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Householding: Communal Living on a Small Scale

Posted on September 7, 2009 by
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Author: Elizabeth Barrette
Published in Communities Magazine Issue #144

Householding involves the practice of intentional community in a single house with a group of people not all related to each other. Similar terms include “sharehousing,” “shared house,” “sharehouse,” and “group house.” Householding offers most of the same advantages of companionship and economy as other forms of intentional community, but on a smaller scale that some people find more accessible. For many people, a shared house is their first experience with communal living—and in times of economic hardship, the frugality may cause people to try it who might not otherwise consider it.

Shared Houses

Householding is related to other types of intentional community. It is most closely connected to urban housing cooperatives, student co-ops, and cohousing. These models tend to feature concise living arrangements, often under a single roof.

A key feature of householding is the house itself. Shared houses typically evolve from large buildings such as farmhouses or Victorian mansions. They have multiple bathrooms and bedrooms, and generous common rooms and kitchens. It’s possible, though more challenging, to share a smaller building. The number of bathrooms may prove more of a limiting factor than bedrooms in household population. Our house, Fieldhaven, is a large farmhouse with three current residents; it also hosts many events for our local like-minded community. Ravan Asteris, who also contributed input to this article, lives in a household of four adults over 40 (plus the landlord downstairs), five cats, and one dog in an 1890s Victorian house.

Shared houses may be short-term or long-term establishments. Those started by college students rarely last more than a year or few. During my college days I was a frequent guest, sometimes overnight, at one called Illinois Street House. Shared houses started by more settled adults can last for decades. Some even become famous in certain subcultures. For a while, I had friends at Lytheria in Milwaukee, Wisconsin: a modest mansion with individual bedrooms and large common rooms, and a waiting list for would-be residents. The Bhigg House in Winnipeg, Canada houses an assortment of musicians and other creative people; this household has collectively been invited to science fiction conventions as Guest of Honor.[1]

Forming a Household

A household forms when several people decide to live together. This can come about in various ways. All benefit from careful planning and communication beforehand. Economic hardships, however, may force unplanned moves or leave friends in need of emergency housing. Don’t overlook these opportunities—it may be awkward, but helping each other through hard times is what community is all about.

The first approach to householding involves inviting people to move in with you.[2] This works well for a single person or couple with a large house, or at least a spare room; if your budget is tight, renters can help. It also benefits seniors, who often own a house but wish for more company. Pass the word among friends and family that you seek housemates. Check newspapers and bulletin boards in your area to find people who need living space. One trick for attracting housemates is to undercut the going rate for housing; another is to let people pay rent with barter instead of cash, especially if you aren’t desperately broke. Ideally, seek people whose needs and interests mesh well with yours.

Stay alert for housing emergencies, a common dilemma in times of foreclosure and layoffs. Among the best ways to create a strong household is to provide living space for a friend who needs it on short notice. Start by offering temporary lodging, such as two to four weeks; use that time to test your compatibility. If you make a good fit, formalize a longer-term arrangement. If it doesn’t work out, at least the emergency is taken care of and your friend has time to search for another place.

The second approach to householding involves moving into someone else’s place. This is easiest for a single person with minimal baggage, but may work for more people or possessions. First, use social networking (in person and/or online) to find opportunities. Perhaps some of your friends have a spare room they would like to rent out. Maybe someone has moved out early from a shared house and you could take over their lease.

If you can’t find space with anyone you know, broaden your search. Local newspapers and bulletin boards may mention communal living opportunities. Check nearby colleges, because students frequently band together for housing and sometimes leave early. Finally, browse intentional community directories for shared houses or co-ops open to new members.[3]

The third approach to householding involves gathering a group of people who then rent or buy a place together. College students often do this, as one year’s friends become next year’s housemates. Experienced householders do it too. This way you can choose a building that meets your needs; you know how many bedrooms and bathrooms you need, and what other facilities or parameters are important. You also enter the household as equals; nobody has to move into somebody else’s space or let someone into theirs.

On the downside, it can prove difficult to find a place that everyone likes. You may have to prioritize needs over desires, and that requires careful negotiation and honesty. Some towns have laws against unrelated people living together; even where it’s legal, some landlords disapprove. These complications come up less often in college towns where students commonly rent houses together, or in cities or neighborhoods with old-fashioned “walkable” construction where duplex or triplex houses are common and amenities nearby.

