Reihan: Bring Back Communes!

We all know that the kibbutzim failed as a social experiment: those that thrive today operate on markedly different principles than those of their utopian forebears. Having learned quite a lot about how and why so-called "intentional communities," I really think we need to take another crack at building an alternative to single-family living arrangements. No, I don't mean we need to build more multi-family apartment buildings or condos, though we should certainly do that. I mean I think we need to encourage families and couples to "double up," i.e., to live in closer quarters with strangers. If this sounds to you like Soviet-style communal apartments, you're on the right track.

It's quite common for recent graduates and single people to live in group houses or with roommates, first and foremmost to better spread costs and secondarily for comradely companionship. There is a sense that one ought to "grow out" of this phase of life, as though there is something slightly juvenile about living in such jumbled-up circumstances, and of course marital intimacy demands privacy. Or so we've come to believe.

But given the tremendous environmental costs of our housing stock, I think we need, as individuals, to start considering truly radical measures. Building new houses to Passivhaus standards (i.e., houses that maintain a consistent temperature without costly HVAC systems) is something we ought to aggressively pursue. A more immediate solution would be to use our existing housing stock more intelligently.

Between now and 2050, we will in all likelihood add well over 100 million people to the current US population of 100 million. And of course we've grown accustomed to steadily consuming more housing per person, even in the heart of our metropolitan areas. Some see this as a happy byproduct of rising affluence, and that's easy to understand. At the same time, it has encouraged a tremendous, absolutely perverse waste of space and energy. The mortgage interest deduction has something to do with this, and getting rid of it is almost certainly impracticable politically speaking.

The most effective way to "communalize" living arrangements in the privacy-conscious United States would be some kind of economic calamity. We don't want that.

Another way would be to sell it as an attractive alternative to anomie. And that's already happening. Shrewd developers are building vast "condotels" in cities across the country. These buildings, a longstanding obsession of mine, offering a wide array of hotel-like amenities to residents. Other buildings have full-time "activity coordinators" who are there to facilitate social interactions among residents, the kind of thing that you'd expect organically. Of course we can't expect that given the anonymity and heterogeneity of big cities, and the work schedules of the affluent.

"Co-housing" communities, a middle ground between communes and private homes, are becoming increasingly popular among boomer retirees. This strikes me as a model that can and should spread.

The four couples, two widows and two who are now living solo live in eight individual town houses, grouped around an inner courtyard. Still under construction is the "common house" with a living room and a large kitchen and dining room for communal dinners; upstairs is a studio apartment they will rent at below market value to a skilled nurse who will provide additional care. It is their own self-styled, potluck utopia.

"It's an acknowledgment that intimacy doesn't happen by chance," said John Jungerman, 84, a retired nuclear physicist and one of several Ph.D.'s in the group, who is perpetually clad in purple socks and sandals.

These people are really, really smart.

We can go further. Why not rent a ramshackle 5 bedroom house and fill it with a couple of couples and a couple of singles, all like-minded. Two members of the "mini-commune" could be the homemakers, preparing meals and creating a pleasant, nurturing environment. These could be people who work from home on a flexible basis or who take a particularly strong interest in the domestic arts. The others would be breadwinners. This could, of course, be a reciple for disaster. But consider the savings, in financial and environmental terms. And consider how full of life such a house would be relative to a sterile home that is empty most of the time.

Just a (crazy) thought.