Tech entrepreneurs revive communal living

Nellie Bowles Updated 8:48 am, Monday, November 18, 2013


Jessy Kate Schingler left her job at NASA, moved to San Francisco, and helped turn a 7,500-square-foot, eight-bedroom mansion near Alamo Square into a creatives' residence called the Embassy. In the Mission District, Jordan Aleja Grader and her partner, early Facebook engineer Justin Rosenstein, did the same thing with a 6,825-square-foot mansion, calling it Agape - Greek for love, appropriate since Rosenstein was the technical lead on the Facebook "like" button. Tom Currier, a 22-year-old who dropped out of Stanford's computer science program when he earned a $100,000 Thiel fellowship, runs four large tech houses in the Bay Area - Dragon Stone, the Lodge, Olympus and Founder's Nest - and is talking about getting a similar place in Tahoe. Across San Francisco and the region, young technocrats are taking over the leases of grand estates and transforming them into modernday communes. Unlike hacker hostels, these "co-living spaces" are meant for entrepreneurs seeking a more permanent home and adopting a lifelong philosophy of communal living: shared groceries, family dinners and an emphasis on group perks (i.e., yoga rooms and bowling alleys) over personal space. "We're seeing a shift in consciousness from hyper-individualistic to more cooperative spaces," said Grader. "We have a vision to raise our families together." High­end houses Bill Harkins, a real estate agent who was working with the Embassy group, said that in the last six months he's seen a number of large and organized roommate troupes looking for high-end residences. "You know, I've been in this business a while, and this isn't entirely a new thing. We used to have this thing we called communes - it was all free love, drugs, but it was the same spiritual concept," he said while leading a group on a tour of a 23-bedroom building in the city. "In this case they just have more employment." The number of new, technology-driven communes in the San Francisco area is extensive and almost overwhelming - there's the Sub, the Laundry, Engine Works, Box Factory, Light Side, the Loft (a beautiful flop house), Sugar Magnolia, the Convent (a converted convent that is very fancy), the Center (complete with two in-house yoga studios), Monument, the Hive, the Factory (top secret), La Mancha, Woom Coop, Ghost Town Gallery (built around an art gallery), and one just called the Commune. Often backed by tech millionaires with ambitions beyond profit, the organizers talk about building homes with reduced rent options for desirable characters. They see themselves pushing against gentrification's dulling effect on the city. The leased mansions are just the beginning. The founders of Open Door Development Group, a real estate development firm for coliving properties, plan to start buying apartment buildings and residential hotels and converting them. Eventually, they hope to build from scratch. "What I liked about space was the idea of creating human settlements," said Schingler, the former NASA engineer and co-founder of Open Door. But "I don't have to go to space to do that." Schingler started the Embassy in August 2012 with her husband and a friend. On the corner of Webster and Oak streets, it's a dramatic yellow Victorian with a grand portico. Inside, the walls are made of English oak. There's a music room, dining room, baby grand piano, solarium, craft room and a living room with three sunny stained glass outcroppings where residents lounge and work during the day. They have four 3-D printers and a bowling alley downstairs. The Wi-Fi password is NetPositive. 'It's an upgrade' "Co-living isn't a sacrifice - it's an upgrade," the 32-year-old Schingler said. "Having this over-the-top mansion is helpful because it sends that message." On a recent Sunday, about 40 friends arrived at the Embassy, food in hand, for the weekly "family" potluck. Some young men circled the dining room table looking at visiting developer Eliot Shepherd's new product, a small Bluetooth box that can keep track of keys. He was staying in the house guest space - a membership-based hostel that helps pay the rent and keep a flow of new people coming through. The house is structured as a "do-ocracy," where those who do the most chores have the greatest sway in house decisions. "We're not trying to build isolationist, internally focused communes out in the middle of nowhere; we're rebuilding cities," said Schingler. "It's how our generation likes to work, and it's how I think we like to live." "It's San Francisco. There's a kind of radical openness to us," said Mike North, the founder of North Design Labs who lives in the building and teaches a course called Cooperative Innovation at UC Berkeley. "Anytime I have someone coming to town for a meeting,

