“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.”
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