You have how many f@#king roommates?!: On cohousing communities vs. the very American trend of living alone

Cohousing communities not only save money and the environment: They just might remedy 21st-century loneliness.

A mere handful of Eye Street Co-op residents, including writer Janelle Bitker (third from left), are piled onto the “cuddle puddle.”

A mere handful of Eye Street Co-op residents, including writer Janelle Bitker (third from left), are piled onto the “cuddle puddle.”

photo by lisa baetz

“Bunch of dirty hippies.”

Whenever someone learns that I have 11 housemates, that’s the reaction I imagine. We share a big house in Midtown, along with meals, chores and regular hoopla. It’s called the Eye Street Co-op.

It’s not a cult or commune. Promise. There is no engaging leader in a black robe. We split some costs, but we don’t merge incomes. We don’t have any creepy rituals—unless you count the occasional barefoot “compliment circle” around a fire pit.

But even those are few and casual. Our day-to-day lives are way too busy with totally normal stuff. We range in age from 23 to 40 and work in lots of fields: politics, media, activism, yoga, massage, architecture. We maintain a lovely garden full of kale, peppers, tomatoes and herbs.

And, yes, there’s an annual clothing-optional camping trip.

Our living arrangement—one of shared space, cooperation and common values—is called an “intentional community.” These can take the form of a single house, like the Eye Street Co-op, or a multi-acre village of tepees.

The level of intensity and commitment varies from community to community. And there are a lot of them—nearly 2,500 intentional communities exist worldwide. In the Sacramento region, there are about a dozen. More are forming.

Why? People are still broke after the Great Recession and need affordable alternatives. Or they’re committed to the environment and living sustainably. But more than anything else, people are lonely and seeking human connection. The way most of us live—because of urban sprawl, societal expectations and assumed measures for success—increasingly isolates.

Christopher Ganson is my landlord, housemate and a huge believer in cooperative housing as a boon to both individuals and societies. He founded the Eye Street Co-op in 2006, as well as a co-op in Oak Park three years prior. He lived in co-ops as a student at UC Berkeley, fell in love and never stopped.

“I found myself searching for a way to recreate that level of community,” he says. “I think there’s a real hunger for that, and the hunger is much greater than the supply.”

I didn’t live in any university cooperatives, but I certainly admired them from afar. It seemed like a brilliant, alternative lifestyle—an appropriate response to the materialism, alienation and homogenization of the mainstream. It appealed to my inner idealist—full of hope for a mini-utopia—as well my inner cynic toward larger institutions of power.

In summary: I discovered a fateful Craigslist ad, moved in January and have never been happier.

Me and my 11 roommates

The co-op housemates feast on moong dal cheela, purple potatoes and kale salad. House dinners happen fives times a week and are essential in community living.

photo by lisa baetz

My co-op is by far the most homey, cozy place I’ve lived in. There’s funky furniture, colorful walls, two disco balls and succulents everywhere. The pantry is stacked with giant mason jars filled with alternative flours, obscure grains and beans. Couches line the front porch, a homemade cob oven fires up pizza in the backyard. We have something called “the cuddle puddle.” The compost pile, remarkably, doesn’t stink up the neighborhood.

I guess a certain vibe must be present, because on more than one occasion we have gotten this question: “Do you share everything?”

Goodness, no. We don’t share underwear or toothbrushes. We don’t even share bedrooms. We do, however, agree to split weekly chores and cook everyone dinner twice a month. And once a month, we gather for a long, sometimes emotional house meeting.

Those meetings ensure things run smoothly. We sit around our living room with tea and move through agenda items, like food budgets, accountability and bathroom cleanliness. But we also take the time to plan big social events and vote on group purchases, like a projector for outdoor movie nights or a fancy new food processor.

Even though we are just 12 people, many larger intentional communities operate in a similar fashion.

Communes are the most intense—large groups of people sharing property and income, and sometimes operating a business together. Cohousing is the least intense—individual houses forming a neighborhood, with community activities in a separate common house. Ecovillages are similar to cohousing, but are specifically focused on being eco-friendly.

