Can Communal Living Ever Not Make People Insufferable?
“Her son, Salmon, built his own cabin here at age 13”
Jobs are increasingly concentrated in small, dense areas with limited options for housing, so many of us are spending well over the recommended 30% of our incomes on our homes, and it’s stressful and expensive, especially if we’re trying to raise children in these overpriced jam jars far from our extended family, because our extended family has too much sense to live in a damn jam jar.
Group homes, by contrast, can seem like a dream. Like this one, in Oregon, outside of Portland:
None of the adults feel pressured to have jobs that would pay a whole mortgage. Nagle, a Yale graduate who used to work as a paralegal, recently quit her part-time job and started managing and booking bands with her partner Martell. One of the other adults is in school, another has a small business that makes baby rattles, another is a teacher at a charter school, and another works around town doing odd jobs. Everyone knows that if they have a financial emergency, they can borrow from other community members. They look forward to the day when they pay off the mortgage (it’s in Nagle’s name), and just have to pay for taxes and upkeep. Then, they might not have to work at all. “People going the nuclear family route definitely don’t have the same quality of life,” Martell told me.
Unfortunately, communal living carries a curse: everyone who tries it turns out to be, or else becomes, the worst.
Consider this profile of a group home in California.
Dawn Hofberg is a petite, youthful-looking sexagenarian, who gave birth to two children in this cabin, and with whom I chatted about recent New Yorker articles and long-ago peyote circles.
She and the others had all come in their early 20s, from lives in quiet East Coast suburbs and California college towns, to this place that Robert Greenway, a psychology professor, had purchased with his companion River. It was not ‘‘dropping out,’’ argued River, in her 1974 book ‘‘Dwelling,’’ but an active search for ‘‘a new pattern of living’’ that does not ‘‘rip off the planet or any of her inhabitants.’’ Her son, Salmon, built his own cabin here at age 13.
Or this one, of an urban “Millennial commune”:
“Laundry services and cleaners and masseuses — all of that is icing,” he said. The real perks are the people he has met along the way. “How cool is it that I walk in the door and they ask me, ‘How’s your day?’ And I am genuinely interested in hearing from them,” said Mr. Jackson, who considers himself the Den Dad to the other tenants, who generally are two or three decades his junior and stay a month or two at a time.
Mr. Jackson, who has appeared on “Iron Chef America,” also orchestrates Pure House’s food events, including its pop-up dinner parties. At one such party, none of the 30 guests knew one another, but most embraced when the night was over, Mr. Jackson recalled.
This story, about a “kid-butz” in California, may be my favorite. It deserves to be read through with snacks.
At peak, there were four women and five kids under age 5. Once, a woman who was not a parent moved in, briefly. “She just didn’t get it,” Ms. Welch said. “She tried to label her food in the fridge, and we knew it wouldn’t work.”
Just imagine what happens once dads start to move in!
two years later, Claire and Juno are best friends, and Mr. Balthrop keeps a stash of Jif and YoCrunch with M&M’s in a minifridge in his room.
Last year, a second man moved in with his two daughters. “That totally changed the energy,” Ms. Evanguelidi said, especially because both she and Ms. Welch initially found him attractive. Within weeks, he and Ms. Welch hooked up. “We were just so connected musically,” she said.
Other rules of the house: In addition to no nonorganic food and no TV (Mr. Balthrop surreptitiously binge-watches “House of Cards” on his laptop), there is overnight guest etiquette. “Sometimes,” Ms. Welch said, “I’ll wake up to check on Eli and I’ll hear Aleks and Troy, and I’m like, ‘Aleks! You have to shut your door!’”
Ugh, yes, Aleks, shut your door.
What about chores? School?
Household duties are split. Ms. Evanguelidi does the grocery shopping; Ms. Welch does the cooking (wild Alaskan salmon with quinoa one night, beef tacos with sautéed kale the next). “I eat way better than I did when I was married,” Mr. Balthrop said. He fixes the overworked washer-dryer and marches around with a fly swatter, stamping out the insects that hover around the compost bin and countertop bowls overflowing with yams, oranges and avocados.
On occasion, they try to take advantage of their unique living arrangement. Ms. Evanguelidi and Ms. Welch recently registered as domestic partners on Eli’s kindergarten application to increase his chances at getting into Juno’s Waldorf-inspired school. “It’s not a lie!” Ms. Welch said. “We are domestic partners. We have been for the last four years.”
What version of Voldemort do we have to eliminate to break this curse? Because co-op living really seems like it would be the solution, if only it weren’t for the people.