lamb. "A building like this used to be reliably USF students or families. It's complicated. Each pays monthly dues for the right to use the mattresses on a first-come." said Peter Thompson. who lived in a commune that was forced to shut down. and Jay Standish. primarily in the Tenderloin. they tapped architect Todd Jersey and Embassy co-founder Schingler and together formed Open Door Development Group." said Provan. When you can live and work unconventionally. the home has 12 official residents but often holds many more." said Tom Bielecki. Of the dozen. 28. they've been testing the idea of community-lite.600-square-foot Arts and Crafts mansion in Oakland. "But it just split." he said. said the neighborhood is changing. "Our goals are impact. "The neighbors started to realize 18 people do not look like three people." And even in the low end of the co-living setups. "None of this culture exists where I'm from. "There's a lot of baggage around the word commune. A 6. it becomes easier to succeed. "We have to have economic diversity.experimenting with iterations of Sunday dinner. Derek Dunfield. there might be a billionaire in the next bunk bed. When they moved to the Bay Area. Now the families have gone to the suburbs. They're thinking about buying a Tesla to share. Standish. 'Look. "Rightly so!" said Sue Dunfield. There are hundreds in San Francisco. 33. Leroy Clunne-Kiely." As if on cue. Later. "It's given me personal freedom.the automation of 3-D printers . and those guys have started three more houses now. three have 9-to-5 jobs at ." They talked about their plan to buy residential buildings zoned for single-room occupancy. with curved bay windows and a chandelier. considering that Open Door and others are trying to make a business out of the concept. the real estate agent. Schingler called dinner to order. "We have one of Twitter's first angel investors staying with us. the group decamped to Magnolia. an engineer who pays $400 a month and has lived in the space for a year. Harkins. Not every co-living community needs a mansion to make it work." said Dunfield. is one of the house's founders." He stood in the kitchen while the team examined closets ("Micro-units?" someone asked)." Standish said. By creating a curated community rather than just a luxury housing development. "You just grab what you get each night. But closing them seems to be like cutting off the heads of a hydra. self-monitoring collective rather than to individuals. They pay their rent and utilities through Dwolla. first-serve basis. depending on the locale and living situation. "So part of what we're doing is rebranding it.000-a-month rental property at Masonic Avenue and Haight Street. Her son." Spiritual movement Residents of Agape see themselves as a part of a spiritual movement as well as a housing one. They use a private Facebook group for polls on house issues (most recently a "no dishes ever" policy) instead of holding long meetings. 24. "At the same time." said Provan. Ben Provan. "I wanted to empirically measure whether what I was studying worked.' " Visiting parents get the master bedroom. who now works for PlanetLabs.a large high-end South of Market loft with mattresses that are shared among residents. a Catalonian tomato dip. "And we don't think we have to sacrifice on any of them. and. they feel they can build diversity into the plan. come stay at the Embassy . the legality of a co-living setup might be questionable.220-square-foot Queen Anne Victorian dating from 1900. 25.I'm like. "So it's hard. He was finishing his postdoctorate in behavioral economics at MIT when he decided to start the house. income and inspiration. from Ontario. They use apps like Splitwise for cost-splitting and Groupme for communication." said Clunne-Kiely." In their 3. duck and wild rice soup. who stayed in a co-living space in the city after flying in from Calgary to pitch his startup . Provan and Schingler toured a $30.these are all the people you need to meet. and they're happy there after a year or two. "We're testing out seating arrangements lately ." When they were MBA students at Bainbridge Graduate Institute in Seattle. We have to be thoughtful. Everybody's under 30. a brewery on Haight Street. 60. There was lemon pepper split peas with roasted corn. Y Combinator. "It would be boring otherwise." Neighborhood objections Neighbors have been known to object to these types of arrangements. we don't want to price anyone out. He said he preferred to rent a building to a large. I think he likes to know what the young entrepreneurs are up to. Part of their goal is to fight market forces that make cities less diverse. came up with the idea of a real estate investment firm that buys buildings and converts them into co-living spaces. "And now it's these groups. lives in the Loft . dozens of deviled eggs." Schingler said. which plans to launch 28 Earth-imaging satellites next year. It's like coming to the moon." On a recent afternoon.

"If we use it right. large-scale stone-carving."eventually sharing babysitters." Nellie Bowles is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer." Jonathan Mahler. I was living alone in Brooklyn. Inc. cooks. trying to do the entrepreneurial thing without any feedback. E­mail: nbowles@sfchronicle. said he divides his time between real estate investments. left Facebook with $130 million in stock and has developed software for communal living with Facebook co-founder Dustin Moskovitz. Grader thinks living harmoniously and communally is one of the goals of technology. and it doesn't work. Called Asana." "Before this. "It's the point of technology.startups and the rest are entrepreneurs who work from Twitter: @NellieBowles © 2013 Hearst Communications. especially social media. our capacity to connect and cooperate grows through our technology.   . He plans on co-living forever ." said Grader. it's designed to help groups of people work together more effectively. her partner. Rosenstein. who is in his mid-20s and lives in the house. and writing about feminist theory.