Many communities are involved in shaping the wider society


How does an SF house with 11 roommates navigate the coronavirus? It’s complicated

Manor of Being residents Caitlin Kenney (left), Simon Wisdom and Armand Matossian juggle as Ninoa Kamangar walks by at the Mission District house.Manor of Being residents Caitlin Kenney (left), Simon Wisdom and Armand Matossian juggle as Ninoa Kamangar walks by at the Mission District house.

At 5 p.m on a Tuesday in August, the members of the Manor of Being, an 11-person intentional community in San Francisco, gathered in the living room for their weekly coronavirus meeting.

The member leading the meeting took out a whiteboard and read the agenda to his housemates, who sprawled on a couch, over some chairs and on the floor. The first action item was to discuss whether the house felt comfortable trying out a new mathematical system to stay safe from the coronavirus: a calculator designed to assess risk and help protect the group. It was supposed to make their day-to-day decisions feel more rational, to make dealing with the pandemic feel less exhausting.

But reaching consensus on even a two-week trial run of the calculator was proving tricky. They debated statistical modeling and the limits of their own intuitions. They questioned each other’s brains, then they questioned the math.

“Someone in the house needs a darned good knowledge of this,” one of the members said. “Otherwise we’re going to start losing touch with reality.”

One housemate, Jessica Watson, posed an unrelated question: Could she spend the night at a friend’s house? She made her case and the members took a vote — nine hands in the air for yes, only one no. Then another member, Elliot Verduzco, posed another personal request: Could he fly to San Diego to visit family? The meeting had only two minutes left. They still hadn’t figured out where they stood on the calculator, but it was starting to seem like the only promising option they had left.

The Manor of Being was trying to do as a group what often felt impossible even on an individual basis — to make rational decisions amid great uncertainty and find harmony in a time of great discord. The coronavirus pandemic meant that even the most mundane activity — getting into a Lyft, going to buy a Gatorade, cuddling with a love interest — now had to be scrutinized and voted on. Every personal choice was subject to a multiplier of 11.

They needed to find a better way.

From the outside, the unassuming black Craftsman home in the Mission District hardly betrays what is inside: a 7-bedroom, multistory compound of interconnected rooms and shared spaces. House amenities reflect community values: a “play dungeon” on the first floor equipped with a ball pit, a multi-tier palace of pillow forts and low lighting dedicated to cuddling called Squish. Photo galleries of house members and friends line the walls, and a communal costume closet for festivals greets you at the foyer.

Three years ago, Andrii Zamovsky, 32, co-founded the house as an intentional community. The software entrepreneur had just moved to the U.S. from Ukraine and felt isolated. He’d left a large network of friends — many of whom he’d met through communal living — to come to the states, but once he arrived, he felt alone.

“I had hundreds of friends, and here, suddenly, I was close to zero,” said Zamovsky. He and a few new friends decided to create a community house and call it the Manor of Being, or MoB. Their vision was that the house would become a kind of collective oasis — a group of supporters who would help each other cultivate their own personal growth.

Zamovsky is the only founding member that has remained. But the deepest spiritual pillars of the house are still intact: a commitment to psychological health, an embrace of spontaneity, a dedication to direct communication.

Prospective roommates are provided a 50-page document in which current housemates describe their interests, including critical race theory, blockchain, iboga, Foucault and crystals. The household meets weekly to discuss the coronavirus and monthly to talk about everything else. Rent ranges from $750 for a shared room to $1,800, plus $200 per month for an all-you-can-eat food plan.

Elliot Verduzco, 27, who moved into MoB after meeting a former member at a psytrance black light dance party in Santa Rosa, was immediately impressed by how smoothly things ran with such little structure. The house barely had a chores list, but somehow tasks just got done.

“We often call it a do-ocracy,” he said, meaning that anyone who decides to take the initiative on something is in charge of it. There’s no house leader; people are trusted to act in the best interest of the community, and if others want something different, they can step in.

“Many of the people that live (here) are either currently, or have in the past, worked in tech — specifically in gigantic, multibillion-dollar corporations,” Verduzco said. “So they’re used to sort of being a cog in a big machine that has an overarching goal.”

This spring, that goal became avoiding the coronavirus.

Some of the 11 residents at the Manor of Being squeeze into the ball pit on the first floor of their Mission District house.

