Want to live in the city? Try buying a house with five friends.

Sara Miller Llana

It is their first home together. And as soon as they took possession, they tore down a load-bearing wall and gutted the ground floor, painstakingly discussing everything as they built it back up, from the color of the walls to what would go where.

This hasn’t been a negotiation among two adults, however, navigating new homeownership together. It’s involved six.

On a residential street in Toronto’s West End that would be out of budget for most 30-somethings, a half-dozen friends combined their savings to buy a three-story, brick-facade home, rising above Toronto’s turbulent housing market.

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It’s a sign of the financial times. But the main driver has been cultural: an intentional choice made to pool together not just finances but life experience, perspective, and generosity of spirit – forging a new type of home on a city street that can otherwise seem crushingly lonely.

They call it Clarens Commons, and with all six named on the mortgage in a five-year term that anticipates everything from marriage and kids to a “dream job in Copenhagen,” their homemaking reflects the alternative ways that young adults are redefining community, and their place in it, today.

“We all essentially have made a bit of a sacrifice to our independence, to our ‘do-whatever-we-wantness’ so that this project can work,” says co-owner Karim Rizkallah.

21ST CENTURY CO-LIVING

This tale starts with a housing market that, as in many large cities in North America, has priced out young people and made homeownership more inaccessible – and communities, in turn, more unstable.

In May the average detached home in Toronto was selling for $1.3 million (Canadian; U.S.$980,000), according to the Toronto Real Estate Board, which happens to be what Clarens Commons cost. That’s in a city that has the world’s 12th most expensive property prices, according to CBRE Residential.

The residents here were able to overcome financial barriers with a six-person mortgage of varying ownership stakes – providing a chance for all to build equity and find stability, after years of renting in a market where the fear of landlord repossession and turnover runs deep.

On a recent evening, five of the six residents are washing dishes after dinner. The task is completed organically, as are other chores like laundry. Shower times are not prescribed. Other duties are divvied up and strictly followed. Expenses such as groceries are shared equally, in a system they’ve agreed to that values generosity over penny-pinching. When they offer fresh raspberries and nuts to a visitor, everyone has contributed. For longer absences, if someone is on vacation or a business trip, grocery money is not deducted.

Every decision is a conversation, what could be ceaselessly stultifying to some. But the residents here insist it’s invigorating – to see the prospects and ideas that emerge from six minds coming to terms together.

Co-living might hark back to the 1960s and ’70s when hippie communes flourished in rural settings, or even the boarding houses that 19th-century immigrants could afford. But millennials have put a 21st-century stamp on their lifestyle choices. The most common form is renting. New companies like Ollie or HubHaus have sprung up, offering residences that are part-dorm, part-hotel in some of the most expensive rental markets from New York to San Francisco.

It’s an antidote to isolation that many surveyed in Western nations say they feel. In Canada, the most common type of household today is single-dweller. In the latest census, 28% of Canadian households were comprised of those living alone, exceeding for the first time households of couples with children. In 1951, single-occupant households accounted for just 7%.

‘CHOSEN FAMILY’

Sabrina Bowman would have been counted in those statistics before she moved in with her five co-owners last August. She enjoys her alone time. In fact, several of the members call themselves introverts, saying they often opt out of the events like movie nights in the house when they feel like curling into bed with a book instead.

But then she noticed that her friends were starting to pair off and have kids. And one day when she was struggling to haul a washing machine up to her third-floor apartment it struck her: “I felt like I didn’t have a person,” she says.

Loneliness has gotten much media attention lately, from seniors living alone to young people living anonymously in big urban clusters. Britain appointed a minister specifically dedicated to the issue in 2018. “We’re talking about technology. We’re talking about the messages of Western culture, ‘each to his own.’ We’re talking about people running after privacy,” says Ami Rokach, a York University professor who studies loneliness.

Homeowners acknowledge the benefit of company, but it’s in the shared living where they see the real value of their project. For Ms. Bowman, that’s the cooking she brings, literally, to the table. “I make big pots of food, and then it gets eaten,” she says. “It makes my Jewish mother heart extremely full to feed everyone all the time.”

Co-housing, where residents create and manage intentional neighborhoods, has become more popular in recent years, especially among seniors looking for alternatives to dependency on their families or institutions.

But co-living, where owners share a single space, is less encumbered and more accessible to a generation that can’t as easily afford traditional homeowning, nor necessarily want it, but craves connection, says Charles Durrett, an architect and pioneer of co-housing in North America. “It’s very possible that co-living will exceed co-housing in the next five, next 10 years … because of this whole millennial phenomenon,” he says. “It’s a game-changer moment.”

Co-owner Mandy Sherman, who works in communications for a nongovernmental organization in Toronto, says the group’s goal is to open the conversation to others – to show how to build community, especially beyond the standard dichotomy that “everybody lives alone or in partners, and that’s it,” she says.

As a girl, Ms. Sherman assumed she’d live in an upper-middle-class neighborhood with a partner, kids, and a dog. Now she finds herself in the first home she’s ever bought after the stresses of renting (in one 10-year period she counts 11 moves). And she, like the other residents of Clarens Commons, find no exact term to define what they mean to one another: housemates, friends, relatives? She tends toward the concept “chosen family” – and has a new image for herself of what “home” can be.

“For a long time it didn’t occur to me that lives unfold in other ways,” she says. “So there was a little bit of a revelation in that too, of ‘oh there are other alternatives.’ That’s interesting,’” she says. “And they’re actually really wonderful.”

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