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No Tie-Dye Required: Bay Area Millennials Are Flocking to Communes

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‘Intentional Communities’: Communes, former politically idealistic (and cheap) ways for hippies to live, are springing up in large San Francisco Bay Area houses colonized by Silicon Valley 20-somethings.

SAN FRANCISCO — A few weeks ago, Mike North ambled up the steps of his home in the Lower Haight neighborhood here, feeling blissed out. Fresh from a 90-minute yoga class with live music and an instructor who had worn fishnet stockings and high heels, he was looking forward to a quiet, relaxing evening.

Instead, he opened the front door and was engulfed by an Enlightenment-era theme party.

“It was just full-on costumes, the plague was running rampant and there were doctors running around trying to cure it,” Mr. North, 36, said recently. “There were people in monocles and full Edwardian garb. I stood there in my yoga clothes thinking, ‘Quick, I need to get my tail coat and top hat, stat!’ ”

This is what happens when you have 11 roommates who would rather watch an argument between people dressed up as Galileo and Newton than the latest episode of “Scandal.”

Mr. North, the founder of the nonprofit organization Reallocate, lives in a three-story Victorian house known as the Embassy. Some nights, depending on the occupancy of a private guest room and a hostel-like setup of bunk beds, as many as 16 people may sleep there.

Everyone shares a moderately sized kitchen (only rule: don’t leave dishes in the sink). There are eight bathrooms and a commercial-grade washing machine on the lower level. Ikea storage units mingle with velvet settees; garlic cloves come in three-pound bags.

“You quickly learn to cook for more than just yourself,” said Jessy Kate Schingler, 32, a founder of the Embassy.

The Embassy is one of many “intentional communities,” a tech-savvy, not particularly politicized version of communes, which are being flocked to by 20- and 30-somethings in the Bay Area, where shared living became popular in the 1960s. By the count of Ms. Schingler, who is starting an urban real estate development company focused on collaborative living, there are about 50 spaces similar to the Embassy officially operating in and around San Francisco. While each has its own quirks, they all aspire to foster creativity, fuel entrepreneurial endeavors and collaboration and make life generally more exciting.

If this involves climbing up two ladders to sleep in a crawl space, as one resident here at Langton Labs does, so be it.

“Some people think of home as a retreat, where you get to get away from everything,” said Peretz Partensky, 32, a founder of Langton, which hosts an average of 19 people a night in two buildings across the street from each other. “We see home as a place where you engage, create and collaborate.” (Granted, he said, “you need a tolerance for organized chaos.”)

Or as Nick Lane-Smith, 33, an entrepreneur and fixture at the Sub, a warehouse loft in the Mission District, put it: “You get to come home every day and it’s like opening a cereal box with a toy inside. You have no idea who’s going to be over and what they’re going to be doing and who they brought with them that you get to meet.”

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If the Embassy is the Four Seasons of San Francisco’s commune scene, Langton is the hostel that took its decorating cues from the A&E show “Hoarders.” On the Thursday before Halloween, an overflowing blue Dumpster stood before a kitchen, which contained an array of potted plants amid dozens of spice bottles, a jar of Vegemite and a pumpkin.

The compound had just received a half-dozen boxes of dead animals. Mr. Partensky said the carcasses would be used to make chimeras (creatures made up of parts from different species) during a coming Halloween party, and pointed to a fetal pig with owl’s wings hovering over the garage.

The atmosphere at Langton is not usually so Dionysian. Mr. Partensky, who was born in the Soviet Union and lived in a refugee community in Italy as a child, started the space with a group that included his sister, a carpenter, and a clown because, he said, he fantasized about a place where “the distance between questions and answers would be shorter because you could walk down the hall to ask someone with that expertise.” (He’s building Sourcery, a service that helps restaurants, hospitals and other large organizations place bulk orders of food, with a former housemate.)

Since Langton opened six years ago, Mr. Partensky estimates about 1,000 short- and long-term guests have stayed there, each paying upward of $1,200 a month in rent. Unlike in the old days, lost souls can’t saunter off a Volkswagen bus and expect a bed (and a toke); Langton, the Embassy and others have rigorous application processes for prospective residents, with questions like: “If you had a superpower, what would it be?” Mr. North was interviewed by 10 of 11 prospective housemates before being accepted into the Embassy. (At some communes, friends of residents looking for a place to crash can claim a bunk in a shared room for $30 to $40 a night.)

The Sub has functioned as a communal space for decades, but in recent years it has been frequented by a techie crowd. Over vegan chili and kale salad at one of its recent monthly dinners, arranged through Facebook, Mr. Lane-Smith asked each of the nine attendees to share their name, a phrase about their day and what they were really excited about. Phrases included “heads down” from a software developer focused on producing “quantity over quality” and “serendipity” from a video game designer who bonded with her fellow Caltrain commuter riders that morning when their train was delayed by a suicide.

“Impermanence,” said Jonathan Matas, a dreamy artist and perhaps the only guest one could imagine in an old-style commune. Mr. Matas, 29, proceeded to tell an X-rated joke relayed to him by his Tibetan meditation teacher.

At a recent NED Night, a takeoff on the TED (Technology, Entertainment, Design) Talks conference series, a presentation by a pornographic film star led to a lengthy discussion about sexual consent, with audience members using one arm to raise their hand and the other to steady their can of Tecate beer. (The Embassy and others host similar salons with their extended networks. Recent topics include “Can Cities Progress Without Gentrification?” and “What Is Bit Coin?”)

