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What is 'communal living' and is it right for me?

For the last 14 years, Davida Wolf has been living at Seattle's WOW House. The blue storybook house's name stands for Wild Old Women. It's home to chickens named Big Red, Henny Penny, Goose and Pheasant — and three other women who, like Wolf, are over 60 and queer.

WOW House is communal. In this arrangement, housemates share resources like food, skills like gardening, and domestic responsibilities. For Wolf, living at WOW House is a wonderful way to "make connections and create family in different ways," she says.

Communal living takes many forms, whether that's sharing a home with like-minded people or raising your kids on the same street as your friends. And it goes by many names: intentional communities, co-housing, co-ops or communes.

But they all have one thing in common: people who co-live don't just simply live under one roof as roommates. They make the long-term commitment to intertwine their lives together, says Gillian Morris, who co-runs a blog on communal living and has helped set up a commune in New York City.

If you're curious about this lifestyle, here are key questions to ask yourself before taking the leap.

What does your ideal home environment look like?

Gillian Morris at a reunion in Connecticut with some of the people she lived with at Casa Chironja, a group house in San Juan, Puerto Rico. From left to right: Tasha C, Morris, Joel Shor, Robert Morris and Connie Yang.
/ Gillian Morris
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Gillian Morris
Gillian Morris at a reunion in Connecticut with some of the people she lived with at Casa Chironja, a group house in San Juan, Puerto Rico. From left to right: Tasha C, Morris, Joel Shor, Robert Morris and Connie Yang.

If living alone, with a roommate or with a partner doesn't feel like the right fit, what could make your arrangement feel more like home?

Maybe growing your own food is important to you, so you want to live in a place with a big vegetable garden. Or maybe you're an artist who moved to a new city and are looking for friendship with other creatives.

Wolf, 65, wanted connection and support as she aged. At WOW House, she says her housemates, whose oldest member is in her 80s, look after each other by taking turns cooking dinner. And they keep each other company during weekly movie nights and while gardening.

Who are you most excited to live with?

See if you can find a pre-existing community that matches your values and has an opening. Morris has a co-living directory on her blog. You can also search for co-housing or cooperative housing in your city as a starting point.

Wolf was lucky enough to find a home that felt like the perfect fit from the moment she walked through the door. "One of the members said, 'I just think that you need to be here.' And I said, 'I know.' And so I moved," she says.

If you can't organically find a place with like-minded people, consider people in your life, says Rhaina Cohen, an NPR producer and author of The Other Significant Others — Reimagining Life with Friendship at the Center.

Make a list of loved ones who you'd be most excited to live with, those who you can depend on, she says. "Who is the person you trust most to make decisions for you at a hospital?"

Then ask them if they might be game for a co-living setup. You may be surprised by their answer.

Cohen and her husband brought up the idea of sharing a home together with a couple who they admired. Even though the couple had two kids, they were interested! The four of them sat down to talk through what the arrangement could look like. "What do we do for Shabbat? Would my husband and I be involved in childcare?" asks Cohen. Now, they all live together in a row house in Washington, D.C.

Does the home have space for both privacy and leisure?

When considering a house or an apartment, pay attention to the layout, says Morris, who currently lives with about 10 people in San Juan, Puerto Rico. She recommends homes that have a dining area in or near the kitchen — it's better for socialization. "In co-living, so much of the shared time is around cooking and eating together. It's good to have a place that combines those two," she says.

And make sure the bedrooms are far away from noisy living areas, perhaps on a different floor, she adds. You'll want a place where privacy and social time is balanced.

Depending on the size of the group you want to share a home with, your setup may vary. For both Cohen and Wolf, the shared living space of the house is on the first floor, with bedrooms and offices on the second or third floors. Yes, there are large communal homes where bedrooms are shared between multiple people, but pooling resources with even just a few people can make having your own bedroom and bathrooms a much more affordable option.

Are you willing to share chores, hardships and hobbies?

Co-living has its joys and challenges, so set your expectations accordingly.

Many people join co-ops to find community with like-minded people — but that doesn't mean there won't be conflict. Be open to communicating and resolving any problems that may spring up with your housemates.

WOW House has a system for this, says Wolf. They have two regular house meetings: one to address chores and house maintenance and one for house dynamics. The second meeting was created when Wolf and her housemates noticed that resentment was starting to build over small issues. "We go around a circle and each person speaks their truth. And people just listen," says Wolf.

Sindhu Gnanasambandan at a Halloween party with her housemates at their group house in Crown Heights, N.Y., in October 2023. Top left to right: Katie Maurer, Hannah Dugan, Stacey Reimann, Gnanasambandan, Chloe Sigal Bottom left to right: Tara Pham, Alli Gabbert, Ashrita Shetty.
/ Mark Nakhla
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Mark Nakhla
Sindhu Gnanasambandan at a Halloween party with her housemates at their group house in Crown Heights, N.Y., in October 2023. Top left to right: Katie Maurer, Hannah Dugan, Stacey Reimann, Gnanasambandan, Chloe Sigal Bottom left to right: Tara Pham, Alli Gabbert, Ashrita Shetty.

Part of living communally means sharing domestic tasks — and that includes chores. Every community divides that up differently. Sindhu Gnanasambandan lives with eight other people in a group house in Brooklyn, N.Y. Rather than rotating tasks with a chore wheel, she says each housemate takes on a more permanent "stewardship role" based on an area of focus they're drawn to, like watering the house plants or managing pests. No matter what kind of home you land in, you'll be expected to contribute to maintaining the household.

Lastly, don't forget that sharing space with more people also means sharing your hobbies. Gnanasambandan's housemates have a wide array of interests, and as a result, she does too. "I dance so much more than I did before. I sing so much more than I did before," she says.


The story was edited by Malaka Gharib and Beck Harlan. We'd love to hear from you. Leave us a voicemail at 202-216-9823, or email us at LifeKit@npr.org.

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Copyright 2024 NPR

Sam Leeds