Adventures in co-living part 1: Finding a home
Five months ago I moved into my dream home. I don’t mean this in the sense that it’s perfect and everything I want in a living situation, but rather that I had a vision of my next living situation, and after a lot of hard work I’m thrilled to say that this dream is coming to life! I now live with eight other close friends, in the top two floors of a beautiful home, right in the heart of San Francisco. Getting here was far from a sure thing, and it took a lot of hard work and trust, but we managed to find a spot that met all our varied needs. How did we pull this off, and what lessons did we learn along the way? Let me begin with…
The back story
I’ve been living and dreaming community my whole life. I had a wonderful experience with intentional community during my childhood and have always wanted to figure out how to create my own version of it. For me there are so many reasons to live in community. To start, a strong web of deep human connection and support keeps me sane and happy, plus I want to model to the world how we can live more sustainably and joyfully, and I want to give my future children all the benefits of co-living and co-parenting. I also believe that re-villaging is a big part of the answer to many of problems we face as a global society right now, including loneliness, disconnection from each other and the earth, and over-consumption, to name a few. In the last few years I started to feel ready to take the next big step towards this vision by manifesting a bigger, more intentional co-living house with a group of close friends. We would work on building a trusted chosen-family while turning our home into both a nest to help each other thrive and grow, as well as a community gathering space where we could continue to enliven and strengthen our wider tribe.
In particular I’d been talking about this idea with best friends brodeur and Tania Ku for a long time, then more recently with Emily and Dor Garbash, when they moved in with me just over a year ago. Finally, last October we started to put plans into motion. We pulled in my new friends Derek Razo and Chelsea Robinson who I met last year and immediately felt a lot of alignment with. They were settling into the Bay Area and wanting to manifest a similar home. We also drew in Jared Scheib | Dreama, another friend riding the same wave. Other folks danced with us for brief moments but were not quite on board for this phase of our nesting. So we had eight of us, committed and ready to rock on finding the perfect house.
Forming, storming and norming
We kicked things off with a couple of initial gatherings to share our visions for a home and make sure we were aligned enough in our needs, desires and lifestyles. This of course was the first make or break moment for this particular group of people, and fortunately we found that there was a pretty solid consensus on the core values we wanted to live by. So we went forward from that moment as a team, temporarily calling ourselves the Slightly Utopians :-) Which makes sense when you consider the initial list of values we came up with:
Societal values we wish to support and reflect in our household
- Peace / Non-violence
- Environmental consciousness / Sustainability / Regenerative solutions
- Social justice / Equality
- Individual empowerment
- Authentic self-expression
- Self-inquiry / Personal growth / Consciousness expansion
Internal values — how we want to relate to each other and the home
- Non-violent communication.
- Stewardship: take responsible care of our space.
- Interest in and care for each others well being: Be conscientious of how we take and give space. Create an introvert and extrovert friendly space and energy.
- Commitment to relationship with each other: Make time, put in the effort to connect and get to know each other deeper, as well as work through the hard stuff when it come up.
- Growth orientation: Ask questions of ourselves and each other. Push our edges, within a safe container.
- Mutual support: In self-realization and meeting goals, as well as in working through challenges.
- Openness / Vulnerability
- Cultivate a family like energy, while ensuring freedom and autonomy within the family.
- Be loving
- Power awareness — notice where power is collecting and knead it out
After the initial intention setting, we committed to a weekly gathering, where we usually spent half the time hanging out and bonding, and the other half working through practical details. It was our house dinner before we had a house to dine in. Questions we had to sort out included:
- Which neighborhoods were we all on board to look in?
- What house features were requirements and which were nice-to-haves?
- How would we weight various amenities against each other, like a big kitchen vs. a garden vs. closeness to public transportation…? For this I came up with a spreadsheet of features and we each rated them from 1–5, to give us a ranking of the importance of each one to the group, though we didn’t end up using this much, and mostly just learned our preferences over time as we had to make hard decisions.
We also booked an Airbnb for a beautiful weekend getaway in the woods, where we discussed these questions in more detail, hiked, hot tubbed, made music, and dug in deeper. By December we had a strong enough sense of trust in each other, and the important practical details had been sorted out, so we were ready to start house hunting!
Over the course of the next 3 months we worked really hard, scouring Craigslist, Trulia, and Zumper rental listings (unfortunately we weren’t wealthy enough to buy), and posting on boards like the Bay Area Conscious Housing Board and SF Chalkboard. Given the intensity of the Bay Area housing market we tried to immediately jump on every 5+ bedroom opportunity we came across in San Francisco, Oakland or Berkeley, that met our group’s many needs. Here is where our most significant challenge lay, because in any group of eight, and certainly in ours, you will find a host of diverse needs and desires, some of which are in conflict. Our requirements included:
- A pet friendly home, since our family includes the sweetest dog ever, Luna.
