From self-sufficient communes to cohousing schemes, people are opting for a shared lifestyle. Published in The Guardian, February 3, 2018.
Devaraj, Osho Leela
Every Wednesday morning, Devaraj Sandberg and the rest of the community at Osho Leela, a spiritual commune in Dorset, gather together for a group meditation session involving shouting, screaming and rounds of hugging.
“It keeps people a bit sane,” says Sandberg, 56, who has called Osho Leela his home for 16 years. “Living in a community with a lot of similar people can cause emotional stuff like disagreements, so the way we get round it is quite therapeutic.”
Sandberg, a therapist, lives with 14 other long-term residents at Osho Leela in Gillingham, which describes itself as a “personal development centre” and was founded in 1996. However, as part of a community experience programme, the site regularly welcomes external guests, with prices starting from £7 a night to share a dormitory.
While short-term dwellers have to pay to stay at Osho Leela, long-term residents don’t have to pay to live there; rather, the core group members take on roles within the community – for instance, Sandberg also works as a maintenance manager – and each receives between £150 to £450 a month from the income Osho Leela makes.
With regular communal meals and weekly meetings, Sandberg says the close-knit community at Osho Leela attracts a certain type of person. “It suits people who want to change, and those who want to be among people,” he adds. “A lot of the people [at Osho Leela] have gone through life, got married and had kids, and are just not happy with life. Then they turn to something like this.”
Chris Coates and other residents at Forgebank outside Lancaster. Photograph: Christopher Thomond for the Guardian
As research shows that loneliness and social isolation is spreading across the UK, and as rising costs continue to squeeze households, more communities built on a shared ethos and a supportive neighbourly unit are sprouting up. Models vary from living off the grid, such as self-sufficient commune/village Tipi Valley in the heart of Carmarthenshire in Wales, to “cohousing” schemes: a model centred on communities with private homes but where people chip in together to pay for shared communal facilities.
Meanwhile, a number of housing cooperatives have been set up across the UK, where a group of like-minded people come together to buy a property – something they would never be able to do individually. Guardian Money has previously featured the Drive Housing Cooperative, an 11-bedroom “intentional community” based in a former children’s home in Walthamstow, north-east London, which celebrated its sixth birthday last summer.
“The number of people interested in communal living has slowly grown,” says Chris Coates, an editor at Diggers & Dreamers, a website offering information about alternative living. “There’s a much wider definition of what communal living entails these days, and a wider range of people who are doing it than there were in the 1970s.”
Coates, 60, is himself a commune veteran after spending more than 40 years in such set-ups, starting with squatting in London after he left school. In 2012, Coates and 14 others set up not-for-profit eco cohousing development Forgebank, located just outside Lancaster, with each member putting down a deposit to create a community of 15 houses on a plot of land.
Residents in the ‘common room’ at Forgebank
Now expanded to 41 homes, every month each household pays their rent or mortgage, as well as a service charge which covers community facilities such as running a cooperative food store. With a central set of postboxes to collect post and shared laundry facilities, Forgebank is designed to maximise social interaction. “This means you can bump into three people every time you leave your house,” says Coates, a part-time caretaker at Forgebank. “At least half the people here are attracted to the green ideas, while the other half are looking for community, for a way to socialise with other people.”
However, he says it is not a utopia. “There can be arguments, but the reason people want to do cohousing is that it’s a hybrid of a big community without living on top of each other. If you don’t get on with someone, it’s not a big deal. It’s flexible enough.”
Such communities are not just designed to increase social interactions. Lilac (the Low Impact Living Affordable Community) in Leeds was set up to be a low-cost alternative to the existing property market, with the 20 eco-friendly homes forming part of a new financial model called the ‘Mutual Home Ownership Society’, which sees residents pay about 35% of their net income each month to the cooperative, plus a monthly service charge that covers shared utilities.
Max Folkett on the balcony of his two-bed flat at Lilac in Leeds. Photograph: Tony Roberts
Max Folkett, 36, has lived in a two-bedroom flat at Lilac with his partner Beth Oxley, a GP, since 2013. Folkett describes the set-up as “halfway between renting and buying.” He adds: “Lilac was developed as a result of the broken housing market. It was deliberately made to be affordable. I’m paying less than I was when I was renting before moving in, especially in utility bills, as it was made using straw bales, so it’s very well insulated. Our gas and electricity costs come to about £200 a year.”
With 19 lived-in cohousing schemes across the country, and a further 35 active groups expecting to deliver new additional housing in the next four years, interest in communal living is building.
“It is definitely an increasing movement – in the past couple of years our membership has tripled,” says Anna Kear, executive director at UK Cohousing Network, which supports the development of communities. “Unlike the mainstream housing market, cohousing is about communities being in control. What’s interesting is how diverse the interest in community-led housing and cohousing can be. This demand for something different reflects the potential for an alternative to the normal approach to supply-led housing.”
However, community housing is not for the faint-hearted. While Osho Leela attracts hundreds of newcomers every year, Sandberg says most guests leave after their weekly community programme. “It can be intense living here,” he adds. “You have to be ready for a self-awareness journey.”
Explore the alternatives
If you are interested in communal living, it’s worth visiting a handful of set-ups that appeal to you, advises Chris Coates, also co-author of Diggers & Dreamers: the Guide to Communal Living.
“Don’t assume that the first place you go to will be like the second place,” he says. “Communal living can vary from a housing cooperative to an organic farm in the sticks.”
However, he says many seem to have adopted a similar look. “I did a tour of about seven communities with a friend and I noticed they all had many of the same things, such as a trampoline, a noticeboard, a huge coat rack and a row of wellies. Many have a lot in common, but the financial set-up might be different. There’s plenty of places where you can just rent if you want – you don’t need to buy.”