The Unexpected Satisfaction of Leaving Behind the American Dream

When my family’s suburban home in Maryland became a burden, we set our sights on the West Coast—and a whole new way of living.

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In June of this year, when we sold and said goodbye to our blue-shingled bungalow-style house of nine years and left Maryland for California, my family and I hadn’t stepped foot inside the Oakland, California, rental we were about to move into. But it didn’t matter that our living situation was about to change drastically, or that we were about to move across the country—because I was going home.

My husband and I started our family on the West Coast, more specifically in Southern California, where he and I met, and where I and my two daughters, who are now 10 and 12, were born. I’ll forever love its tangled freeways, sherbet sunsets, and strip-mall sushi restaurants. My husband never did, and likely never will, and since I’d been conditioned to believe in the American dream—marriage, children, a single-family home in the suburbs—I agreed to go east, where the prescribed lifestyle wouldn’t put us in debt.

We bought our standalone in 2013 and spent our days watching the kids run barefoot through our grassy yard and chase fireflies. They swung on the porch swing eating ice cream, climbed the Japanese maple in the front yard, and, during the winter, built snowmen and snow forts in the backyard.

At Quimper Village in Washington, cottage-cluster residents benefit from the workshop and consensus-driven process practiced by McCamant & Durrett and other cohousing architects.

Courtesy of Princeton Architectural Press

But as they grew older, they didn’t stay outside as long in the winter. My husband bemoaned having to shovel snow, and I dreaded having to wake up in the dark to de-ice the car before school drop-offs. Fall and spring were temperate and undeniably magnificent, but spring was often short-lived, giving way to brutally hot and humid summers. Playing or even sitting outside was difficult, the mosquitos merciless. I dreaded summer the most.

More troubling was that as the years wore on, the promises of homeownership started to wear thin. Demanding work weeks gave way to weekends spent in full maintaining our yard. Paychecks would go straight to repairs. Walking around the house some mornings, I’d stare at paint cracks in the ceiling, a leaky washing machine, and windows that needed replacing, and feel so overwhelmed that I’d want to crawl back into bed. I longed to be able to call a landlord.

That’s about the time my escapist tendencies took over. It was 2020, and I would scour Zillow for single-family homes in Oakland, where my husband’s company headquarters were (and where he’d be paid more), where we had family and friends, and where a multicultural population would better suit our family (my husband is Afro-Caribbean and I’m of Mexican, Scottish, and Danish descent). Everything about it was inviting except for the price tags. Purchasing or renting a standalone in any highly rated public-school district was more than we wanted to pay, and a higher mortgage would mean more work, more stress, and less free time, putting us right back where we started.

Designed by Richard Renner, this coastal cohousing project in Maine consists of three connected homes with shared amenities intended for six individuals. It’s small by cohousing standards but remains an effective unit for analysis.

Courtesy of Princeton Architectural Press

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Multifamily rentals, however, were a different story. Options on Zillow still looked relatively expensive—in some cases double our Maryland mortgage. But they were cheaper than a California one, and, as renters, if a repair were needed? We could call the landlord.

It got me thinking about my family’s needs and preferences for housing, and how they might figure into one of the more dense and expensive areas of California. We knew we wanted all of our interior living spaces to be private, but were happy to share the rest, like yard space, or storage areas. There was even more to gain by moving to a city setting: grocery stores, restaurants, and coffee shops within walking distance, a public transit system that granted more immediate access to museums and music venues, and, with temperate weather year round, a more outdoorsy lifestyle.

"As the years wore on, the promises of homeownership started to wear thin."

The multifamily rental we found was the top level of Victorian-style house that’d recently been remodeled and converted from a single-family residence into two units. While still living in Maryland, the landlord gave us a tour over FaceTime, explaining that a single dad and his five-year-old son live on the lower level in a two-bedroom, and that four UC Berkeley graduate students occupied the four-bedroom ADU at the rear of the backyard, which is shared by all residents. He showed us the laundry room, also shared, which was located in the main house’s sizable garage, where every tenant stored things. The day after the tour, we signed a lease. I was in love.

As someone who traded in a standalone in the ’burbs for a unit on a multifamily property, it was validating to learn about others who are choosing to share aspects of their lives, too. In architectural historian William Richards’s new book, Together by Design: The Art and Architecture of Communal Living from Princeton Architectural Press, he covers nearly every corner of community-oriented lifestyles, from cottage clusters in Washington state to an eco-village in Sweden that practices permaculture farming. Richards describes co-living specifically as a "community of unaffiliated individuals renting in a non-ownership position who seek out and utilize shared amenities designed to facilitate sociability." Who knew that would be us, in our new Oakland rental.

From its start in a farmhouse and barn, Suderbyn Permaculture Ecovillage on the Swedish Island of Gotland has grown to a small village of several new and rehabilitated structures and spaces, including a greenhouse for the winter garden and an expansive plot for the summer garden.