Money Matters

In order to succeed, shared living requires a careful discussion of money, preferably at the beginning. Members must be absolutely clear about who contributes what, and when, and how. Ideally, one or more “anchor” members should have reliable income and credit, allowing the household the option of including others with different contributions.

Many groups choose to establish a household account, filled by rent or other arrangements, for paying common expenses such as utility bills and grocery shopping. This makes the bookkeeping easier; the household account can be managed by the person with the most financial or mathematical skill, and available for anyone to review upon request. Ravan Asteris adds, “In general, it is a good idea to start out with everyone making deposits, and then paying bills and buying common supplies out of the central account. This helps figure out what your real household expenses are. It’s also good to overestimate the amount needed. Anything that isn’t used in one month can be shunted to the savings, for months when the utilities spike or there are unexpected expenses (what do you mean, the neighbor kids broke a window?).”[4]

Some expenses tend to increase substantially as more people join a household. These include water, electricity, and phone bills. Your budget needs to account for this. The house phone may not increase much if everyone has their own cell phone, though.

Some expenses tend to stay the same, or increase only a little, as the household grows. These include heating/cooling, garbage, internet connection, and cable/satellite TV. Unless you choose to add more services, or add a lot of people, standard family packages usually cover these.

You can find many ways to save money by living together.[5] It is more economical to eat together than for everyone to buy their own food; budget more for communal groceries and take advantage of bulk pricing. Gather for activities, and you only have to light one or two rooms, not the whole house. Recycling, composting, and vermiculture reduce the need for garbage service. Share newspaper, magazine, and other subscriptions. Walking and biking save wear on the household car(s). Finally, brainstorm money-saving ideas with your housemates.

Talking Points

Like other types of intentional community, a shared house benefits from fluent communication skills. Talk with your potential housemates before moving in together and discuss important points. It helps to have at least one person with facilitation and/or mediation experience.[6] Some households set formal meetings; others communicate more casually. Figure out what works for your group.

Practice verbal self-defense and avoid hostile language.[7] If you’re new to householding, your job includes learning from more experienced members. If you’ve shared living space before, your job includes teaching communal skills to newcomers. Remember that under a single roof, you can’t just walk away from conflicts—they come back to bite you later. Therefore, don’t let disputes simmer until they boil over. Deal with them at once, gently if possible and firmly if necessary.

Explore the parameters for potential housemates. Do you want a like-minded group or a diverse group? Does it include employed, unemployed, self-employed, or part-time workers? Is the household open to children, college students, middle-aged adults, and/or seniors? Can you have pets and livestock, owned individually or collectively? What are people’s dietary and other needs? What is the policy regarding tobacco, alcohol, and other substances? There are many ways to assemble a community, so read about some previous examples.[8]

Agree on a decision-making process for the household. Most groups prefer participatory options such as democratic, egalitarian, or consensus methods. If one person owns the house, however, that can lead to a more autocratic situation, which may or may not work for you.

Define what constitutes personal vs. public space. Which rooms are common rooms? What equipment is shared and what is private? What are the rules for using common space and equipment? How do housemates give each other necessary privacy? What balance between companionship and privacy do people want?

Discuss the distribution of chores and other responsibilities. Who does the cooking, cleaning, repairs, and other upkeep? Who has special skills or limitations? Express thanks for tasks completed; everyone enjoys being appreciated. Also compare “mess quotient,” one of the commonest reasons for domestic friction that people rarely consider. How messy or tidy should public spaces be? What about individual bedrooms or other private places? Generally, divide chores based on ability and interest, so that nobody has to do things that they hate, that they do poorly, or that aggravate their health issues. Two types of task should be shared by all: those that everyone dislikes, and those that everyone enjoys.

Compare people’s wake/sleep schedules and work/home schedules. Discuss your tastes in music, conversation, and other aspects of noise level. Do you want to establish specific quiet times or revel times? Could you use the physical layout of the house to separate noisy activities from peaceful ones? Here at Fieldhaven, we’ve found that having people on different sleep schedules poses no serious problems—as long as the day sleeper is upstairs, not downstairs near the door that makes a racket every time it opens or closes.

