Co-housing isn’t a new trend—in fact, it’s the oldest kind of living arrangement on Earth

Some of the homes that make up Staten Island's Ganas commune (via Google Street View

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It takes a village to raise a child, as a certain presidential nominee once wrote, and for thousands of years, that’s how human beings lived: In large collectives, leaning on one another for not only child-rearing but also hunting, cooking, cleaning, and all the other tasks that support a stable life. In fact, the notion that living as a nuclear family is the ideal, writes Ilana E. Strauss in The Atlantic, is something of a historical anomaly—one that may be on its way out.

Millennials are increasingly opting for communal living, which makes sense given that more young people today are single than those of previous generations. The Census shows that the median age of first marriage for Americans has been rising steadily since the 1960s; Gallup reveals that a mere 27 percent of Millennials are married, compared to 36 percent of Gen Xers and 48 percent of Baby Boomers when they were the same age. Furthermore, more Millennials are living in multi-adult households—that is, with other single roommates—than did their predecessors.

The benefits of co-living will be familiar to any New Yorker who’s had roommates: What you forfeit in privacy (and the ability to walk around your home in the nude), you gain in split bills, shared responsibility for chores, and companionship, no less significant for being intangible. Writer Annalee Newitz, in an article for New York about the Staten Island commune known as Ganas, depicted a community that, while rife with drama, was also a place where residents need never be lonely. “Living at Ganas isn’t that different from sharing a big apartment with several roommates,” she explains. “It’s never lonely at home, and someone is always up for a night out in the city.”

Co-living's long history

From traditional kibbutzim—agriculture-based, utopian collectives that started in Israel—to corporate start-ups like Common, which offers flexible co-living to “young, urban professionals” in Brooklyn, the options for communal residences are far more varied than the hippie, cultish stereotype would suggest. As Strass explains in the Atlantic, though, this isn’t a quirky new trend, but rather a case of “everything old is new again.”

In the earliest days of human history, we were hunter-gatherers living in collectives, pooling our resources, and protecting each other from privation and predators. As we became more technologically sophisticated, household size began to shrink, though as late as the Middle Ages, we continued to live in open, sprawling arrangements, among family, friends, and neighbors. The concept of the nuclear family caught on in the 16th century, in tandem with the Protestant Reformation, and by the 1800s, we began shutting our doors to all but immediate relatives.

But this may turn out to have been a temporary divergence from a much longer-running tradition of living in large communities. And for NYC in particular, where locals are already accustomed to communal living on a small scale—according to New York, the number of New Yorkers cohabitating with roommates increased more than 40 percent in ten years—the idea of co-living isn’t so radical. 

In fact, according to the Fellowship for Intentional Community’s directory, within NYC there are already several established and forming “intentional communities”—that is, planned residential communities that typically center on shared social, political, or religious values and depend upon collaboration. Ganas, which was founded in 1979 and now includes about 75 residents across eight houses on Staten Island, is one such place; the community also owns three retail stores, known as Every Thing Goes, that provide some financial support.

Co-living communities in NYC

Other communities include Youtopia, a commune founded in 2010 and based in a Bed-Stuy brownstone where residents come together for group dinners, meditation, and other events; Penington Friends House is a Quaker-run home of about 25 people in the Gramercy area, who collaborate on housework and attend regular meetings. There's also the Bayit, a long-running Jewish food-co-op near Columbia University on Morningside Heights. And Infinity House is a new community in Brooklyn for people who identify themselves as community service-oriented and are seeking an “open and supportive environment.”

In a previous Brick Underground article, we went inside the Hacienda Villa, an intentional community in Brooklyn for people who identify as polyamorous and poly-friendly. What allows the 15-bedroom home to function smoothly, residents explained, is open and honest communication—a good rule of thumb for communal living, even if for you, that just means sharing an apartment with one or two roommates. 


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