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Diary: 'Why do you want to live in our housing co-op?'

Our Leeds-based co-operator savours the joys and frustrations of conducting 70 interviews in just 3 weeks

‘So… er… Rita, why do you want to live in our housing co-op?’. Eight down, three to go and I’m valiantly keeping hold of the differences between all the applicants.

The strange rituals of recruitment are pushing us to categorise, compare, assess this parade of complex, unique, incomparable, creative humans, whose hidden facets of darkness and lightness make a nonsense of the idea that we can judge who would best live with us.

It’s a process that requires us to acknowledge the enormous disparity of power between co-op members and applicants, despite pretensions and desires for equality. For some of us, this is difficult to accept – we are not and cannot be equal, we have all the power.

We need to step into it and use it gently, be kind, be aware of their nervousness, of their talking too much. We need to make them feel safe, to provide humour and encourage them to articulate their best selves. We need to make decisions quickly, not keep people in a limbo of not knowing any longer than necessary.

As weird and uncomfortable as this normally is, it’s made all the weirder by COVID restrictions. This time, we can’t mitigate the intensity of interview by having applicants stay over or join in DIY days. We can’t play games or chill out with a bottle of wine and talk into the night. And with screen fatigue, we decide to reduce the necessity of 11 current members meeting 11 applicants (121 sessions) by creating a filtering stage.

In a change to the political norm, a pair of interviewing members can reject an applicant without reference to the rest of the co-op. And we’re all so tired of online meetings, that this seems like a good plan.

Everyone gets a go at interviewing, most of us twice or more:

‘I’m so sorry, our WiFi is dodgy, can you say that again?’

‘No, I can’t make meet.coop work either, let’s move to Zoom.’

‘Did they make it across – did we lose them? Have you got their number?’

Some decisions seem easy. Others are not. Interviewers interrogate their own classism, ageism, racism, ableism. Thank goodness for the feelings meetings and the culture that means we trust each other to have these honest conversations. We are nervous to say no.

Seven out of 11 get through – nearly 70 conversations to squeeze into three weeks.

Housemates sit at the kitchen table after dinner. Are we being too cliquey? Is it a problem that everyone who’s got through knows current members? What are we looking for? We discuss privilege and oppression, capacity and need, DIY and gardening. Our wonderful in-house communication analyst helps each of us understand the other’s viewpoints – however did we communicate without her?!

And so we move to the next stage – distanced walks in the woods, picnics in the park and endless video meetings. I actually love this.

My sister told me recently that she and I are socialised for ‘Rapid Rapport’. It’s a thing. I totally recognise this – you lean in, you open your eyes wide, you share a little bit of your vulnerability. It’s basically flirting. And this is what I’m actually obliged to do – my favourite thing, great!

This is where I must get to know seven wonderful humans, who are inspiring, interesting, curious, challenging. We must have conversations about the deep stuff – politics, philosophy, attitude, background, and how you put all of that into practice…. Who are you and how did you get to be this way?

And I must describe myself and my co-op, and how we have shaped each other. A challenge – can I find a different aspect of it each time?

Can I avoid turning this into a spiel? Or is it OK to give myself a break and to recognise the limits of my energy. A spiel isn’t so bad if it means you say everything you want to say in a well-practised, articulate way.

And then, after discussing what to do when faced with a broken radiator, or mice, or conflict with a housemate or cops hammering on the door, we will part ways.

They will stay in limbo while we, the all-powerful, try to work out how on earth to choose.

Cath is a Leeds-based co-operator and communitarian, whose co-op is not accepting any more applicants!