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An Alternative Approach to Housing

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In the U.S. there is a lot of speculation and concern about the housing market. Here is another approach to housing.

Once upon a time I lived in a communal house in San Francisco, California. It is said to be the oldest commune in the city, having started about 1958. It is called East West House. I lived there for six and a half years in the 1980s.

The land and house were purchased by the original members, with $600 apiece. They charged themselves a monthly rent of $65. Part of it went to pay the mortgage payment, part for utilities and miscellaneous expenses, and the rest accumulated in a savings account for the house. When one by one they moved out and new members moved in, they were reimbursed their $600 out of that house savings account.

The deed was in the name of the member with the best credit references. He moved out and encouraged everyone to get incorporated so his name would be off the deed. He didn't want to be legally responsible for someplace he was no longer living. East West House became incorporated as a "Mutual-Benefit Non-Profit Corporation." By the time I moved in, the organizational aspects of the household were long before fine-tuned and agreed upon by everyone. I think they were pretty cool.

Here are some of them that I recall.

1. Shared Cooking

Every member takes a turn, in rotation, cooking dinner for everybody else. We were 13 members (plus dinner guests). Every night there was a homemade meal that we shared all together. Sundays there was a day off. No cook. That meant each person cooked once every two weeks.

I loved it! When it was my turn to cook, it was special, not something routine that I had to do every day. On my first cook night of the year I always tackled a new menu that I had never tried before. One time it was Vietnamese food. Another time it was gutting a big red snapper I bought at a farmers market and making fish chowder (I had never gutted a fish before… or since).

Dishes and kitchen clean-up was also rotated. So we each had one cook night and one dish night every two weeks. You could choose to do them both the same night, or to clean up for someone else's cook night and they cleaned up for yours.

2. Food Chart

All the food expenses for cook nights and communal food in the pantry were written on a chart, a column for each person.

At the end of the month all the numbers were added up, adding guests and subtracting "outs" (when you were away and missed a meal and gave 24 hours notice beforehand so the cook didn't buy food for you). The person whose turn it was to do the bookkeeping then calculated an average cost per day per person.  If you spent more money, then you were credited on your rent. If you spent less money than the average, your rent bill was raised accordingly.

3. Monthly House Meetings

The third Thursday of each month at 7 pm we had a house meeting. A piece of paper was thumbtacked to the bulletin board in the dining room and any housemate who wanted to wrote down an agenda item on the paper. At the meeting, we went through that agenda item by item in the order they were written.

The facilitator of the meeting was a different member each month, in rotation according to the alphabet. Everyone took a turn, even the 13-year-old-daughter of one of the housemates (she was a member just like everyone else). We were of many ethnicities and generations during the time I lived in EW.

If you facilitated the house meeting the month before, then it was your turn to take notes.

4. Consensus Decision-Making

All decisions (except votes on new members or evictions) were made by consensus. At the time I lived there, consensus meant "can you live with it?" Maybe you weren't thrilled with the group decision, but it wasn't going to kill you.

The exceptions to consensus were that if even one person felt uneasy about a potential new member, that person had full veto power, even if everyone else was thrilled to pieces with the idea of this potential new member. Evictions were a straight majority vote.

About Lynette Yetter

  • Ruvy

    A usual, Lynette, an article that is thought provoking, and which provides doable solutions for most people. Thanks!!

  • John Wilson

    Very interesting. Thanks for writing this article.