Saturday, March 5, 2016

Share House

In 2004, I moved back to Toronto after taking a year off school. Moving home after my freshman year was kind of a reset button: I needed to recalibrate after a horrible, no-good, very bad first attempt at university.

Most of that terrible experience was wrapped up in where I lived. In September of 2002, I moved into an all-girls residence run by nuns. There was a chapel on the ground floor; there was a crucifix above every bed. Though I wasn't Catholic, I had selected this residence based on the University of Toronto's colleges system. U of T runs seven different internal colleges, each with their own personality and specialty. They're mostly administrative constructs—each one takes care of a residence or two, runs courses, and houses libraries—but they vary widely from college to college. St. Michael's, where I first landed, was an older, more conservative college; it wasn't co-ed, it housed much of the seminary and religious materials, and its buildings were old and beautiful and seemed to make for a luscious living experience. It also promised a literary magazine, which in my eight years at U of T, I never once saw.

Long story short, I hated it. The nuns were dismissive, the food was awful, and the sheer pulsing drama of housing 300 eighteen year old girls at a single address is impossible to overstate. I made more best friends in my first year than I ever had before; I also embroiled myself in several totally insane fights, one of which centered around if I had stolen a Diet Coke from the communal fridge (I had not). It was exhausting. It was too much, too close.

So I took a year off, moved home, and thought hard about where I wanted to be. When my year was up—and I had once again waited on enough tables to realize that I don't always enjoy people all that much—I moved back to Toronto, re-enrolled (albeit this time at a different college), and moved into co-op housing.

Co-op was a game-changer for me. I lived there for eight years, at three different addresses. The set-ups varied: I had a room in a house, an apartment to myself, and then shared a floor with two other girls. There were things in common at each house: shared chores; housemates I adored and some I didn't like at all; amenities like laundry and newspapers that were available to everyone. There were meetings, sometimes lots of them: house meetings, annual members' meetings, council meetings, board meetings. Co-ops distinguish themselves from private rentals by being owned and governed by their members, which means that keeners (like, um, me) can run for the board of directors and work with staff to actually run the place.

One of the perks of living in a co-op is the sense that things can change; one of the downfalls is that, often, change takes a really long time. I sat on the board for years, and the same conversations kept coming up: how to retain good members and sluice out poor ones; how to make sure revenues were high and predictable; how to orient new members to an oddly bureaucratic domestic life. At first, these conversations were inspiring, but after several cycles of new directors and new staff, they can get stale.

And besides, student co-ops are, by definition, for students. They're a little more malleable, and better able to handle close quarters. Aging out of co-op was a sad time for me, but I wanted to take the next step towards "adulthood." That meant moving in with my boyfriend, and resigning myself to the fact that, if we had kids, it'd be just the three of us in a rented apartment. Not a tragedy, but not the bustling housing model I was used to.

But then, a light shone out. In my final years of co-op, I stumbled across the co-housing model. Co-housing is similar to co-op, but with important differences: units can be rented from central group (like a co-op) or owned outright by their residents. They're often more private, such as stand-alone buildings grouped together, rather than apartments or shared houses. Since co-housing isn't common in Canada, it's often purpose-built rather than converted, and they tend to be privately financed rather than draw from grants or government programs. Since they're usually created from the ground up, the groups that start co-housing initiatives are often tightly knit, rather than the sometimes loosey-goosey group of residents that might live in a co-op.

But in important ways, they can be quite similar. Co-housing is usually run by people who want to live together, and who want a vibrant, interactive community. Housing units tend to be on the smaller side, and amenities are shared within the group (I've read about co-housing communities sharing trucks and cars, gardens, laundry rooms, play areas for kids, screening rooms, libraries, kitchens, and parks). Smaller houses tend to be less expensive to build, cheaper to maintain, and have a smaller ecological footprint; shared community elements double down on those benefits. Co-housing often offers programming, such as community dinners or internal child care, that are designed to reinforce the idea that, yes, we're all in this together.

As you've probably gathered, I am interested in co-housing. I'm interested in co-op housing, too, but there are far fewer administrative and legal hoops to jump through to establish a co-housing initiative, and all the co-op waitlists we're on are backed up through the end of the decade. Co-housing offers a chance to start fresh, maybe in Toronto (but more likely outside of it), with people we like, and in houses that fit our lifestyles. After years of living in small apartments, we could easily get into a small house (not a tiny house, mind you; just one with a smaller square footage), and we could design something beautiful and unique that suits us. This would be a step up from trying to contort our rented digs to fit our lives.

I'm picturing walls full of books, movies, and art with no landlord to give us grief about the holes in the walls; I'm picturing bathtubs that can actually fit an adult human being; I'm picturing a clubhouse for all the kids, with climbing walls, craft centres and rope swings; I'm picturing easy beers with neighbours, standing around as the sun sets. I'm picturing bike shares, dinosaur kale in the front yard, shoji screens in the bedroom, working hard to keep the community vibe alive, and feeling like we have a future in the place we are. Roots and leaves, together. And now, I'm starting to wonder who else might be picturing it, too.