Those are the modern definitions, anyway. Intentional communities can be traced all the way back to 1794, when a religious sect called the Shakers started a commune in Maine. It still exists today. In the early 1800s, hundreds of “utopian communities” cropped up, and when the Great Depression hit, student co-ops at universities began in the name of affordability. Decades later, the 1960s brought the rise of hippie communes.

The very first American cohousing development was built 23 years ago, right here in Davis. Inspired by similar setups in Denmark, Muir Commons was the answer to families who wanted community, but also private homes, careers and close proximity to urban centers. Tucked away in suburbia, it feels like a small village—the 26 houses face inward, linked by winding paths and plenty of greenery. Children run around, snacking on pineapple guava from the orchard or popcorn from the communal kitchen.

Diane Kallas moved in 18 years ago, sold on the idea of an extended family.

“We were interested in a more free-range experience for our kids, without hovering parents,” she says. “My daughter literally ate dinner at every house here. If she got upset and ran away, she’d run to another house in the community.”

Davis is a hub of such intentional communities. N Street Cohousing began in 1986, when neighbors started tearing down backyard fences. One at a time, the community grew to 19 homes. UC Davis’ student co-ops were built in the ’60s and ’70s, and a couple off-campus housing co-ops followed in the ’80s. But the trend didn’t completely stop there. Another was built just three years ago.

How do these communities even form?

My house was relatively painless. Ganson bought the property, posted a Craigslist ad, and people quickly assembled. “It was like a big first date,” he says. “But also a brainstorming session for how the relationship would work.”

It was easy. And though only one original resident remains, Eye Street is still strong.

The Eye Street Co-op residents always hang out like this.

photo by lisa baetz

I moved into the house in January. A month prior, I saw the house’s extremely dense, specific Craigslist ad and excitedly sent off an equally dense email with carefully selected details about myself—my love for electro-swing, sour beer and so forth. Apparently it worked, because we scheduled an hourlong Skype interview, and the house unanimously voted me in that day. Of course it felt good—these cool people I had never actually met wanted me to be part of their community.

The first few days held challenges. I felt awkward, invasive. It took a while to figure out the chore systems, the best communication methods, where everything was and why the hell we had so many kinds of milk: cow’s milk, almond milk, rice milk, soy milk, oat milk and kefir? Really?

Luckily, the discomfort passed quickly, and I feel no qualms about sometimes going straight to my bedroom and not talking to anyone. I still can’t answer the milk question, though.

A battle against loneliness

Cohousing developments are a different beast. Unlike Eye Street, they take years to plan. Once an initial group of people commit, they all have a say in the design of their homes.

Local architecture firm Mogavero Notestine Associates built the first cohousing development in Sacramento, Southside Park Cohousing, and principal David Mogavero remembers spending every Thursday night with that group of residents for four years.

“It’s a hell of a lot of work,” he says. “We have 10 or 20 families that we have to please instead of just pleasing ourselves.”

Anne Geraghty is in the middle of that process. She’s been meeting with a group of empty nesters interested in starting a new cohousing development in urban Sacramento for the past two years. She wants to make her final years as social and active as possible.

“I think more and more people want control of their own lives, as opposed to going into a retirement community that’s controlled by a corporation,” she says. “I like the idea that this is my community, and I am part of governing it.”

Senior cohousing is a fairly new, quickly growing sector of housing communities. Mogavero is looking to build two new cohousing developments in Sacramento, and one of those would be geared toward seniors.

“People are looking at the last 10, 15, 20 years of the their lives, and they’d like to be with their buddies,” Mogavero says. “They want an environment that’s supportive of them when they’re infirm or disabled.”

For Geraghty, it comes down to quality of life.

“What excites me most is creating a community of interesting, caring people, and just eating together and sharing our worlds,” she says.

That’s hard to do in most neighborhoods, and Geraghty is tired of watching people disappear into their garages.

People don’t really need people anymore. You have your job, which may or may not be in a cubicle. You buy what you need, which may or may not involve interacting with a cashier. You eat alone in your one-bedroom apartment and go to sleep and do it all over again.

Anne Geraghty tends to her tomatoes. She wants to start a new cohousing project in urban Sacramento.

According to census data, the nuclear family is no longer the typical, expected housing arrangement. More and more people are living alone.

