Better together? A new generation try

Sharing a dwelling has never been easy. But the idea has always been appealing. Now a combination of economics, technology, and new attitudes about owning is spurring the co-housing movement.

By , Editor-at-Large

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    Residents Jay Standish (l.) and Ben Provan chat over dinner at their shared house in Berkeley, Calif.
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Hey, let’s all get a place together. Seriously, we could find an old house and split the costs.

Think of the money we’d save! And the fun we’d have! You like to cook, Julie’s an ace in the garden, and Mike is, well, I’m not sure, but he’s fun to hang out with. Whaddaya think?

A proposal like that was probably first floated by 20-somethings at a Neolithic cookout. Each generation invents the idea of pals and peers moving in together. You can see evidence of the communal ethic in ancient abbeys and monasteries; Utopian experiments such as Brook Farm and Fruitlands; the Israeli kibbutzim; and a series of looser affiliations such as the early 20th-century Bloomsbury set and the late ’60s back-to-the-land movement. It’s a theme played out in endless situation comedies cloned from the “Friends” franchise. 

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Communes and other forms of co-living seem practical and economical. There’s also an element of youthful idealism involved, and a dash of rebellion against social convention. Why pay for six roofs when six people can live under one? Why do what everybody else does? And think of the fun!

Getting a place together makes sense, but for most of history it hasn’t worked. Chore disputes, personality differences, hygiene failings, slacking, nagging, and a simple craving for privacy (to start a family or just to be alone) are the usual reasons communes and shared houses crack up and roommates go their separate ways. 

But with every new generation – hello, Millennials – the shared housing idea comes back. Maybe this time is different. As you’ll see in a Monitor cover story, there are new reasons to think so. Economics, for instance: Do you know what homes cost in San Francisco or New York? Something else is astir as well, something not quite as jejune as best-friends-forever declarations. Housing might well be the next frontier in the sharing economy (see our Oct. 1, 2012, cover story) in which new technology, new business models, and new generational preferences are shifting away from buying and holding to borrowing and returning. 

The markets for cars, bicycles, overnight stays, higher education, couture dresses, and dozens more goods and services have felt the effects of the peer-to-peer movement. Younger generations are driving the trend, but older generations – especially empty-nester baby boomers – are taking notice. Keeping up a house alone isn’t always easy; assisted living isn’t always desirable. And so, as one sharing-economy analyst tells contributor Timothy May, the time seems ripe to “hack” housing.

But can that hack overcome the problem that has wrecked shared housing throughout the ages? The balance between a fair distribution of duties and nitpicking flummoxes most roommates. For every Oscar there’s a Felix. For every house rule, there’s a rule breaker. Bike and car sharers don’t have to deal with dirty dishes, a penchant for garlic and curry (guilty), or an occasional midnight drum solo. Even standard apartment dwellers, condo owners, and suburban neighbors fall out over such matters.

Still, if a new generation’s ingenuity can be coupled with a spirit of generosity and acceptance, healthy communities will result. Whether under the same roof, on the same street, or orbiting around the same set of enthusiasms or beliefs, communities allow people to learn from each other, support one another, and enjoy companionship, if only for a short time. That’s all that any generation has ever wanted. That – and we could save money. And think of the fun we could have.

John Yemma is the Monitor's editor-at-large. He can be reached at yemma@csmonitor.com.

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