Several years ago Aurora DeMarco, 53, was having health problems. The divorced masseuse and hospice care provider was stressed, depressed, and overwhelmed by all the upkeep of her three-bedroom condo in the tony Brooklyn neighborhood of Park Slope, known for its majestic brownstones and trendy boutiques. And she hated that simply meeting a friend in one of the nearby artisanal coffee shops had become “astronomically expensive.”
“Life was a grind,” says DeMarco. “It was a lot of money, time, and effort to maintain that lifestyle.”
So two years ago, DeMarco left it all behind.
In the glorious ’60s, we might have said that she turned on, tuned in, and dropped out. Or maybe we’d just cut to the chase and say that she joined a commune. In fact, DeMarco did the modern-day equivalent: She joined “an intentional community,” a group-living arrangement that in some ways harks back to the heyday of hippies. It’s becoming an increasingly popular lifestyle choice for more mainstream residents as rents, home prices, and the cost of living just keep rising.
She now pays $810 a month for her own room in a 10-bedroom house in New York City’s Staten Island as part of the Ganas community. The 75-member group is spread out over eight buildings in the neighborhood. And the best part for DeMarco, who still works outside the community, is everyone shares in the burden of cooking and other daily chores.
“I feel like I have a support network,” DeMarco says. “I’m not so much on the hamster wheel.”
An antidote to the stresses of modern life
DeMarco is one of a growing number of individuals in recent years who have sought out intentional communities, where people with the same ideals live and work together to achieve them. Some indeed fit the classic ’60s definition of communes—where members have jobs in their communities and share finances, lifestyles, everything. Others are modern varieties of co-housing communities, such as eco-villages where participants strive to be more environmentally friendly.
Decades after communes sprang into the public consciousness promoting the ideals of peace, love, and understanding, communities across the country report that interest from potential members is again surging. Cheaper prices tell part of the story. But so does a desire for a simpler, more unplugged lifestyle.
The Fellowship for Intentional Community, a networking and support group for the establishments, says their numbers in the U.S. increased by about 300% from 1990 to 2010 (its most recent data).
“There are a lot of people who are pretty disappointed with the way the American Dream worked out. People feel isolated,” says Sonoma County, CA–based Realtor® Cassandra Ferrera, who specializes in helping clients seeking sites for new establishments. “These intentional communities are like social experiments to find a better way to live.”
Sure, there’s still plenty of patchouli and dreadlocks. But members regularly drive to work or to the movies, surf the web, and enroll their children in public schools.
“[These] are not your mama’s communes,” Ferrera says. “They’re just going to keep growing as a market niche.”
Business has been so good the past few years at Green Key Real Estate that Ferrera has had to hire new staffers and closes on several group properties annually. The numbers might be higher, she says, if it weren’t for the legal complications of group ownership, and zoning and sanitation restrictions in many towns that limit the number of people who can live on the same plot.
The classic commune: No rent, no mortgage, no outside job
When people think of the new age of communes, egalitarian communes such as Twin Oaks often come to mind. About 100 members live on the peaceful, 452-acre settlement in rural Virginia, nestled between Richmond and Charlottesville. Everyone is required to work 42 hours a week. This can range from labor in one of the businesses on the property, such as making tofu or hammocks, or cooking meals for the group.
In exchange for their labor, residents never have to worry about having a roof over their heads, enough food to eat, or clothes on their backs—all of these are covered. They also get health insurance and a stipend of $102 a month to buy a few things for themselves or go out to dinner.
“I wanted that simple life,” says Tom Freeman, 52, who sells tofu made at Twin Oaks to health food stores like Whole Foods along the East Coast. “I live on a hippie commune, because I don’t have to stress about [anything].”
The former lab technician joined the commune 20 years ago after visiting some college friends there. He was enchanted by seeing members growing organic vegetables, milking cows, and making their own cheese.
He now lives in an 18-bedroom house with the same number of inhabitants, including his 13-year-old daughter and 15-year-old son. (He met his ex-wife at the commune.) Everyone, including children, receive their own bedroom within the compound’s seven houses. There is also a communal kitchen, a community center, and a children’s building—and perks like a swimming pond, volleyball court, and sauna.
“The stress of a maintaining a household, buying a car, and just living life is very hard,” Freeman says. So “when the economy’s bad, we tend to get a lot of interest.”
Cheap rent and a light footprint on Earth
Members of eco-villages focus on reducing their carbon footprint. There’s no free room and board in most of these groups—residents have external jobs and don’t share finances. But the green emphasis is helping make these communities ever more popular, says Lois Arkin, founder and executive director of the Los Angeles Eco-Village.
About 40 members live in individual apartments at the Los Angeles Eco-Village in three buildings spread across two city blocks. They grow much of their own produce, eat less meat, and drive fewer gas guzzlers. Many homes and individual units are also outfitted with solar panels and greywater systems.
Their environmentalism is rewarded with very cheap rents on their studios to two-bedroom abodes—which range from just $500 to $1,200 a month. (That’s in L.A., where the median rent for a one-bedroom apartment in the city was $1,950 in August, according to Apartment List.) Arkin says she receives double the number of inquiries than she did just three years ago.
The inexpensive housing is possible because the buildings are like group-owned co-ops, and the land they rest on is owned by a community trust.
On the other side of the country, demand is also up at the Ecovillage at Ithaca, in upstate New York. The 25-year-old community has grown to about 240 residents spread over three neighborhoods. The latest neighborhood was completed in late 2015 with 25 single-family homes and a 15-unit apartment building.
When Arlene Muzyka started as the visit coordinator there about a year and a half ago, she received about a half-dozen emails a month from potential members. These days, 15 to 20 inquiries fill her inbox each week.
Are these communities always cheaper?
Another type of community isn’t much cheaper than traditional housing at all, but still offers some of the benefits of communal living. Co-housing is popular in the suburbs and rural areas, says Alice Alexander, executive director of the Cohousing Association of the United States, which helps connect people to such communities. These are a collection of single-family homes or townhomes set up around a shared green space and common buildings.
Members usually buy their own homes at market rate prices. But residents can save a few bucks by sharing large appliances such as lawnmowers and buying food in bulk. Neighbors also often help watch one another’s children.
People who move into these groups—be they communes, artists’ colonies, or co-housing developments—aren’t just looking to cut expenses, says Sky Blue (yes, that’s the name he was born with), executive director of the Fellowship for Intentional Community and a resident of Twin Oaks. These individuals are often seeking stronger connections with their neighbors while working toward something larger—like environmentalism or social justice. Or both.
Living in close quarters with others, though, can inflame tensions. Ganas, the New York City community that DeMarco moved into, made headlines a decade ago when an expelled member shot one of the founders, Jeff Gross, six times. He survived.
Life has since settled down. And for DeMarco, the community has become a godsend.
“It’s social interaction on steroids,” she says. But “I feel like I have a support network. … Socializing is just leaving my room and hanging out in the dining room with my friends. It’s a lot more mellow.”
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