In 1950, about 4 million people lived by themselves—9 percent of all households. Now, 32 million people live alone—28 percent of all households. Sacramento follows the national trend, with 27 percent of households being a single person.

Part of that might be that people are getting married later in life and less often. In 1950, about 20 percent of Americans were single. Today, that figure has climbed to more than 40 percent.

How do we combat institutionalized loneliness? We move into communities.

“I was tired of living alone, of eating alone. It’s nice to always be around people,” says Eddie Risse, resident of Sunwise Co-op in Davis.

Risse moved into Sunwise just a few months ago. He’s 32 years old, had been working the same job for eight years and decided he needed a dramatic change. He quit, packed up his stuff, traveled through South America, worked on a farm with 15 people and found bliss. Now he’s settled in Davis and loving the vibrant home.

As Risse slowly chops onions and peppers, he tells me stories about house traditions, like gathering in a circle and holding hands before digging into dinner. He says one of his favorite things about cooperative living is the constant exposure to new things. One of his seven housemates walks in, and they discuss the evening’s menu, and he mentions they’re out of okra. She suggests he try mallow as a thickening agent instead.

Risse smiles. “See? Always learning.”

Not always utopia

Walking through Muir Commons, Kallas points out enviable features: a hot tub, enormous garden, play structures, chickens, woodshop area. Children’s laughter floats through the air, and she says it makes her feel like a beloved grandmother without having to exert any effort.

But the community isn’t as strong as it once was, Kallas says.

“Easily for 10 years, it was the most perfect way to live,” she says. “I would have driven to San Jose at 2 a.m. to pick up a neighbor from the airport. For so many years, every sentence I said started with ’My neighbor.’ Sadly, that ’we’re going to be together forever’ feeling didn’t ring true.”

In the common house, a bulletin board holds announcements for events and communal dinners. The empty space feels significant, and sure enough, Kallas says there’s far less activity than there used to be. She, too, feels less motivated to contribute now that her kids have left for college.

“It’s interesting to be in an intimate relationship with people you didn’t choose,” she says. “You’re deeply committed to each other, but as soon as the reason for it leaves, it all goes away.”

People move out all the time—it’s a sad reminder that communities are temporary.

The Eye Street kitchen is constantly busy with people cooking, cleaning, drinking and dancing. Mostly dancing.

photo by lisa baetz

At Eye Street Co-op, turnover has been pretty high over the past year. Some leave for jobs in other cities. Some are fixated on the idea of a nuclear family in a private home. Others just realize the lifestyle isn’t working for them.

“The choice to be in a co-op is really important,” Ganson says. “You have to decide to not be able to decide everything. People might hunger for community but might not be ready for it or have the collaborative skills.”

Skills like conflict resolution. Obviously, with more people sharing one space, the probability of conflict goes up. Some relationships are rife with disagreements over what kind of groceries to buy; others are strained from emotional histories.

“Since I’ve lived here, I’ve always known difficulties between people,” housemate Julie Bauer says. “But that doesn’t seem like a co-op thing, it seems like a life thing. The only difference is that when you’re in a co-op, you can’t avoid it.”

And it’s true, sometimes people aren’t pulling their weight when it comes to maintaining the house. Sometimes you wake up and the kitchen is an atrocity from someone else’s late-night party. Sometimes you need to clean up a small mess and realize the person who was supposed to wash the towels forgot that week. Sometimes it’s really annoying.

“The inconveniences you deal with here are different, but not in quantity, to the set of inconveniences you’d deal with living in an apartment alone,” argues Erin Reschke, the last-standing original Eye Street resident, who also happens to be an architect at Mogavero Notestine Associates.

Someone who lived alone might come home from a busy day at work, totally exhausted, and need to cook dinner, only to find that the fridge is empty.

I don’t see myself going back to that lifestyle anytime soon. Even if I settle down, get married and have kids, I think I’ll long for community now that I’ve tasted it.

These days, I get to come home from a busy day at work, totally exhausted, to a kitchen full of delicious things to snack on, and a housemate cooking me dinner. I get to wake up, drink coffee and read the newspaper with lively company. I get to think I’m having a quiet Saturday night, and instead be part of a spontaneous, ecstatic dance party in the living room.

