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How to Own a Home Before Your 20th Birthday

At 18, Molly Osberg thought her communal living situation was a triumph over the grown-up world. By the time she left, she had developed an appreciation for the architecture of society.
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A Victorian house in Rhode Island. (Photo: Wally Gobetz/Flickr)

A Victorian house in Rhode Island. (Photo: Wally Gobetz/Flickr)

At the age of 18, I owned a house. Two of them, actually, four blocks away from each other in a quiet, respectable neighborhood in Providence, Rhode Island.

Inside were tangles of wires and crooked prints, sinking mismatched couches and always one piece of furniture too many for the size of a room. A majestic spiral staircase led up to a six-foot-tall drawing of Richard Nixon partially obscured by potted plants in one house. In the other, gigantic paper cranes hung from the dining room ceiling and paintings of sharks adorned what had formerly been the servants’ stairs. One of the front rooms, once a library, was occupied by a blanket fort. The bedrooms—of which, between the two houses, there were 17—had been painted over so many times you could take sandpaper to them and uncover a whole spectrum of candy-colored shades.

It wasn’t quite a commune, though people we considered squares would sometimes call it that.

Wear and tear, minor disasters, and amateur plumbing jobs hacked together with Earth Balance tins and Duct tape had turned both three-story Victorians into hulking, ominous Frankensteins. Roofs leaked; basements flooded. One of the bannisters on that spiral staircase had been replaced by a bat.

That I shared ownership and responsibility—to pay off the mortgage, replace the boiler, make sure no one fell asleep with a lit cigarette—with 40 other people softened the burden somewhat, but it didn’t erase it. It wasn’t quite a commune, though people we considered squares would sometimes call it that.

IT’S HARD TO TELL how many cooperative living situations—sometimes called “intentional communities”—exist at any given moment. Partly, it’s tough to measure something with so many different iterations. Though many of America’s earliest communal experiments were devised as religious utopias (see Quaker communities in the late 1800s, for example), the resurgence of the practice during the 1960s aimed for salvation of a less restrictive kind. When the counterculture fled cities in favor of rambling communal farms, it was often in search of a loosely defined idea of self-reliance and the opportunity to operate free of interference from The Man. As someone who lived in a handful of those communities once told me, the cultural battles of the '60s (communalism, quinoa) were far more successful than the political ones (ending capitalism).

Today, the general idea—of sharing resources and carving a home beyond the restrictive container of the nuclear family—has fractured (and been diluted) to encompass nearly every sort of lifestyle choice. For families still particularly attached to the idea of private property, there are co-housing communities: individual homes with shared clubhouses or dining areas built into the center. For upstart members of the urban creative class there are investor-backed houses with built-in studios and a 12-person chore wheel.

Bi-annually, as required by law, all 40-odd of us would spend all Sunday at "Corporation Meeting," where changes to the bylaws were made over pancakes and gallons of cheap coffee.

A self-reported survey from the Fellowship for Intentional Community lists just over 900 different sites in America, but they include everything from the 100-person, income-sharing Twin Oaks commune in Virginia to a New York City Christian home of five where faith, rather than meals or bills, is what’s shared. The F.I.C. also lists a number of student cooperatives, which are sort of Communal Living Lite: Whether owned by a separate entity or incorporated into a university itself, student co-ops offer young people both off-campus housing and a sense of responsibility for the governance and upkeep of a space. One student house near the University of Texas at Austin boasts a swimming pool; the largest student co-op network, located in Berkley, houses over 1,000 students.

The houses I lived in were all that remained of one such student network, a weird half-breed communal house abandoned by the institution that founded it and left to wander down whatever path it could forge for itself. When I moved there the cooperative body was still called the Brown Association for Cooperative Housing (BACH for short), but it had effectively been divorced from the university for over a decade and housed as many Providence locals as Ivy League students.

Founded in 1971 by a bunch of idealistic kids tapping into the progressive energy of the previous decade, BACH had originally leased the buildings from Brown University. For 20 years, the organization continued to expand, raising money and buying additional property until it owned four homes. But in the mid-'90s, various histories say, the co-op controversially outbid the college for a coveted former law office across the street from campus. The university responded immediately by divorcing the organization, revoking leases on the two buildings it owned. The residents were forced to scramble for legal legitimacy and the BACH network had to be reduced back down to two buildings. A 501(c)3 was then filed and obtained.

