The communal spirit of the 60’s has returned to SF, but with a modern twist. Software engineers, founders and tech workers alike are now flocking to giant, Victorian mansions that promise peace, love and open source API integration to help you live more collaboratively.
I’m greeted with several long, loving hugs upon entering one such communal living space known as The Lair – a seven-bedroom mansion nestled just on the edge of San Francisco’s Lower Haight neighborhood. We then gather around an old dining room table, breathing out “Yummmmmmm” (instead of “Om”) before partaking in the shared nightly meal.
These digital hippies mostly work in tech jobs writing code or in some capacity touching the SF tech scene. Their aim, they say, is to live with like-minded individuals in the next wave of the sharing economy. This is the difference between the communes of yore and today’s modern collective. Where communalists in the 60’s often eschewed outsiders and technology, these modern housemates embrace both.
And this may also be an answer to San Francisco’s housing problem. Groups of 10-20 well-educated tech workers pool both knowledge and resources under one giant rent-controlled roof. They also share meals, chores, even bikes and vehicles. All this cuts down on SF’s high-cost lifestyle.
The Lair is just one of many (often investor-driven) communes popping up all over San Francisco – the most well known being the nearby Embassy, which boasts hackathons, maker nights and tech-focused workshops for members. Even Peter Thiel saw the value in coliving and plopped a good portion of his young Thiel Fellows into now defunct “The Glint” (though it looks like it’s coming back).
Tom Currier runs Campus — a networked community of nine coliving properties sprinkled throughout SF — including a brand new twenty-one bedroom mega-mansion near the Panhandle. It’s a grown-up version of group housing, with investment-backed property management, a reservation portal for the community cabin in Tahoe and special house themes.
Each house comes with a hot tub, a budget for monthly group events, and ‘reasonable’ rent ($1000-$2200/room), says Currier. Even with new age-y themes for each space, like the “meditation” or “yoga” house, this is clearly not your mother’s commune.
Lair housemates lead me up to a giant, open-space attic with high ceilings. It’s book club night at the house. Comfy couches, boxes, magazines and a couple of guest beds are strewn about the landscape. There’s a decent drum set in the corner and a projector on the 80’s style coffee table for group movie nights.
Members of the group and house guests wax philosophic on Bill Bryson’s “A Short History of Nearly Everything” while sipping red wine. Strong whiffs of cheap tequila waft through the air as common houseguest Sean Kolk stands up, holding the culprit and interjects with his own deep observations on the meaning of consciousness.
“I’d like to debate on what is post-modernism and post, post-modernism,” Kolk belts, after taking a swig.
Housemates Josh Daniel and Libby Falck founded The Lair after their experiences while attending Singularity University – a Silicon Valley educational experiment created by Ray Kurzweil. They wanted to model the house after similar teachings.
“I see [communal life] as a way to bring together those who believe in creating technology that could affect massive social change,” says Daniel. The challenge there, according to him, is to affect a billion people. Daniel left his former life in software development to focus on big data and sustainable food.
According to SFGate, there are over 20 communal mansions in the Bay. But not just anyone can live in one of these places. Most houses ask a question or series of questions for applicants like, “What is your spirit animal and why?” before welcoming them in. Despite the application process, guests are often a regular occurrence. This allows folks to test out the lifestyle or find a place to crash on their way through SF.
There are various ways to get invited to live in one of these communal living spaces, depending on the network. Currier says there are plenty of spaces for those interested in the new house near the Panhandle. There’s also a grant program for the cash poor but project ready. And, he tells me, maybe someday there will be a communal living space with a focus on journalism.
Communal members are also careful to define their living situation as separate from a hacker house or intentional living community. And though they are all involved in tech somehow, they don’t necessarily want to define themselves as living in a tech commune, either.
Jessy Kate Schingler, programmer and co-founder of Open Door Development, which started Rainbow House, Embassy and a slew of other communal spaces, is adamant they are not a tech place at all; despite the common tech kinship of housemates and providing open source event management software to help members digitally connect with each other. “It’s more like open source coliving,” says Lair mate Lillia Tamm.
“How connected are you to your neighbors or your current roommates?’ asks Currier. “This only seems like tech because I, and those involved, have a strong tech network here. But this is really an answer to those seeking a sense of community.”
Members of Campus are able to switch rooms within the network for a night, a month or beyond. They also hold several events at various houses from painting to improve and breakdancing.
Chelsea Rustrum, who hosts something called Hippie Hour events for Campus, says this way of life is a natural next step in the sharing economy. “It only makes sense that the tech scene would embrace this type of living. We want more than to just share a car once in a while. This can be a whole lifestyle.”