I get to plop down on the couch, super upset and stressed out, and be met with a hug. And, I’m sure if I asked nicely, 11 hugs.

The floor is sticky? Oh well. Worth it.

There transforms the neighborhood

Breaking bread is a common feature in intentional communities, and some argue a vital one. It does oddly build intimacy—I have to trust my housemates to tell me when there’s spinach stuck in my teeth or rice inexplicably behind my ear. It’s like the childhood some of us never had—the whole family gathers around a home-cooked meal every night, phones and televisions turned off.

“The process of making a dinner together, or eating a dinner someone took time to cook for everyone, is a different experience than going out and buying food,” Reschke says. “You’re really appreciating the effort.”

And it’s a serious effort. I adore cooking, but I definitely freaked out the first time I had to cook for 12 people by myself. After three hours of throwing together quinoa, beets, sweet potatoes and kale, something resembling hippie slop was served. I’ve gotten a handle on it, and sometimes, I dare say, manage elegance. But I can’t imagine cooking at a cohousing community. At Muir Commons, group dinners feed 50 people—preparation literally takes all day.

This is not an official “compliment circle” around the fire pit, but sometimes kind words are inevitable.

photo by lisa baetz

Another common co-op feature is affordability. Sunwise is a sweet deal for Risse, currently waiting tables as he plots his next career move. It’s part of a Davis housing nonprofit that requires that all residents earn less than 80 percent of the city’s median income.

Eye Street Co-op isn’t quite so official, and rent isn’t quite so affordable. But considering we live in Midtown in a gorgeous house with high-speed Internet and a New York Times subscription, I argue it’s a steal. Splitting the costs of utilities, household appliances, food and toilet paper between 12 people really does help with monthly budgeting.

A few of my housemates barely clear $10,000 a year. In some fields, the job market is still brutal. But with this model, we can all afford a pretty rich life.

Part of that lifestyle ties to being as environmentally friendly as we can be. We compost, eat vegetarian and grow food, but we do a lot of environmentally friendly things without really trying.

Think about it: We are 12 people with four bathrooms, two refrigerators, one washing machine, one lawn mower, one blender and one lots-of-other-things. We consume so much less simply by living together.

Our house is on the same sized lot as a nearby apartment building with 12 one-bedroom units. That means it has 12 bathrooms, 12 kitchens, 12 washing machines and 12 lots-of-other-things. And it has no communal space, while we have a huge garden, which the neighborhood cat adores, and a massive living room, where we regularly invite musicians to perform for friends.

I’ll stop bragging. Bauer says it better anyway: “Whether you believe it makes a tremendous environmental impact, you are living according to your values.”

Another appeal: living in a way that supports the city.

Mogavero maintains that intentional communities drop little seeds of activism into neighborhoods, with the potential to dramatically improve them. Southside Park Cohousing, completed in 1993, is a prime example.

“We know it transformed the whole Southside neighborhood—that was the home of prostitution and drug dealing in the central city,” Mogavero says. “Those 25 families had a value system of engagement in their community already. Cohousing attracts liberal, politically active people, bottom line.”

Our sister co-op in Oak Park, Casa San Carlos, didn’t have as tangible of an effect on its own, but Ganson says the house helped its immediate surroundings by quietly working with police whenever a big drug house moved in.

“When that happens, the neighborhood pulls in,” he says. “Everyone’s behind their chain-link fences, cowering. I think we helped our little block, our little corner come out and feel safer and know we were all there for each other.”

Plus, city centers need more people. In Sacramento, one of our biggest objectives is to intensify our urban core. We want more patrons for our local businesses. We don’t want people driving in from the suburbs. Why would we want four people in a big house when we could have 12 people in it?

And there’s a massive oversupply of these big houses. According to “The New California Dream,” a study by University of Utah professor Arthur C. Nelson, the state’s current supply of large-lot, single-family homes already far exceeds the expected demand for them in 2035.

“Somehow, we’re going to end up with multiple nuclear families or multiple groups of people having to occupy these extra houses together,” Ganson says.

“Obviously, I like the co-op model.”