Risk register

From an idea by @joannes, having a first go. Also made it a wiki, so people can edit, contribute etc.

1. Building a cohousing means taking risks (but so does everything else)

In The Reef, we are constantly trying to anticipate risks that we might incur along the way. For those that we have identified, we have awareness and various plans B. But with all that, we have no illusion that we can achieve a completely risk-free operation: real estate investment, while relatively safe, always has some degree of risk. People who join The Reef should be aware of it, make their own preparation, and contribute to the group’s work to reduce the risk to everyone.

On the other hand, staying out of The Reef also implies taking risks. When you buy an apartment, you might be in for some nasty surprises, possibily years down the road: a litigious neighbour, decaying infrastructure, sudden degradation of the neighborhood due to some unforeseen event (just ask people who live in Rue Stalingrad and are now facing the metro 3 construction works for years, with no end in sight because of unexpected geological features in the ground under the Palais du Midi). In some cases, a cohousing is even less risky than an individual investment: simply by virtue of being a much larger investment, there are more pairs of eyes looking at it, and that makes it less likely that we will overlook some important details. Even not buying property at all is not risk-free. Non-buyers risk their financial holdings being eroded by inflation, and housing becoming more and more expensive with respect to their income.

All in all, risk is a serious matter, and a lot of attention must go into anticipating and mitigating it. But it should not be paralysing: we still go ahead and build the cohousing, with our eyes wide open.

2. Individual risks

2.1 Life changes

The risk. Building a cohousing is, in many senses, a life project. It takes years to build, and most Reeflings will want to live in it for many years after it is complete. But life happens, and there is a risk that personal or professional choices might make it impossible for one or more of us to remain in the project. There is a risk to waste time and money.

Mitigation. Every Reefling will own all the usual property rights on their units. The units can be sold. These will be high quality housing in Brussels, so we expect their value to do relatively well, even though this does not protect the value of the property from a new Great Depression like in the 1930s. Also, the evidence from other cohousings in Brussels is that there is a lot of demand for units in cohousings: established cohousings like Brutopia have a waiting list of friends and family members of people who live there. In one occasion when one unit came up for sale, a buyer was found within 24 hours.

On the issue of time: there is no denying that Reeflings spend a lot of time building a cohousing. This cannot be recovered. However, we observe that it is not just drudgery: by building this large project together, we become friends and build community. It is reasonable to expect that such friendships will continue even if some of us would not keep living in the building.

2.2 Running out of money during the building phase

The risk. It is possible that people’s economic conditions should change during the building phase. This risks not only ending up with an unfinished unit, but damaging the prospects of the entire group, as any family withdrawing would open a gap in the budget.

Mitigation.

  • Before starting construction, each Reefling will need to provide guarantees for 100% of the finance needed to build their units. Most of us will take loans, with mortgages on the units themselves as collateral. Each one of us will have these loans transit through special locked bank accounts: the board of the cohousing legal vehicle, representing all of us, will be the only agent authorized to make payments from that account, and will only be able to pay the construction company and the architects. This way, the risk that someone will obtain the loan but spend it on something else is avoided.

  • Reeflings that do not need to take a loan will be requested to also open locked accounts, pre-charge them with significant liquidity up front (of the order of the 100K EUR per household at a time) and place them under the authority of the same board.

  • Once the construction is finished, each households will be free to sell their unit to recover their capital (though of course we expect this will not be necessary for most, and hopefully all, of us). So, the money-constrained household will “only” have to hold out until the construction is finished, at which point it will be in control of a substantial asset.

  • If the financial discomfort is too much to even get to this level, the household can withdraw, provided another household is found who is willing to take over the unit. We will keep a waiting list handy to facilitate this kind of exchange.

  • We are also studying solidarity measures to help households stay in the group if they should wish to do so.

3. Risks associated to the group

3.1. Internal conflict

The risk. Human interactions are prone to interpersonal conflict. It is possible that the group will run into a major conflict, and disintegrate. The consequences of such an event depend on the stage of the process at which the conflict happens.

Prevention. We try to prevent conflict by investing in process. All Reeflings are requested to take basic training in Non-Violent Communication (NVC) techniques. We have a Team Facilitation, whose members take more advanced NVC trainings, and a Team Conflict Management with a process to recompose conflict if and when it arises. The experience of other cohousings tell us that agreeing on process to recompose conflict is much easier before conflict happens, and we have invested accordingly.

Another component of prevention is The Reef’s radical transparency and power-sharing culture. All agendas and minutes of all minutes are public; all roles are subject to a public process of selection; and we are organized according to the principles of sociocracy.

Mitigation. Should our prevention measures fail, here is what we will do if we get in to a conflict so strong that we will not want to continue as a group.

  • If the conflict happens before we buy a site, the risk is very low. We have wasted some time, but lost no money. We just go home.
  • If the conflict happens when we have signed an option for the site, but before the deed, we walk away from the deal and lose our advance. This is bad, but of the order of magnitude of 1% of the total budget, so not a disaster.
  • If the conflict happens after the deed but before construction, we will sell the site instead of developing it. We are likely to have to take a cut, but, again, the financial loss is likely to be small with respect to the total budget of the operation, maybe 1% to a few percent.
  • Il the conflict happens when we have started construction, our legal vehicle will still continue and build the cohousing. The “only” difference is that it will not really be a cohousing, just an apartment building, as its community will be no more. Most people will want to sell their units after construction. This results in a lot of misery, and a contained financial loss (since every household will still have a unit to sell).

3.2 External conflict

The risk. It is possible that a neighbour, angry at what they perceive as a loss of green space and gentrification of the neighborhood, will sue us, perhaps adhering to the Conseil d’Etat on a procedural technicality.

Prevention. We will try to be in dialogue with the neighborhood. After signing an offer for a site, we will roll out a new team in charge of representing The Reef in city life at large. For example, we will reach out to the Comités de quartier, organize infosessions, and so on.

Mitigation. We will not abuse our power, and make sure we only build what we have a right to build. We will strictly adhere to administrative procedures to be armoured against attacks on the basis of incorrect procedure. Our architects have already committed to working closely with the municipality to make sure we stay in line with regulation. If we are attacked nevertheless, we will defend ourselves, in court if need be.

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Thanks a lot @alberto, great stuff!

I don’t have time to edit it myself, but here’s a couple of elements that could be added when there is time:

  • Risk: the typical cohousing slowness and lack of clarity on decisions => mitigation: governance document, sociocracy + working methods

  • Risk: not getting a permit => mitigation: architects are constantly in touch with the commune

  • Risk: people can’t get a mortgage => mitigation: confesseurs

  • Risk: informal conflict => mitigation: governance document > conflict management: worst case we hire a professional mediator

  • Risk: legal conflict in the société simple => mitigation: the comité des sages

  • Risk: the budget runs over => mitigation: 10% financial buffer

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