Picture “Three’s Company” or any sitcom revolving around roommates making it work — sometimes failing, sometimes succeeding — in a shared living space.
Now imagine that Janet is a divorced lawyer in her late 30s with three kids ages 8, 9 and 13. Replace Chrissy with a male 32-year-old-video editor and Jack, the accident-prone Navy veteran with culinary ambitions, with another 32-year-old whose job titles include “handyman, medical-test subject and historical preservationist.” Next, replace hoodwinked landlord Mr. Roper with a young entrepreneur who doesn’t technically live with the other three housemates but is still a constant presence around the home — he can mostly be found “working and hanging out.”
Finally, move the action from a three-bedroom apartment complex in sunny Santa Monica to a single-family home historic Ivy City neighborhood in northeast Washington, D.C. And now, imagine these three housemates — plus the young entrepreneur hanging around all day — socializing, having meals together, relegating household chores, not bogarting the remote and doing all the normal, quotidian things that normal housemates sharing a space in the city do.
Oh, and that includes sharing their own personal incomes.
Welcome to Compersia, an urban income-sharing commune in D.C. in which three full-time members plus the “hanging out” Mr. Roper character — real name Steve Watkins — essentially function as run-of-the-mill housemates. In fact, they’re relatively new housemates, having all only known each other for roughly a year. However, this is where comparisons to “normal” platonic cohabitation ends as the four individuals involved have committed to sharing everything with each other — wages included.
Recently profiled at The Atlantic, Compersia is a special breed of intentional living community — think: eco-villages, co-housing arrangements, residential land trusts, Millennial share-pads and classic communes like the kind where your “free-spirited” uncle Ray briefly resided in New Mexico in the early 1970s — that revolves largely around pooled personal wealth. To live in Compersia, whatever proverbial bread one brings home must be shared around the table in an egalitarian manner in so that no one is feeling hungry — or unequal.
The home itself is owned by Jenny (not her real name), the lawyer with three children. However, the whole gang pitches in for mortgage, property taxes and the like. Elaborates the Atlantic:
Members pooled some of their existing money to pay for home renovations and other expenses, but mostly kept the assets they had before joining separate. Since March though, they have agreed to put 100 percent of their earnings into a joint bank account, which is used for everything from mortgage payments to clothing to happy-hour drinks to braces for one of Jenny’s kids. For purchases of more than $100, they consult with each other. For everything else, they use their own discretion.
They are saving for a bigger house but first want to refine their accounting system. They’re also hashing out what happens if a member leaves. If it comes to that, they said, they’ll try to provide that person with enough money to help them move and get started somewhere else. In the future, they want to be able to provide savings accounts and potentially retirement accounts for each member as well.
“There's a lot of people here who make way too much money and a lot of people here who are struggling. By sharing our resources, we can have a range of economic circumstances living together,” Jenny says of the experimental set-up.
The Atlantic goes on to explain that while the concept of income-pooling that drives Compersia (a riff on the word “compersion” or the polar opposite of jealousy) isn’t entirely unique. However, the fact that Jenny and her fellow members/housemates share all of their income sets this commune apart. One resident, video editor Connor Scalzi, admits that the full income-sharing aspect did scare off some prospective members who were otherwise keen on the more commune-lite perks of living at Compersia.
There’s also the not-so-insignificant fact that Compersia is located smack-dab in a desirable neighborhood in an expensive metro area and not in the sticks, where a majority of like-minded intentional communities can be found. Whereas some communes relish the isolation, communes are often established in rural areas for more practical reasons: the land is cheaper and there’s more of it, which is important if the community plans for growth. This also leaves room for farming and the raising animals, which is a cost-reducing staple of numerous intentional living communities. The Atlantic notes the closest thing to farming at Compersia is some “light gardening.”
In fact, it was at one of these agrarian-minded communes — Louisa County, Virginia’s venerable Twin Oaks — that Jenny and her future housemate, GPaul Blundell (the gent with the odd jobs), met and began mulling over the idea of an experimental urban commune. To be clear, the two met at a conference held at the commune and not as members of Twin Oaks, which was founded in 1967 and boasts roughly 100 adult residents.
Twin Oaks, profiled in Erik Reece’s recent book “Utopia Drive: A Road Trip Through America’s Most Radical Ideas (and excerpted by the Atlantic), is one of only seven member communities of the Federation of Egalitarian Communities (FEC). Like Compersia, the 425-acre commune also features an income-sharing component albeit a much different one given that Twin Oaks residents do not have outside jobs and instead perform on-site labor — 42 hours per week for everyone in exchange for housing, food, health insurance and the like.
Back in D.C., the whole four shared incomes/one shared living space scenario isn’t always easy. But Jenny, GPaul, Connor and Steve are determined to make it work. As Gillian B. White writes for the Atlantic: “Compersia’s members insist that navigating the emotions and cultural expectations surrounding money is much more difficult than actually handling the communes’ finances," which makes sense. Math is the easy part.
For one, there’s the insinuation that the male members of Compersia are freeloading off of Jenny, who commands a higher salary than her housemates and, in turn, is adding significantly more funds to the collective pot. Jenny, who was first attracted to communal living following her divorce, claims that this isn’t the case at all: “My needs are much greater than theirs. There have been times when I don't want to ride my bike home in the rain and I've taken a taxi. I struggle with feeling like I shouldn't, because it costs money and I had this fear of judgment. But I've realized it's an issue of trust.”
21st century communes offer escape from housing grind
Having shed some of the hoary old cliches of communal living and wooed some folks who would never dream of joining a commune, intentional communities are indeed having a bit of a moment — they're increasingly more hipster than hippie. Similar to the tiny house movement, living arrangements based on sharing and equality are being spurred by rising housing costs, a longing to belong to a supportive community of like-minded individuals and a desire to live a simpler, more meaningful lives.
An insightful recent Realtor.com article spoke with the members of several intentional communities including Twin Oaks, Los Angeles Eco-Village and Ganas, a 75-member non-egalitarian community (founded 1979) spread out across eight buildings within a single neighborhood in Staten Island, New York.
“There are a lot of people who are pretty disappointed with the way the American Dream worked out. People feel isolated,” realtor Cassandra Ferrera tells Realtor.com. Based in Sonoma County, California, Ferrera’s professional profile notes her “particular passion for permaculture and community.”
“These intentional communities are like social experiments to find a better way to live,” Fererra says. “[These] are not your mama’s communes. They’re just going to keep growing as a market niche."
At Patrick Henry Commune, residential garages would be converted into mini manufacturing hubs or 'fab labs.' The proposed commune replaces private car ownership with car-sharing, which, in turn, renders garages obsolete. (Rendering: Carlo Ratti Associati)
On that note, a recently decommissioned U.S. Army base on the outskirts of Heidelberg, Germany, is the potential site of what could prove to be the newly minted grand dame of neo-communes. That is, if the adaptive reuse proposal gains approval. Described as a "21st century century commune dedicated to the ideals of the sharing economy," the so-called Patrick Henry Commune — the name is a nod to the old Patrick Henry Village (PHV) military installation is the brainchild of Carlo Ratti, the never-dull Italian architect and head of the MIT Senseable City Lab.
"Historically, communes have been places to experiment with forward-looking attitudes and behaviors, where new social ideas and innovative architecture go hand in hand’, explains Ratti. "We started this project with a question: what would a commune based on digital sharing look like? this unique site — an American enclave in the heart of Europe — seemed an ideal test- bed to answer such a question."
Ratti's vision for a sharing-centric utopia features co-living blocks, a "Maker Palace" and up to 4,000 residents living, working and, most importantly, allocating, in what would hope would be complete harmony.