Explore your thoughts regarding guests. Can housemates bring home anyone they want, at any time? Do guests need to be known to other housemates? Are visits to be planned or spontaneous? May guests spend the night in a housemate’s room, or in common space such as a couch? Households that frequently host overnight guests may want to invest in a futon or hide-a-bed sofa. Fieldhaven has two, a full-size couch and a loveseat, because we have several out-of-state friends who need crash space when visiting.

Finally, consider the issue of trust. Ravan Asteris explains, “If A hands B $20 to go to the store and get XXX, will they actually get it or return the money? If C falls off a ladder, will D call 911, and not just leave the house? You can be friends with people, but not trust them enough to live with them. Everyone has their faults and foibles, but if those faults are in the trustworthiness area, and are outside the bounds of what can be coped with by the rest of the household, the household will break down very quickly and/or expel the person that they can’t trust. This doesn’t mean that they have to be always honest, always perfect accountants, always ‘clean,’ or whatever, but they have to keep the trust of the household.”[9]

Homemaking

Although economic and other practical reasons may cause people to share a dwelling, it takes more to create a thriving and cohesive household. For that you need homemaking skills, the knowledge and practices that merge individuals into a group. Pay attention to the group dynamics, nurture the collective identity, and generally encourage housemates to cooperate on projects. Create customs and traditions that define your household as a social unit.

Food provides comfort as well as nourishment. If possible, prepare meals collectively and eat together.[10] Team up for canning or freezing fruits and vegetables for later use. Take advantage of crock pots and other methods that fill the house with delicious smells for hours before a meal. Share recipes by creating a cookbook of household favorites. Exchange the news from each other’s successes and challenges of the day over supper.

Spend leisure time together. Find out who enjoys the same crafts or hobbies, and who would like to learn new ones from someone else. Encourage “lapwork” activities such as sewing, knitting, or woodcarving that people can do while conversing. Share board, card, roleplaying, or physical games once or twice a month.[11] Movie nights are popular. Also consider music nights if your housemates sing or play instruments.

Finally, name your household. While not obligatory, a name helps make it real and memorable. It also gives you an easy way to talk about your shared house and your collective housemates. You might choose a name inspired by the house or yard, location, favorite literature, mythology, or other characteristics. It should sound interesting and welcoming. Above all, it should capture the spirit of the place and the people who call it home.

This is your dream. Give it roots—and then give it wings.

References

1. “Minicon 30 Fan Guests of Honor: BHIGG HOUSE” by Steve Glennon, reference taken 3/25/09.
www.mnstf.org/minicon/minicon30/bhigg-house.html

2. “How to Find a Housemate or Roommate” by Pondripples, eHow, reference taken 3/26/09.
www.ehow.com/how_4730509_housemate-roomate.html

3. Communities Directory, 2007: A Comprehensive Guide to Intentional Communities and Cooperative Living by Foundation for Intentional Community. Foundation for Intentional Community, 2007.

4. “Money Talks” by Ravan Asteris, LiveJournal Community Householding, 2/26/09.
community.livejournal.com/householding/1328.html

5. “Household Budget Tips” by Always Frugal, 2004-2009.
www.alwaysfrugal.com/

6. “Tree Bressen’s Group Facilitation Site” by Tree Bressen, 2008-2009.
treegroup.info/

7. The Gentle Art of Verbal Self-Defense (Revised Edition) by Suzette Haden Elgin. Fall River Press, 2009.

8. Shared Visions, Shared Lives: Communal Living Around the Globe by Bill Metcalf. Findhorn Press, 1996.

9. “Essentials: Trust” by Ravan Asteris, LiveJournal Community Householding, 2/22/09.
community.livejournal.com/householding/772.html

10. Cooking Time Is Family Time: Cooking Together, Eating Together, and Spending Time Together by Lynn Fredericks. William Morrow & Co., 1999.

11. “Team Builders, Ice Breakers, Songs, Name Games and Other Fun Games” by Resident Assistant, 1998-2008.
http://www.residentassistant.com/games/


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