Why don’t we live together? Alternative housing in a hot real estate market


Experts and residents say shared housing promotes affordability, well-being in cities

Corporate-run co-living rentals, with hotel-like qualities, are on offer in expensive cities. But much shared housing is created from the ground up by residents. Seen here before the pandemic is The Collective Old Oak in London, England. (Daniel Leal-Olivas/AFP via Getty Images)

For Tina Afridi, finding a quiet spot in her multigenerational home can be challenging.

The Pickering, Ont., resident lives with her husband, his 87-year-old mother, several adult children, and two generations of cats.

But despite the busyness, Afridi said that for her family, sharing space is worth it.

“There’s always someone there, you’re not alone, you’re not lonely. It’s good to be surrounded by people.”

More than a year into the pandemic, with housing prices hitting record highs, and many struggling to pay the price for a single-family home in Canada’s urban housing markets, some observers say it’s time to start thinking outside the house-shaped box, and consider more co-living options.

A multigenerational community lives in the 31 units at Vancouver Cohousing. It opened in February 2016. (Canadian Cohousing Network)

“Everyone having their own private space, their own private backyard — it’s really unique in history. It’s a relatively recent phenomenon,” according to urbanist Diana Lind, author of Brave New Home: Our Future in Smarter, Simpler, Happier Housing.

While there’s a health concern to some shared spaces right now, advocates believe that more co-living — such as group-owned houses, co-ops, rentals with common kitchens and workspaces, communes and co-housing communities — can diversify urban housing options and increase affordability.

Single-family housing — outdated?

Sharing domestic space is not as radical as it sounds. Historically, humans have lived collectively, communally and in multigenerational spaces.

It’s single-family homes that are the exception.

Lind notes that they are a 20th century phenomenon, built for post-war nuclear families and the car culture of the time.

“This is not the way that we’ve lived for most of humanity.”

Author and urbanist Diana Lind says the 1950s nuclear family ideal is not reflective of today’s smaller, mixed households. (Bold Type Books/Colin M. Lenton)

She says our demographic realities now support the need for change.

The 2016 Canadian census revealed a majority of households consist of one to two people with smaller and less traditional family households on the rise. That’s also true of the United States, U.K. and other European countries, as well as Japan.

Immigration and social changes have reshaped our configurations of family, too.

With the work and social future in flux, Lind argues that we need to rethink an urban housing supply that she said is designed for the past.

The case for sharing

In San Francisco, North America’s most expensive housing market, two researchers are studying co-living from the ground up.

Neeraj Bhatia and Antje Steinmuller bring an international perspective to their Urban Works Agency research lab, based at the California College of the Arts.

They’ve looked at “share houses” across Asia, resident-generated building groups in Germany, and communal living in Northern California.

Bhatia said there are specific advantages to living together.

‘There’s a lot of labour that goes into living together,’ says architect Neeraj Bhatia. But he adds ‘through that labour and negotiation, people both have more agency on crafting the spaces around them, but also create deep bonds with the people around them.’ (Ben Kumata)

One is financial. “Through pooling resources, living in closer proximity with each other, and sharing things, there’s a saving of money.”

Sharing meals, tools, and having one car for group use can make life more affordable, he said.

Another upside of co-living is built-in community. It can offer some private space, but also opt-in opportunities for social interaction, knowledge-sharing and caregiving.

“People are looking for new forms of social units that provide for meaningful interactions in different stages of their lives,” said Bhatia.

The practicalities of sharing

A network of communal living houses in San Francisco, the Haight Street Commons, has been a special focus for Bhatia and Steinmuller.

More than a dozen Victorian houses and warehouses have been converted into hundreds of rental rooms with substantial common space.

They also share an intentional approach to living.

Steinmuller said these “communes 2.0” differ in some ways from their 1960s ancestors.

In the 60s and 70s, communal living was a trend in the Bay Area of San Francisco. Architect Antje Steinmuller says the reemergence of shared living inspired her to research how to design for collective living. (Michael Neff)

Residents today include academics, tech workers and Silicon Valley entrepreneurs, in addition to artists and seekers.

But the real change that she sees is “in the self-reflectiveness of the Commons community on their own governance, and the awareness of how decisions are made, how communication happens.”

Each house sets its own rules and approach to working through issues.

It sounds potentially complicated and requires a lot from “the Commoners.”

The Embassy San Francisco houses 14 residents that share ‘fluid use of space and new ways of being in solidarity with one another.’ (embassynetwork.com)

But neuroscientist Zarinah Agnew, who lives at one of the Haight Street Commons residences and is interested in experimental spaces, counters that life in her commune can be “peaceful … a sanctuary.”

“One of the things that happens when you live together in a group is that life becomes very efficient. (There’s) the financial efficiency, the space efficiency,” Agnew said.

“It all becomes very streamlined. And so you gain a huge amount of time back.”

That time can be used for everything from international travel to sister communes to social justice work. The HSC has set up two homes in San Francisco for formerly incarcerated people.

Agnew points out that much of the built landscape in cities works against communal collaboration.

“We are a very social primate … and for our buildings to segregate us is an extraordinary way to design our lives together,” Agnew said.

Single-family living, redux

Lind thinks supporting multigenerational living can also help with urban loneliness.

She points to the private/public balance in an affordable housing community for grandparents raising kids in Tucson, Ariz., called Las Abuelitas.

An affordable housing complex in Tucson, Ariz., was designed from the input of the grandparents and children who would be its residents. Las Abuelitas Kinship housing offers both private and public space for all. (Architect Poster Frost Mirto/Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum)

Designed from the ideas of its future residents, it features 12 small, well-planned houses, with private patios that can be opened up for socializing and play, as well as a shared computer lab, library, garden and basketball court.

But Lind also thinks cities should support the retrofitting of existing houses, allowing families or friends to live together. It helps increase urban density and supports affordability.

“A duplex,” Lind said. “How simple is that?”

Guests in this episode:

Tina Afridi lives in a multigenerational home in Pickering, Ont.

Zarinah Agnew is a neuroscientist in San Francisco and lives in the Haight Street Commons community.

Neeraj Bhatia is an architect and urban designer from Toronto, and a recent winner of Canada’s Professional Prix de Rome in Architecture. He is an associate professor of architecture at the California College of the Arts, where he co-directs the urban research lab, Urban Works Agency.

Diana Lind is an urban policy specialist, and author of Brave New Home: Our Future in Smarter, Simpler, Happier Housing (Bold Type, 2020). She is executive director of the Arts + Business Council for Greater Philadelphia, and housing fellow at the global nonprofit NewCities.

Patricia (Paty) Rios is the Housing and Research Lead with Vancouver’s Happy City urban consultancy. She has a background in architecture and urban design. Her focus is social well-being in the built environment.

Antje Steinmuller is chair of the department of architecture at the California College of the Arts. She’s co-director of the Urban Works Agency, and the research collaboration on collective living that she undertook with Neeraj Bhatia is included in the 2021 Venice Biennale of Architecture.

This episode is part of our series on the idea of the Common Good — the eternal search for humankind: what does it mean to live together in society, and how might we best share the world we live in? Find more Common Good episodes here.

*This episode was produced by Lisa Godfrey.