with the community standing in as the member in dialog.  Here are a list of questions to guide a person’s reflection:

If that person is resident:

  • What are your general feelings and thoughts about our community?
  • What needs are being met in your life at The Mothership? What needs are not being met? What is getting in the way of having what you want?
  • How would you evaluate your interpersonal relationships and connections at The Mothership?
  • What do you see as your role in the work ahead?
  • What do you see as your contribution to the life of our community?
  • What is your vision for The Mothership?
  • How would you describe your current commitment to The Mothership?

If that person is a guest:

  • How was/is your visit going? What’s going well? What’s difficult?
  • What is your work scene like and how do you feel about it?
  • What is your social scene like and how do you feel about it?
  • Do you think you might eventually want to become a resident or member of The Mothership? If so, when?
  • What are your general feelings and thoughts about our community?

    After the focus person has finished, the community has an opportunity to ask clarifying questions of the focus person or ask them to expand on or speak to various aspects of their relationship with the community

2017-09-07 14.15.15

    Next, the residents take turns summarizing their personal clearnesses with the focus person.  How brief or expansive a member is in their summary is left to that member’s judgment. The facilitator is welcome to intervene if they feel a member is being too brief or too long winded.  A member should be sure to include in their summary specific things they appreciate or value about the focus person and any concerns that came up and were discussed in their personal clearness. The member should not add any new material to their summary that they did not bring up in their personal clearness. Members should not react or respond to other member’s summaries.  This is an opportunity for reporting only.

    Finally, the membership engages in a “Lightning Round of Affirmations” quickly stating something that they particularly appreciate or value about the focus person or otherwise affirming them.

    Members are encouraged to wait 24 hours before discussing any concerns or thoughts they have with each other in response to the group clearness.


The Mothership Clearness Process

About the Mothership

From the Mothership website

The Mothership is an urban intentional community living in two houses in Portland, Oregon. There are currently 15 people living here, and we are in the process of acquiring a third house which will increase our population capacity to 17, and then to build 4 additional bedrooms beyond that.

We have a fully collectivized food system with the understanding that anyone can come eat here, we share most household expenses, and a subset of us operate as a fully income sharing group.


We support each other as parents, believe children should be treated like humans, and humans should be treated well. Many of us co-parent each other’s kids and we generally believe children to be the responsibility of the group.

We love welcoming guests. Many people think of The Mothership as home base and stop in to refuel, gather supplies, and plan new expeditions.

We are committed to clear, direct, and open communication, which we maintain with regularly scheduled (twice a year with each member of the house) one on one conversations and more one on one, small group, and whole community discussions on an as-needed basis. We encourage communication early and often, and we endeavor to avoid having unresolved interpersonal struggles that lead to a toxic living environment. If you’ve upset someone at The Mothership, you either already know about it or are about to.

We acknowledge having been raised in a culture that teaches racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, gender essentialism, ableism, body shaming, slut shaming, and the enforcement of gender roles and stereotypes. When these things inevitably fall out of our mouths, we are committed to talking about why they were problematic and how we can do better in the future.

We aspire to be a safe space for the marginalized. We have cultivated a culture that feels safe and comfortable for many queer, non-binary, and transgender people, as evidenced by our current demographics: we are over 70% LGBTQIA. We aspire to create a similarly comfortable environment for people of color and people who belong to other marginalized groups who are currently underrepresented among our membership.

We are currently looking for new members. Check out our membership process.

2017-12-16 15.21.55.jpg



About the Mothership