By the time I arrived, more than a decade had passed. The non-profit corporation, which owned both houses, was comprised of anyone who signed a lease in either one. A volunteer board of residents met once a week to frown over the budget and make allocations. Which house needed a roof replacement more? Who would file the yearly paperwork? Had rent been collected and deposited into the general fund? Bi-annually, as required by law, all 40-odd of us would spend all Sunday at “Corporation Meeting,” where changes to the bylaws were made over pancakes and gallons of cheap coffee. All decisions, there and in every meeting down to weekly discussions about groceries and guests, were made by consensus. It took a while.

Living in a ramshackle Victorian with that many people means living on a wildly oscillating spectrum between public and private space.

ONCE SOLELY THE DOMAIN of an Ivy League school’s quirkiest students, the houses had expanded their reach: a neurobiology student applying for her Ph.D., a guy moving from Colorado to get out of a bad relationship, an Alaskan fisherman on his off season, a yoga teacher who kept an electric organ in the basement, kids from the art schools in town and some commuting from the big public universities in Massachusetts.

Soon after I arrived, the cooperative also included a kid trying to finish his senior year of high school. Casey was built like a shrunken football player; he’d been ping-ponging between various family members’ houses for the last few years. He paid rent on time and liked to raid the basement for surfaces to paint on. We decided to let him stay. The first week he moved in, the house rented an industrial-sized dumpster for a frenzied late-summer cleaning. He and I stood on his fire escape and hurled broken hookahs and love seats down into it with a whoop and a satisfying crash.

Living in a ramshackle Victorian with that many people means living on a wildly oscillating spectrum between public and private space. The common rooms were always full, the kitchen sound system (speakers held from the ceiling with twine) never off, someone always sifting flour from the bulk bins to make a cake or standing in the living room shirtless, holding a bag of wine, trying to usher their bandmates down into the basement practice space. The kitchen doorway had so many different height notches and names carved into it they’d turned into one big, single gash.

Dinner, cooked by a different two-person team every night, took place at a long riotous table fit for a proper manor. Friends of friends, young local politicians, professors, people who lived in the house years prior orbited around us constantly, bringing by dumpstered bagels, reading sprawled out on the couches on the porch. Sometimes this expanded definition of home meant standing on the porch, arguing with a middle-aged man with drooping lids, apologetically but sternly blocking him from coming inside. Sometimes it meant helping sign Casey up for school and sending our oldest housemate—a measured, deep-voiced graphic designer in his thirties—to pose as a father figure.

And somewhere in between all of that there was the work itself—insulating the ancient windows before the frost came, taking a house van out for Thanksgiving-level grocery shopping every week, coordinating bulk orders of beans and avocados, mending carpeting, searching abandoned properties for wood that might fit when a door was splintered to the point where it could no longer be considered a proper door. Sometimes we repainted just because someone thought that wall would look better in blue.

It was a woozy point of pride to keep the whole tottering thing together. Whenever the firemen arrived for the third time in a week—the ventilation was horrible and if you didn’t open doors in the proper order they would come screaming, no matter what—someone was ready with cookies. A minor violation once sent us to court and our most innocent-looking resident changed out of her skate clothes to argue the fine down. When the building inspector stopped by, gaping at the wiring and the integrity of the fire escapes, some of us would take off work to meet his demands on short notice.

AT THE TIME I thought it was some sort of magic, this daily triumph over the grown-ups of the world. I was convinced that our roving and erratic population, surrounded by the cryptic wall drawings and patchwork carpentry jobs of generations gone by, were single-handedly rewiring the fundamental units of middle-class American life: the family and the home.

When I started diving into the cooperative’s basement “office,” (basically, 10 filing cabinets in a tiny room behind the washing machines) I saw how endlessly history kept repeating itself. In between tax documents and binders full of meeting notes were bits of narrative histories compiled by people like me, terrified of losing their stories to high turnover rates and entropy. A dusty photograph of some black-clad punk sitting in my favorite spot in the kitchen, dated before I was born. Loopy love letters to the bulk molasses tub. Speculation on which rooms were haunted. Terrified sums scribbled on paper, mortgage payments adding up. In the '90s, I learned, one of the treasurers stole 12 months’ worth of rent. After a year with us, Casey walked out the front door with every electronic in the house in his bags and never came back. I left shortly after that myself to California, an entirely different sort of utopian experiment.

I departed Providence with a profound respect for the power of architecture, both physical and institutional, to shape the people living within it. It’s no more surprising that hundreds of people would move about those houses in near-identical ways throughout the years than that suburbs create babies, little league teams, and take-out windows.

Still, I’ve never been able to shake a discomfort with ownership-as-territory, a life hack for all the uncertainties of the world beyond your welcome mat. Better, I think, to invite that chaos inside and use the home as a lab, an opportunity to tweak the formula a little bit. What good is the home as a building block for society, after all, if it’s based entirely on keeping society out?