- Proximity to public transportation, and in particular near BART if we were in the East Bay, since one of us had to commute to downtown San Francisco.
- A neighborhood not in the major fog zones of SF because a few folks had a very real need for sun.
- A spacious kitchen
- A big enough common space to host significant community gatherings
- Reasonable rent (for the Bay Area) since most of us were starting a company, freelancers, or between jobs
- A commitment to not participating in direct economic displacement. We wouldn’t take an apartment where someone had been driven out to make way for people that could pay more.
All this left us with very few options. We needed to get lucky, and in the end we did, but first we had to go through an emotional rollercoaster. The process of house hunting in the ultra-competitive Bay Area is exhausting no matter what. Also there were not many options available at our size, price point, and above requirements, so we really had to be on top of every one that popped up. As the weeks went on we managed to find enough promising places to keep us going, but as each of them fell through for one reason or another, or was vetoed by someone in the group, our morale began to flag. People were frustrated, and grieving the loss of what seemed like several great options (out of the many we had looked at.) We even reached a point where we discussed splitting into two groups and trying to find smaller apartments near each other, but after some deep group processing we decided we weren’t ready to give up and we’d commit to another month of looking together before reevaluating again.
This process involved surfacing and working through the different stresses that individuals were feeling, as well as finding a more shared understanding of the work people were putting in and how they were feeling about it. Some members had been primarily in charge of watching Craigslist alerts and immediately following up with landlords, and that ongoing task was highly stressful, so we divided it up and spread it around more. We also reconnected with our original commitment to finding a home and building community together, which had gotten a bit lost in the details of where we would actually end up. Still, some people needed to find a place to live ASAP and it was impossible to alleviate all the pressure and stress natural to this process.
A couple of weeks later we came across a 5–6 bedroom apartment in the NOPA neighborhood of San Francisco, right around the corner from where half us had been living for years. It was a bit outside our price range, but so close we thought we’d check it out anyway. The apartment was the top two floors of a house, totally renovated with gorgeous new hardwood floors, a big kitchen with an industrial stove, two good sized common spaces to hang, host, work, and make music, a two car garage, and an incredible sunny yard with lots of space to garden. Certainly it was the most beautiful place we had seen so far. Since it was outside the maximum rent we had set as a group we pretty much gave up on it, but decided we may as well make an offer we could afford, just in case. We sent our offer over to the broker along with a whole packet of information describing us in all our awesomeness, smiling group photo included. That package was the ticket! Because of our letter the landlord wanted to meet us in person, despite the fact that the broker was not keen on us due to our negotiation, and lack of evidence that we had well paying jobs.
Immediately we connected with the landlord. She was the director of her own design agency, generally seemed like a chill person, and loved our creative energy and passion for doing good in the world. She and her husband had been living in the house for 15 years, and were only moving out so their daughter could go to a particular high school in Marin county. They really wanted to fill the house with engaged, responsible, caring people like us who would love and care for their home, and be good members of the neighborhood. She could also relate to our freelancer selves, since she had been one for years, so she was less concerned about income verification. As soon as we met up she was ready to sign, but it quickly became clear that the broker had not actually told her that we wanted to pay less. In the meantime we had noticed that they had already dropped the price on the Craigslist ad a bit. Somehow we had hit the Bay Area rental market just at the first moment in years that it was starting to come down a tiny bit. So we felt like we had some negotiation leverage, and not much to lose since we still couldn’t afford the place. I was appointed negotiator, and we were honest about our financial limits, while leaving room for some creative options to meet halfway.
A couple of days later they came back with a number that worked for us, with the caveat that it would not include the two car garage (with space for a workshop), so we came back with a slightly higher offer including the garage, and that was that! The first chapter of our saga had come to a beautiful end in a place we were totally stoked about.
Some key lessons from the house search process:
- Build trust and alignment first: It is so important to have a shared understanding of the group’s goals and intentions both for the home you want to find, and for the parameters of the search, so you can return to that when times become challenging. In general the more group cohesion/alignment you can build before the search the better. I believe trust is the most important community ingredient of all, and I guarantee a community will not survive without it.
- Clearly define roles: Make sure work is divided up fairly, and rotate stressful roles to prevent burnout. Roles we found useful:
- House catcher: the person(s) paying attention to craigslist alerts and immediately contacting the landlord/broker to schedule a visit. This was the most stressful role because it required constant vigilance. We usually had a couple people doing this, but we should have rotated more, especially since it made sense for the first point of contact with the landlord to continue being the point person with them throughout the process.
