Today’s guest post comes to us from Rachel Hoffman, creator of Unfuck Your Habitat and author of Unf*ck Your Habitat: You’re Better Than Your Mess.
So I live in communal housing (currently a house with 12 housemates–most have our own rooms, but we share kitchens, bathrooms, and common spaces) for a variety of social, political, and ecological reasons. The house I’m in now has been an occasionally-stressful but overall positive space where I’m glad to have spent the last couple years.
Unfortunately, one of the other houses affiliated with our organization has had a really awful couple months–messes from old tenants, a hospitalization after a sexual assault, mold and foundation problems in the basement, and most recently an acrimonious breakup. Long story short, we are hoping to trade some people out of the house and re-seed it with solid folks from the other houses to try and stabilize the situation (because if this house can’t make rent, it’s going to eat through organizational funds very, very quickly).
I am one of the people willing to switch houses. I’m a good candidate for a number of reasons–I’m emotionally stable, I’ve lived in the org for several years and know how to get things done, I’m familiar with the financial operations of the org, I’m already kinda the House Mom where I live now, etc. However, there’s definitely one issue that I foresee.
These repeated catastrophes have eroded any real practice of doing house chores and cooking (which are normally distributed across everyone more or less equally to be done weekly). That means that the place is consistently a big mess, which is adding to everyone’s stress. I know that one of the things we’re going to need to do is get that started again, and keep it going, but that definitely requires a stricter approach than I usually take. I’m generally a messy person (when I moved in to my current house, I was a proponent of a 24-hour rule for dishes in the sink, which is not at all doable with 13 people and in retrospect, kinda gross with 1) and have low standards for general neatness, so when people miss a cleaning chore I tend to not worry, because it doesn’t have that big an effect on me (and I appreciate that kind of understanding when I’m also overwhelmed and unable to do everything I’m supposed to). I also often don’t eat dinner at the house (personal control over food is a Thing for me) so I sometimes don’t even notice when others miss cooking shifts.
The plan is to bring several people in, and one requirement I’d have is that someone who is more serious about cleanliness and cooking also go, but I think it’s gonna be important that we all hold the line that cleaning and chores are important parts of what makes communal living possible. Can you give me some scripts for holding that line when people make excuses, especially when the excuses are reasonable individually but add up to a shitshow collectively? For example, lots of people deal with mental health stuff, myself included, but communal living means that everyone needs to contribute at least some–and that might mean you’re not on your A-game, but you gotta do at least a bare minimum. I could also use some suggestions for how to handle the totally-understandable-but-also-not-good excuse, “But XYZ didn’t do their cleaning chore!”, because I foresee that coming up.
Messy Pushover (she/they)
Believe it or not, the fact that you consider yourself a messy pushover is actually going to work in your favor here! Throughout the history of cohabiting, massive conflicts have arisen between “clean” people and “messy” people, and many, if not most, of those conflicts come out of the fact that clean people just do not understand messy people. They don’t understand why we don’t just know what needs to be cleaned and when, and they definitely don’t understand why we don’t just do it when it needs to be done, like it’s some kind of easy reflex. So, in this case, it’s sort of better to be a messy pushover than a clean hardass.
So going into this as a messy person is going to help you so much when it comes to creating a solid plan to keep the house on track. It means you’ll have a better understanding about what people will and won’t be capable of or willing to do. It means you can anticipate some of the roadblocks that are going to come up. And, most importantly, it means that you won’t be coming into the situation as some kind of cleaning authoritarian who is holding everyone else hostage to your unreasonable standards. (We’ve all lived with that person at some point, right?) So first things first, cut yourself a little slack about not being the tidiest person around.
Once it’s been decided who’s going to be living in the house, your first order of business should be a house-wide meeting about how to keep the house clean and running functionally. This isn’t going to be the most fun thing in the world, so make it low-key, have some snacks, that sort of thing. Your goal should be to have the following by the end of this meeting: a clear and specific chore system and a tangible way to track it (a chore chart, OK? I’m talking about a chore chart. Let’s just name the bad thing and move on!); an agreed-upon plan for keeping people accountable; and a structure for what to do when things inevitably go off the rails a bit.
It’s important to keep this meeting productive and positive. So often, when it comes to dealing with cleaning in a shared living situation, negative emotions rule us. Resentment, frustration, anger, and passive-aggression are all far more likely to rear their heads than positivity, understanding, and a genuine desire to come to a good resolution. The more negativity that surrounds this conversation, the more difficult it’ll be.
When constructing the chore chart, you and your housemates will need to consider a lot of factors. What tasks need to be done? How often do they need to be done? On average, how long does each one take? How does everyone feel about doing each task? (For example, do you have someone who absolutely hates vacuuming, but has no problem doing dishes?) What do people’s schedules look like? Keeping all of these things in mind, you can put together a cleaning schedule that’s equitable not just in terms of the number of chores, but also the total time and emotional investment from each housemate.
Perhaps the most important part of this meeting is going to be getting everyone to decide how to handle things when someone isn’t keeping up their end of the deal. A good way to start is to ask people what they anticipate being roadblocks for them. For example, you may have housemates with mental health issues, like you do. So saying something like, “Some of us have depression or anxiety or ADHD, so how can we make sure those of us who do are still contributing during rough times?” Or if someone has an erratic work schedule, they may not always be able to do a time-sensitive task, like taking the barrels out for trash day. And knowing what everyone’s challenges are can help you figure out what to do when things don’t go as planned.
What’s critical is getting everyone’s feedback as to what they think is fair if someone needs to be reminded to do what they agreed to. Rather than relying on passive-aggressive behavior like leaving notes or piling someone’s dirty dishes on their bed (yes, I know it’s satisfying, but I don’t think it has ever once resulted in someone changing their behavior for the better), work together to come up with a way to keep all housemates on track. If you all agree that, “If someone has to do your dishes because you didn’t, you have to take their chores for that week” seems like a fair solution, everyone is held to the same standard, and it’s nothing personal if it has to be enforced. Or even, “Any housemate has the right to remind another about what they agreed to do around the house.” Acknowledge that things will go off the rails from time to time, and treat it as an inevitability due to human nature, and not an attack on the civility of the house.
As far as, “XYZ didn’t do their chore,” your best response is going to be, “And we’ll handle it with XYZ in the way we all agreed on, but that doesn’t exempt the rest of us from doing what we said we were going to.” And then make sure you actually follow up with XYZ. Don’t think of it as having to be a hardass, but instead, being a facilitator for helping people contribute to a functioning living environment.