Some of the 11 residents at the Manor of Being squeeze into the ball pit on the first floor of their Mission District house.


In February, a couple of housemates called a meeting. According to their research, the novel coronavirus was going to be in San Francisco soon and the house needed a plan.

They instituted daily coronavirus stand-up meetings, where they reviewed contingency plans from other community houses and startups to come up with their own. When the number of virus cases in San Francisco reached 1,000, they went into a full lockdown: Except for the members who had to go to work, all outside contact with people ceased. For the next two months, the house existed under a near-hermetic seal: no masked walks, no grocery stores, no seeing partners.

They nominated members to a task force, and designated them “czars” — a play on SARS-CoV-2 — with specific responsibilities. Elena Polozova, 25, a former quantum computing researcher who studied at MIT, was the research czar. She was tasked with verifying all the information the media was reporting and creating an internal, 25-page wiki-type document about the coronavirus. The procurement and inventory czars were responsible for stocking home materials and picking up whatever they couldn’t get online.

Zamovsky, the medical czar, made sure the house had sufficient first-aid supplies, studied up on recommended medical procedures and assessed what they would do if hospitals were overloaded. (He ordered hydroxychloroquine from an online retailer in India, but did not get far in building a DIY ventilator.)

The “qualintine” czar, 29-year-old Simon Wisdom, came up with bonding events, like planking challenges and enrolling the house in a medieval-themed song battle against other intentional communities. He was also the food czar, in charge of organizing gargantuan grocery deliveries from a wholesale supplier and stocking at least two months worth of emergency food supplies.

“There were serious fears that the pandemic would result in the complete collapse of society,” Zamovsky said.

Appointing czars was one thing, assessing the risk of daily activities was another. Every day, it seemed, a new potential scenario would arise and disagreements over risk would intensify. Was it safe to hop in an Uber or get takeout? Was the sidewalk even 6 feet wide? “A lot of our debating was us essentially dealing with our relationships with each other,” said Watson, 29. “Like, can I trust you?”

Some people wanted to see their partners and families; others wanted to go on camping trips or hang out with co-workers; others just wanted to stay inside and isolate until the whole thing was over. Because everyone wanted different things — and had different levels of acceptable risk — making universal rules, or exceptions, proved hairy.

When it came to dealing with exceptions, MoB’s usual MO felt so far away. Now, the group would vote by majority on whether someone could snuggle with a friend or take care of family matters. “The communities we’re a part of are so grounded in bodily autonomy and consent and free association,” Watson said. “The idea of being like, ‘I want to control the way you’re using your body,’ is so weird.” It was hard to comprehend that their intimate desires were now subject to the collective thumb.

Andrii Zamovsky, co-founder and resident of the Manor of Being house, in his room. Eleven people, who work in tech, mathematics, music and art, share the Mission District home.

Andrii Zamovsky, co-founder and resident of the Manor of Being house, in his room. Eleven people, who work in tech, mathematics, music and art, share the Mission District home.

Outside of the house, it seemed like the rest of San Francisco was another universe. People were planning casual Lake Tahoe trips and shotgunning White Claws in big groups at Dolores Park. When Verduzco would drive around the city, he’d spot groups of young people packed in patios and restaurants, and sometimes wondered if the house had gone too far. Other community houses were forming “super pods,” but the seal around MoB was tight. And as it squeezed them, burnout ensued.

Months of everyone being at home had made the space start to feel stale and confining. Shared rooms became cramped as workplaces were set up. The Squish room was converted from a cuddling area to a co-working space.

Piles of dishes multiplied, and so did silent grudges, pointed fingers and eruptions. When someone provocatively taped a “THIS IS A CRIME SCENE, DO NOT TOUCH” sign around a dirty dish, MoB unpacked the incident in a house meeting. They tried to impose stricter rules, like attaching clothespins with members’ names to abandoned dishes, but that system didn’t work. Then they considered a more positive approach — a star chart — so they could focus on rewarding instead of policing behavior. For Zamovsky’s partner, Ninoa Kamangar, 23 — a law student at UC Hastings who researches cooperatives in their free time — watching the dynamics unfold was fascinating. It was like a microcosm of what was going on in society at large.