- House viewers: We tried to send at least 3 people to each house, and of course the more the merrier. For those that couldn’t go someone would always live stream the viewing.
- Process reviewer: This was definitely a collaborative process but some group members were more focused on reviewing how things were going and addressing issues as we went along.
- Know what you’re looking for: Multiple times some of us went to look at a place, got really excited about it, only to have it vetoed by someone else for a reason that hadn’t been clearly stated before. This caused some unnecessary frustration and stress which could have been prevented by people being more concrete about their requirements at the beginning. On the other hand you can’t always prevent this because sometimes a need doesn’t become totally clear until you are face to face with it.
- Move fast: Right at the start we found a place we were really excited about, but someone got there just before us and put down a deposit. After that we always tried to get the very first viewing. This also meant that we had to try and ensure that everyone was available during viewings for a quick decision. If necessary we would do a group video chat to discuss on the spot.
- Know how to decide: We used a simple rating system to get a sense of how much people liked a place: each person would rank a house 1 (not a fan), 3 (it’s ok), 9 (absolutely love it), or 0 (outright block). The rule of thumb was that we would probably not go with a place that anyone rated 1, and also would pass on a place with a bunch of 3s. This system forced you to really think through what you felt about each place and make a hard call. Though more often than not though it was straight up blocks that ended up ruling houses out.
- Be prepared:
- The packet of information about us that we sent to the landlord was the key thing that got us in the door.
- When you go to a viewing make sure to come with all the questions you need to ask to know if you want to live there, along with a deposit check in hand to hold a place you really like.
- It’s also a good idea to collect everyone’s application data ahead of time, though this didn’t end up being too important because most applications were online.
- Finally, once you lock up a place you will very quickly have to put down a sizable full deposit, so make sure you have this collected from everyone and ready to go.
- Stay organized: We tried to maintain a spreadsheet of places we were looking at, so no one was duplicating work and everyone knew where we stood on each one, but we didn’t do a good job of keeping this up. It would have definitely helped stress levels to do this better, and would have made it easier to pass off point person on a house from one person to another.
- Check-in: Make sure to keep having regular group gatherings, and check-ins with each other to surface implicit or hidden assumptions, expectations, experiences and emotions. Without this tensions can easily build and cause fractures in the group.
So now we had a place, but there were still some big things to work out. First of all we had to pick a ninth housemate to fill the sixth bedroom. This ended up being one of the trickier things we had to navigate, especially since we had just spent six months forming as a group and were now about to let in someone new. Happily we ended up having two wonderful women to choose between, which was a great problem but also challenging for our group to resolve. In the end any tension that this process created was quickly eased when we embraced the final member of our tribe Pascale and she integrated easily, bringing a wonderful new flavor to our mix.
We also had to settle on who got what room and at what price. We tried to thread the needle between respecting people’s needs and wants, making sure everyone felt the pricing breakdown was fair, and supporting those who couldn’t pay as much. This was of course complicated as there were more and less desirable rooms and a host of particular requests around light, noise sensitivity, etc. In particular the one major bummer about our apartment is that we had to turn the dining room into a bedroom to be able to afford it, and this room is right in the middle of the downstairs common areas so noise can be an issue. We danced around this decision for a few weeks, but eventually a pretty good consensus emerged. This involved everyone rating each room using our 0, 1, 3, 9 scale, plus a lot of discussion. As for pricing we weighed a number of factors like room size, extra amenities, how much more couples should pay, and to some extent what people could afford. As with everything in this project we are seeing it all as a big experiment, we will try the current arrangement, see how it goes, and adjust as needed/possible. For now we all seem pretty happy with how it’s turned out, even as we navigate agreements around noise and all the little things that come up when a group lives together.
Finally it was time to move, and damn, after five years in one house I forgot how much of a pain that is, even when you are only moving two blocks! Our biggest mistake here was not getting more friends involved. We thought nine people helping each other would be enough, but when you have five apartments to move, it’s not. Get your broader friend groups involved when starting a new community!
Now we’re five months in, and for me the experience has been even more of a life upgrade than expected. First of all there’s the house itself, which is just beautiful. Having an industrial stove with two ovens, a griddle, and a grill built in makes cooking way more fun. The spacious shower where the sun creates rainbows in the mist brightens up my mornings. Being able to eat lunch in our sunny backyard every day is amazing. Our upstairs has hosted numerous late night music jam sessions and tea fueled laughter parties. Our living room fireplace has made for deliciously cozy family nights. The potential for our garden, and our garage workshop is exhilarating. From regular kitchen dance parties, to eating with people I love almost every meal, to all the beautiful nooks and crannies that we get to decorate as a group, there are so many ways this home has already made me happier. And there are loads of fun projects ahead, though it is a bit stressful to work our way through the endless task list.
