Palo Alto Weekly

Real Estate - April 5, 2013

Living an intentional life

A group of 15 people in East Palo Alto commit to shared living, values and community

by Elena Kadvany

On a small East Palo Alto street, just blocks from U.S. Highway 101, 15 people share three houses, a trailer, a diverse fruit and vegetable garden, meals and household tasks.

Like a tightly knit family, they shop for groceries together, make dinner for each other, watch each other's children and support each other.

These 15 people live in what is called an intentional community, where participants choose to "cohouse" together under common purposes: a certain lifestyle, as well as a commitment to each other and their shared space.

Dubbed Greenwave by one of the property's three owners, this East Palo Alto intentional community has many functions. It is one part cohousing community, one part green living, one part social contract, one part support system.

Diana Bloch, one of the founders of Greenwave, says the main appeal of cohousing is not only sharing resources, but also having a built-in social group.

"One of the attractions is the college-dorm atmosphere, where people sit around and casually discuss whatever comes up," she said. "It's also a simpler life. Part of the discussion involved is simplifying and using less space."

Cohousing's Northern American roots can be traced back to two California architects, Kathryn McCamant and Charles Durrett, discovering "bofællesskaber" in Denmark in the 1980s.

"Bofællesskaber," translated as living communities, became cohousing — groups of people deciding to live together in an intentional community where activities such as cooking, cleaning, maintaining a garden and purchasing food are shared.

Bloch happened to attend the first seminar that McCamant and Durrett gave on cohousing in the United States, in the mid-1980s at the Friends Meeting House in Palo Alto.

"We then formed a group from the people who went to (the seminar) and various other interested folks around town and tried to figure out how to build a cohousing community, but it's very difficult to find property in this area," Bloch said.

After sharing a rented mansion on Waverley Street for several years with seven people, Bloch and two other residents, George Hunt and Joe Bamberg, found the East Palo Alto property.

"One of the attractions of East Palo Alto was multiculturalism and the lack of pretension," Bloch said.

Bloch, Hunt and Bamberg purchased the 1-acre property, which was previously a family farm with one house, in the early 1990s. They renovated what had become a dilapidated drug den into what Bloch says they call the "farm house."

A few years later, the three owners decided to expand, and they purchased a recycled house from Mountain View.

"They were going to tear it down and throw it in the dump, but they said we could have it for a dollar if we moved it," Bloch said. "But it turned out moving it involved cutting it in half, getting it over here in two pieces and then putting them back together on a new foundation. So that was a lot of work."

The work didn't stop there. In 2000, Greenwave received approval from the city Planning Department to build two more houses — the main common area, a two-story house, and a third house in the back. The current occupants of the back house do not participate in the cohousing community.

For the new houses, they used manufactured housing to cut costs and stick to cohousing's foundational values.

"The combination of sweat equity, trying to keep the costs down and trying not to spend money hopefully would make the community more affordable to good people who wanted to spend their time relating rather than earning money," Bloch said.

They also acquired a trailer along the way, which is parked on a lot toward the front of the property that was originally designated for a fifth house.

Bloch transformed the space between the original house in the front, the trailer and the main house into an edible garden, with fava beans, citrus trees, oranges, plums, cherries, persimmons, mulberries and more.

"Around here it seems like if you really want a nice house, both people have to be working all the time and you don't have time to enjoy it," Bloch added. "So that was the goal: to keep it affordable enough that people didn't have to be working all the time to live here."

The current residents hold a wide range of jobs, from suicide hotline operator to teacher. Melissa Laughery, who lives in the original front house with her 4-year-old daughter, Bloch and a second family with a 6-month-old baby boy, works two jobs and odd hours to support herself and her daughter.

But she says that without Greenwave, she would not be able to live in the area.

"I'm a single mom. There's no way I could afford to live in an apartment in Palo Alto," she said. "Yet to me, being a parent is such an important thing to be doing with my life, so it's essential that I have this option for living."

All Greenwave residents are expected to pay rent — $500 to $700 per room — to the three owners and commit to three agreements.

The first agreement is to doing a weekly chore. In the kitchen of the main house (which Bloch designed herself so that two or three people could cook in it simultaneously), you can find resident's names on a large Dry Erase board written next to assigned household tasks such as cooking, garbage, shop, garden and laundry.

The second agreement? Attend a weekly house meeting.

"Hopefully people will communicate during that time; anything everyone needs to know," Bloch said. "The third (agreement) is to bring up any issues that are causing tension, for yourself or others, and be willing to help out in getting them resolved."

It doesn't sound too unlike any other family's home. And for retirees such as Bloch, whose son is grown and granddaughter lives in San Francisco, or single parents such as Laughery whose daughter's grandparents are far flung, Greenwave does function as a second family of sorts.

"As people are, more and more, like seeds scattering to the wind, you realize how important those support systems are and finding ways to cultivate that," Laughery said.

That support system ebbs and wanes every year as people move in and out of Greenwave. They get married, change jobs or life otherwise leads them in a different direction. But the original "bofællesskaber" principles remain, Laughery said.

"The importance of (Greenwave) is the importance of community and connection," she said.

Editorial assistant Elena Kadvany can be emailed at ekadvany@paweekly.com.

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