Though disruptive behavior is discouraged, business and pleasure inevitably intertwine. An October party co-hosted by the Sub and Founders Fund, the San Francisco-based venture capital firm, featured independent bands and a cold-pressed juice sponsor, whose kale and cucumber concoctions were promptly mixed with alcohol from the nearby open bar. “It’s the closest thing we have to the dream of living in a cul-de-sac with our friends,” said Anna Bleker, 26, a designer at Redshift, a digital agency.

As powerful as the desire to socialize, perhaps, is the need to maximize resources in an unfriendly housing market. “What we’re doing is using a house with enormous square footage to house a decent number of people making normal human incomes,” said Mike Grace, a biologist at the NASA Ames Research Center who lives in Rainbow Mansion, a sprawling 5,000-square-foot house in suburban Cupertino, about 40 miles from San Francisco, that has been communal since 2006.

Seven full-time residents now split the $7,300 monthly rent there. “I capture the lifestyle of someone who earns $20,000 to $30,000 a year more than I do,” Mr. Grace said. “For the rent that I pay, I would be living in a studio south of San Jose.”

There seem to be more adult relationships at intentional communities than “Real World”-style hot tub hookups. Mr. Grace has lived in Rainbow for almost three years with his fiancée, Diana Gentry, who does research at NASA. “I had never lived with a significant other before moving in here,” Ms. Gentry said while making tofu lasagna for a house dinner on a recent Wednesday night. “That was the bigger change for me.”

Ms. Schingler of the Embassy has lived in communal homes (including Rainbow, which she also helped found), for almost all her decade-long relationship with her husband, Robbie Schingler, 35, a founder of the satellite start-up Planet Labs.

There are some clouds hanging over utopia, of course. Zoning regulations govern how many people sleep in a home versus how many a lease allows. (One intentional community is in a nonresidential building.) Some commune organizers who spoke did so on the condition that the total number of people staying in the house not be disclosed, as that could give their landlords a reason for eviction.

In male-heavy Silicon Valley, meanwhile, some houses struggle to find female residents. (The Sub is currently all male.) Out of 70 people who recently applied for a vacant room in Rainbow Mansion, Zack Wexler-Beron, the house’s de facto manager, estimated that “maybe five or six” were women.

Then there is the reality of upkeep, which led to the demise of the Glint, a communal house founded by Damian Madray, Alexandros Pagidas and Charles Lee in 2011. The Glint (named, Mr. Madray said, after “that special spark that you have or see in someone else”) aimed to “redesign heroism,” according to its manifesto, and sought out residents who would celebrate artists, entrepreneurs and musicians as if they were Marvel Comics characters.

But the founders felt less like Iron Man than the Avengers’ loyal manservant, Edwin Jarvis.

Mr. Madray, 28, recalled a conversation he and Mr. Pagidas had one day while making up bunk beds adjacent to the Glint’s in-house art gallery. “Alex just started laughing,” Mr. Madray said. “He was like, ‘You know we’re in the hospitality business, right?’ ”

“That’s essentially what we were doing, making beds, making sure everyone was happy, doing laundry,” Mr. Madray said. “Alex never did laundry in his life, and here he was doing it at the Glint.”

Other communes employ cleaning services and assistants to take care of these chores (“the cruft of living,” as Mr. Lane-Smith calls it), but the Glint’s founders thought that they were so focused on enabling other residents’ dreams, their own start-ups were floundering. On top of that, they were running into zoning problems and dipping into their personal savings to pay the more than $11,000 a month rent when residents didn’t pay their share.

In September 2012, the Glint shut down. The seven-bedroom house it occupied in the Twin Peaks neighborhood was christened as another commune, Rise, which closed earlier this year under the pressure of rising rents. Mr. Madray now lives with three roommates in a Victorian apartment in the Mission. “It’s normal,” he said, “which is what I think I needed.”

Mr. Lane-Smith is still deciding what “normal” means. “I vacillate between being absolutely in love with the Sub and the people in it and wanting to leave it all and get my own space,” he said. “But what would I do if I moved out: get an apartment? That would be pretty lonely.”

With or without him, the new communes are extending their reach. Ms. Schingler said she and other members are working with communal homes in Seattle, Portland, Indonesia and Guatemala to create a global network of communities that share the same values of mindfulness, intentionality and purpose. “When North goes to Berlin,” she said, referring to Mike North, the resident surprised by the theme party, “he should be able to find a house like this.”

The men at the Sub are trying to figure out how they can develop a set of guiding principles “so that some kid in Vietnam can get together with his buddies and be like, ‘Let’s find a space and do some art,’ ” said Johnny Hwin, 28, an entrepreneur and musician. Langton recently hosted a conference about best practices for communal living that drew representatives from over two dozen Bay Area communities.

Mr. Wexler-Beron, of Rainbow Mansion, would like to create a primer on addressing zoning, lobbying and financial issues, a kind of “Communes 101”  for the modern age. For him, shared living is not a phase. At 27, after three and a half years at Rainbow, he said he “can’t imagine living any other way.” Though his parents live a 15-minute drive away, a few weeks ago, over bites of Ms. Gentry’s lasagna, he gestured around Rainbow’s hulking dining table and said, “These people are my family.”

Unspoken was the fact that in any family, tensions are bound to arise.

“One thing I learned,” Mr. Madray said, “you live in a house with a bunch of creative, highly intelligent, smart young people, and the hardest thing for any of them to do is to put away the dishes.”

A version of this article appears in print on December 12, 2013, on page E12 of the New York edition with the headline: Beyond Tie-Dye, Just Techie.

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