This is certainly the nicest house I’ve ever lived in and while I feel so blessed to be here, it also highlights my privilege in a way that can make me a bit uncomfortable. On the other hand I know that this house isn’t even close to the level of poshness you can find all over this city, and more importantly, the reason we can afford to be here is that we are packing nine people into a space previously inhabited by just three. And this of course is one of the main benefits of community living: shared costs of living allow us to have a much nicer life and still use resources way more sustainably. Imagine what we could do with our society’s wealth, and how much better off the planet would be, if we designed our cities for village like communities where people really knew, trusted and shared so much more with each other. Not to mention how much happier we’d be, raising our kids and taking care of our elders together… but I digress 😃
The best part of this home so far has been seeing the ways that each of us have found new joys in our little community. We are laughing and playing every day, supporting each other in life and career, feeding each other (literally and metaphorically) and learning how to navigate our differences with grace. There’s so much dynamism with a group this size, the energy never feels stale, and I find myself wanting to stay home way more often because there’s always fun to be had and relationships to deepen with wonderful people.
Of course there are also the ongoing challenges any community faces, as finding compromise in any group is hard. For example our house is pretty split between introverts, extroverts and ambiverts and so everyone has had to navigate how to give and take space, and how to manage usage and noise in common rooms, especially with many of us working from home. For me personally another challenge has been the anxiety I feel as a caretaker who is always paying attention to how others feel, and wanting to make sure everyone is happy. With eight others around there is almost always an opportunity to worry about someone or something in the house, and so I have to work to not take on other people’s stuff. We’re also still sorting out rhythms, processes and differing preferences around house meetings, decision making, roles and responsibilities, food purchasing, etc. But there haven’t been any major conflicts yet, and we are committed to building a space that lifts us all all up. The key here is the time we spent ahead of time forming and building trust, which gave us a strong foundation. We still have plenty of work to do on group cohesion and finding our community identity, but overall things have run smoothly so far, and I love coming home to smiling faces, abundant food in the fridge, a (reasonably) clean space, and the small improvements we are making to the house every week.
At the same time as we are settling into our home, we are also settling into our neighborhood. It was actually pretty surprising to me that we ended up staying in SF, not to mention this familiar neck of the woods. We were sure at our price range we’d end up in the East Bay, and half the group preferred that too, but I’ve really been appreciating the continuity and feeling an even deeper commitment to being a real part of keeping San Francisco cool. It’s a wonderful area, so central, with good access to pretty much anywhere in the city, and close to so many parks from Alamo Square to the Panhandle to Golden Gate to Buena Vista. We are also adjacent to the history of the Haight and the Fillmore, and right on top of the Divisadero corridor. Like all of San Francisco this area is being gentrified and losing some of its history and character, but there is still a real neighborhood vibe here, and numerous old timers around. It’s also an area that is in the heart of the renaissance of San Francisco communes, and this makes me really excited. We have an opportunity, and I feel an obligation, to be a part of the next generation of activists, artists, and explorers here, tuned into the amazing history of this city, connected to Silicon Valley’s fount of technology, while staying focused on how we channel the wealth of resources, people, and ideas concentrated here into real positive change in the world.
One of the funniest things that has happened since moving here is that every person I talk to immediately asks what the name of our house is, but we just haven’t been able to decide! We have spent countless hours throwing out ideas both real and ridiculous, discussing the merits of each one, playing with how it feels in the mouth, and whether we would like coming home to it. How would it sound to host parties at [insert name here]? What art could we make to match the theme? Our first strong option was Terrarium (an ecosystem in a box) which I still like but others felt was too constraining. Next we tried on Multiverse, our home of course containing many songs and infinite possibilities, but it didn’t quite roll off the tongue smoothly enough. We have played with Intergalactic House of Possibilities, The Container, The (Cosmic) Egg, Unity Landing, Neo Francisco, The Lighthouse, The Greenhouse, The Cocoon, Nebula, Manifest Station, on and on… One of these days the right name will emerge, perhaps we need some outside help :)
So what’s next? My best guess is that most of us will be here for at least 3–5 years, and we will definitely be hosting community gatherings of all kinds, so keep your ears to the ground. A number of us are also plotting and planning for a future where we build a village, living in larger community on land somewhere nearby, but that’s a few years away. For now we will continue nesting with our new little family. Come say hello!