Courtesy of Princeton Architectural Press

After seven weeks here we’ve grilled and spent time in the yard with our downstairs neighbors, the father and son. Our landlord harvested golden plums from a backyard tree and passed them out to all the residents. Our dog regularly meanders the yard off-leash, wandering through the open back door of the downstairs unit where he’s a welcome visitor.

Everyone takes turns wheeling the trash and recycling containers to the curb on pickup day, and recently, my husband and I were on work calls when we heard our downstairs neighbor pleading with parking enforcement not to ticket our car when street sweeping was scheduled. Another neighbor knocked on the front door with my keys after I’d unknowingly left them on my car roof. Where Richards writes that living together "can create solutions-oriented structures of mutual support" and "proffer solutions on the front lines of our everyday lives," this, at least in part, must be what he’s talking about.

Our new three-address multifamily home facilitates a couple of concepts Richards outlines that weren’t present in Maryland: selective sharing, and a balance of privacy and togetherness. As a unit, my family has the separation from our neighbors it needs to bond, rest, and recharge, which, as minorities, is especially important to us given the current socio-political climate. We can engage as much or as little as we like while easily contributing to our little community.

When I walk our new neighborhood, I see a significant number of multifamily dwellings that were once single-family houses. And if I walk about three blocks to the east, there’s a small "edible park," formerly the site of Merritt College (and where Bobby Seale and Huey Newton met in 1966 and formed the Black Panther Party.) The park, maintained by neighbors and Phat Beets Produce, features numerous fruit trees and a huge vegetable garden that include figs, pomegranates, artichokes, berries, tomatoes, kale, and fava beans, all free to anyone who’d like to pick them. Again it brought me back to Richards’s book, where he mentions that eco-village in Sweden.

Unsurprisingly, Americans are slower to embrace shared amenities and a community-minded ethos when compared to our European counterparts. Says Richards, "The Cohousing Association of America tracks nearly two hundred cohousing communities in the United States. Globally, that number is much higher, with more examples in every European country (including cohousing’s origin, Denmark, where an estimated seven hundred communities have formed since the early 1990s), as well as Australia, Canada, China, and New Zealand."

Like the rest of Ørestad, Bjarke Ingels Group’s 8 House is far outside of central Copenhagen. The southern half of the neighborhood occupies a borderland between new residential housing and a nature preserve, and the airport and the old city.

Courtesy of Princeton Architectural Press

The numbers abroad are impressive, but the figures he cites there and in the States don’t paint a complete picture, which, I understand, is by design. The communities listed by organizations like the Cohousing Association are formally arranged, making them easier to track. But that doesn’t make my family’s new arrangement or anyone else’s who chooses to live in a similar way any less intentional when it comes to our desire to share amenities or the support systems we benefit from.

Like my family, our downstairs and backyard neighbors made a choice to be where they are. They chose not to commute from a suburb to their places of work and school, or to live in a traditional apartment building that only shares access, and perhaps laundry. In choosing to live with density and share more aspects of daily life, we’ve all opted to balance privacy and sociability in the same way. That commonality alone connects us, providing a starting point for growing yet stronger as a community.

"In choosing to live with density and share more aspects of daily life, we’ve all opted to balance privacy and sociability in the same way. That commonality connects us."

As I look around my neighborhood and more in Berkeley and San Francisco, and when I visit Southern California and drive through the East and West Sides of Los Angeles, I see multifamily properties practically everywhere. Personally, I have friends with children who’ve opted to share property with other friends and their children. More recently, I met two unmarried millennial couples who share a two-bedroom condo on the coast in Dana Point, California. It’s easy to see that choosing to live more closely together is happening at a large scale.

When my family and I first arrived in Oakland, we drove to the Emeryville marina two miles from our new home to escape the heat on one unseasonably warm day. I stared at the bay’s expanse of water and San Francisco beyond. From that vantage, its towering buildings glittered in the sunlight, taking on the appearance of some sort of promised land. For so long I’d convinced myself that contentment was a single-family house in the suburbs. But in that moment I thought to myself, my multifamily residence in Oakland is exactly where I want to be.

Together by Design: The Art and Architecture of Communal Living

With a growing population comes a growing need for innovative, sustainable housing. Together by Design explores the architectural and social benefits of communal living and shared spaces. Whether it's families in a multigenerational home, millennials sharing rent, or older singles seeking companionship, cohousing and other types of intentional communities offer economic, social, and environmental advantages for all demographics. Collective housing alternatives originated in Denmark in the 1960s and gained popularity in the United States in the 1990s, laying the groundwork for today's inventive shared living alternatives. Featuring photography, renderings, and site and floor plans, this survey of more than fifteen contemporary projects explores communal living through architecture, public policy, design, lifestyle, culture, and environmental sustainability.


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