Their cohesion had started to break down. Some who had been extremely cautious in the beginning suddenly switched risk-tolerance camps and wanted to go on Tinder. Others posed that maybe just getting sick would be easier than all of the “cognitive overhead” they were subject to now. Built into these discussions was the stark realization that they wouldn’t — couldn’t — all always agree. Reaching consensus was too expensive, too laborious: It sucked out time, energy, emotion.

The calculator offered an alternative and a viable path forward. Or it seemed to.

Giray Gintel and Ninoa Kamangar spend a moment in the kitchen at the Manor of Being in the Mission District. The communal living space has 11 roommates.

Giray Gintel and Ninoa Kamangar spend a moment in the kitchen at the Manor of Being in the Mission District. The communal living space has 11 roommates.

The risk budget calculator was developed by Ibasho, a community house just down the street.

It worked like this: If someone in MoB wanted to do something they previously would have brought up in a weekly meeting, they could log it in their portion of a shared house spreadsheet and check how risky it would be. They would enter important variables, such as the type of mask each person would or wouldn’t be wearing and whether they’d be indoors or out. After all the factors were in, the calculator would assign the activity a point value.

To begin using the calculator, MoB had to decide as a group what level of risk was acceptable. Ibasho had decided on 1%, meaning that any given person in the house would have a 1% chance of getting COVID-19 in a given year. According to MoB’s models, a 1% risk level per person would not propagate the pandemic, and if every single person on Earth could adhere to the same risk level, the pandemic would be over in 50 days. In other words, it felt safe — conservative, even.

A complicated modeling system worked out each person’s monthly risk budget: 250 points. What they did with their points didn’t matter, as long as they logged them in the shared spreadsheet so the group could keep track.

Not all of the housemates trusted the system.

“There are a lot of logical jumps in the calculation of things,” said Keir Sullivan, a 23-year-old professional poker player who joined MoB in March to live with his girlfriend. “At the end of the day, it’s an estimation. And I don’t like the buildup of estimations.”

Just trying to figure out how to use it accurately was also perplexing. At 25 points, surfing was somehow rated riskier than going to IKEA (20 points), which was only one point more than going to the dentist. They couldn’t figure out why visiting family came out to 97 points, but a masked, nondistanced beer with two friends was only two points.

The residents of the Manor of Being hold a meeting. Eleven international people share the home with occupations that includes tech, mathematics, music and art.

The residents of the Manor of Being hold a meeting. Eleven international people share the home with occupations that includes tech, mathematics, music and art.


With some fine tuning, however, they started to log everything they were already doing and to discuss their findings. Members had friends over to MoB and flew to visit family. Even Polozova, the official arbiter of the calculator, went camping in the Black Rock Desert over the weekend that Burning Man would have occurred. It cost her 150 points, so she had to budget carefully for the rest of the month.

A few days later, everything screeched to a halt. One of the housemates was staying with his family and suddenly started feeling sick. He was feverish with chills, had a dry cough and shortness of breath. It was the moment they had tried to avoid — through planning, through debates, through the calculator.

Despite how organized they’d been with other aspects of pandemic planning, the shock spun them into a frenzy. They didn’t have a clear protocol they could implement quickly, didn’t know how exactly to deal with the news he’d given them.

The housemate — and several other MoB members — eventually tested negative. It was more likely tonsillitis, not the coronavirus. The scare didn’t change the way they felt about the calculator or what it offered: Meetings were less drawn out, they spent less time arguing, their worlds were opening up and their trust in each other, what they could control, grew. When a new roommate asked for policies about hanging out with friends, the answer was simple: “Plug it into the calculator.”

The calculator could never be foolproof, but it helped. Through it, they had been transparent, had worked as a team and had improvised their way to next steps. They weren’t giving up on it.

“To me, again, it’s about direct democracy in action,” said Kamangar, the UC Hastings law student. “Any group is going to have its differences that seem irreconcilable, but through cooperation, something, some solution usually comes about.”

For more than a month, they’ve been experimenting. The Manor of Being housemates can’t say for certain whether the solution they found will protect them. Maybe they will get sick. Maybe they will get sick of each other. But what feels clear to them is that their dedication to the house, to growth, to health, to communication, has gotten them this far. At the very least, the cohesion that brought them to each other is on its way to being restored.

“The explicit rules are almost never the things that keep you safe,” housemate Watson said. “The thing that keeps you safe is people actively trying to keep you safe.”

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