annie-spratt-intentional communities in Chicago

“Wanted: 20th roommate. Must be mindful, love sharing, and accepting of alternative lifestyles.” Does this apartment ad sound appealing? Being a rebellious human can happen in major ways like starting an intersectional feminist digital media organization or “small” ways like joining a co-op or one of the intentional living communities in Chicago. The Rebellious Living series aims to inspire everyday people to rebel from the mainstream in small ways.

There are various types of housing co-operatives. Formally speaking, a co-op is a collectively owned property where the residents have shares in the building. You can have ownership of some co-ops and not live there. Chicago residents Sam and Lily refer to their co-op living situation as an “intentional community.” Together, they form part of an 8-person household living in a 4-story, 7-bedroom house. Their community is different because they are a group of friends who make intentional, affirmative statements about their lifestyle. Their responses below have been edited slightly for length.

Briefly tell your housing journey.

Lily: I lived in one formal co-op before I moved into this house. I sublet in another co-op in Hyde Park on the south side near the University of Chicago. I’ve also lived in apartments where we were friends sharing things. I’ve also worked on farms where that was part of the deal. I find I do a lot better when I live with people that I know, and they care about me and engage with me. That’s why I chose to be in a house, but you know it’s always a gamble because I didn’t know anyone here. I did not know if it would work, but I got lucky.

Sam: In college, I had really good experiences in dorms. I made friends with a lot of people and it was where I did a lot of my social development. After college, I moved out to San Diego where – I think because of the weather and climate – people were living co-operatively a lot more. There were just a lot of people that were very tight, interacting a lot with each other, very supportive emotionally, and a friendly community. When I moved to Chicago, I knew that I wanted to live with that sort of efficiencies.

How is living in a co-op different than living in a college dorm?

Sam: We are not freaking out about the world. We are not actually college students. We are a bunch of fairly mature young adults who are doing things with a lot of mindfulness and carefulness and experience.

Lily: We’ve all chosen to live in a place where we’re actually a part of each other’s lives rather than just existing adjacent from each other. It’s the intentionality of the community. We actually put work into it. We care about how we live together.

Is this type of living arrangement only possible for single adults and couples without children?

Lily: I think if I were to have children I would absolutely, probably want to do co-living and raise them in an environment like this. I know people who were raised partially or entirely in co-opportunity-type of places. I think that once I’ve lived in a place that has that kind of support – why would I do something else? That seems lonely and stupid.

Sam: A lot of that can come around by having family structures within contemporary capitalism – which is hugely inefficient and difficult to make it work when everyone is suffering. When you have a community that is arranged flexibly around what you really need…there’s a lot of power that becomes social power gathered through the things that you can do as a group in one space.

How do you find vacant co-op housing?

Sam: Basics of [joining a co-op] are often just the same as for any other apartments; you go check Craigslist, you look at Facebook Market – whatever is the hot place to get an apartment. Some of [the apartment listings] will be like “Hi, we’re weirdos and we have a big shared house.” That’s what the apartment is.

Lily: When you come across a post for this kind of place on Craigslist, it’s very clear. It might be tough to find them just because there’s not always space in one, but it’s pretty clear because we write a lot about ourselves. Intentional communities that are formalized as co-ops usually have websites and contacts so you can get in touch with them.

Apartment listings for co-ops are usually longer and more detailed because they must represent the needs and personalities of each housemate. Chicagoans can find them on Craigslist, Facebook, or Chicago Queer Exchange. The listings are usually jointly written. Keywords: co-op, cooperative housing, shared living, or intentional community. You can also throw in some rebellious keywords like vegetarian, queer, and shared meals to find nearby intentional communities.

How do you join a co-op? Describe the application process.

Sam: You just tell people that you’re interested in living in one. If someone else is, they will say, “Oh, I’m interested in that, too” or “My friend Steve is starting one.” You just find them through talking with people. Some places have a multi-week process because their nominal house is about 20 people. Trying to get 19 people to agree on a 20th person is a thing. We put out ads at the beginning and middle of the month and have an open house for people to come and sit with us in our living room, kitchen, or wherever. We see who fits well with us while they’re there.

Lily: [The application process] could be very stressful for certain personality types. You don’t want to only have very socially outgoing people because that’s not all the people in the world. Sometimes, if everyone is not able to meet [candidates], we will give reviews. But frequently we will trust each other enough to … make the decision on each other’s behalf. Everyone does not need to meet a person before they move in. We’ll also read their application.

Sam: We have a fairly long Google form.

Who is co-op living for?

Sam: Co-op living is for people who want to gain those efficiencies and improvements in their life in return for –  what can ultimately be a very large thing – dealing with the social aspect of everything. Like, if you have your own yard, that’s your yard – you can do whatever you want. In this yard, you get access to it, but you’re also going to be stressed about remembering that other people can access it – what you can do with it, what you can put in it. These externalities affect other people’s lives, and you just live with that constantly. That’s with everything from the knives in the kitchen, to the pile of trash on the floor, to the new couch that somebody wants to get – it’s like nothing is that simple. It’s also so much more if you’re willing to make that trade-off – and you actually can. If you have that ability and presence of mind and maturity to make the trade-off socially and physically, then it’s perfect for you.

Lily: Things that Sam noted as trade-offs I don’t really think are that necessarily. I think living in communities has made me really better at being a person because it just makes me have to be more aware of the people around me … even when my instinct is just to be like “Ah! Why are you always in my fucking space?!” It has made me better at communicating. When we have big decisions, we have a pretty intense decision-making process which sometimes works, which sometimes doesn’t work as well, but we try. I have some experience with consensus-based decisions making. [We must] respect everyone’s opinion and understand that their perspective is valid even if it doesn’t match your own. I think that’s a skill that translates everywhere.

Get used to consensus-based decisions. Although the housemate vetting process is designed to ensure that personalities gel, co-ops are not echo chambers. This alternative living situation requires mature communication skills and a willingness to make concessions.

If you want to be with more mindful people but cooperative housing doesn’t sound like your thing, consider activities like camping, community-minded co-working spaces, or building something together using shared supplies. Basically any group activity that allows you to have real emotional connections and actively explore our world together. Lily recommends reading Pocket Neighborhoods: Creating Small-Scale Community in a Large-Scale World by Ross Chapin for more ideas on creating intentional communities.

If you’re in the area, Chicago’s 1st Cooperative Economy Summit on Aug. 25, 2018, will have panels hosted by co-op economy’s leaders and pioneers, breakout discussion zones, tabling space for cooperative organizations to promote awareness and enroll people in their programs, and publish the first directory of Chicago’s 250+ brick and mortar sites in the cooperative economy. Please note that Rebellious is not affiliated with this event or its organizers.

Special thanks to Sharlyn Grace (Chicago Bond Fund) for helping make this feature possible.

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Onicia Muller is a Caribbean writer and comedian currently freezing her buns off in Chicago. A former crime reporter and children’s columnist, she's found her happy place writing about women in entertainment....