How to Get Back to the Land (and to Each Other) Living in a Modern City
Ever wonder if there’s more to life than a forty-hour workweek, juggling social life through various apps, and solitary nights in an apartment devoted to cradling exhaustion? Sitka recently met a group of people altering this all-too-familiar norm in order to rediscover urban living. Their lifestyle exemplifies Sitka’s favourite philosophy: to do more with less.
Family dinner, photo provided.
The group lives in a community house with eleven bedrooms in a neighbourhood near the city accompanied by salt-water breezes and a clear view of the ocean. Beside the boulevard leading to their door lives an edible garden rather than a lawn. The estate isn’t a typical massive Victorian home with segregated suites; instead, the residents adopt a family-inspired communal living situation.
Mika, a resident for nearly three years, answered the door and introduced her nine-month-old baby, Mana, who was born inside the home. Mika brewed tea, and while the sun peaked through cellophane-covered windows (to conserve warmth and avoid using heating energy), an effervescent group of five (of many) roommates sat down to lend attentive smiles, innovative insight, and grateful perspectives.
The roommates spoke about the deep benefits of constantly sharing ideas, possessions, creative energy, art, and intimate life events, as well as learning to cooperate with each other and to avoid taking the actions of one another too personally. Though these might seem like basic elements of human relationships, current urban rituals can threaten the frequency of these important moments.
“Something unique to North America is our isolation,” says Chaim, sixth-year resident. “It’s hard to weather [life] in isolation.”
“I’m unlearning [unhealthy] things I've learned over the years,” says Mika. “I’m undoing that.”
Living together lowers expenses, which according to the roommates is second only to the benefits of community. The cheapest room in the ocean-view home costs $270, with the most expensive room costing under $500. The group also saves money by pooling resources. They share various items like tools, household-ware, clothes, and food all through a simple cooperative system. That way no one needs to engage in the wasteful purchasing of redundant items that they’ll only use once. They also share energy and expertise. For example, someone might swap a hair-cut for a massage. One resident provides veggies from his cultivation business in Saanich called New Mountain Farm. When Mike brings home food, another person might volunteer time in the kitchen, and another will clean the dishes. These types of trades save time and money.
Healthy relaxation, photo provided.
“I’ve always had the idea, rather than making my income really high so I can afford high expenses, to make my income okay so I can afford modest expenses,” says Owen, Mika’s husband and second-year resident. He expressed value in spending time with his young family versus continuous work to support material extravagance.
The housemates range in age from nine months to forty-three years. The day Mana was born, everyone in the house helped during the process. The group shared in celebration while Mika was contracting. “I feel like it taught me the meaning of life,” says Khadijah, who has lived in the home just over a year, on witnessing childbirth.
To maintain some order in the relatively unpredictable experience of sharing living space with a large group, the roommates eat dinner together and hold weekly meetings to reconnect, reevaluate, and reconsider everyone’s voices.
The group describes themselves as health and environment conscious. “We try to keep our purchases and consuming under the acronym SOEL (sustainable, organic, ethical, local),” says Chaim. To do this, they avoid purchasing items with tons of packaging, buy food in bulk, and try to source organics from North America. Chaim says that living together and cutting expenses helps the group deal with interesting conundrum of healthy and organic products being so expensive.
When the group tore out the lawn of their front yard to make room for a garden, their efforts produced a variety of greens, potatoes, blueberries, fig trees, perennials, raspberries, squash, leek, zucchini, garlic, herbs, and chard. Our mild west coast climate makes this possible with some simple creativity, even in a city lot. The group says that their idea inspired some of their neighbours to do the same.
Real meal with a view, photo provided.
Chaim explained how people in the house take part in various types of foraging, whether for wild mushrooms or perfectly healthy bruised fruit being thrown out by supermarkets. Urban foraging utilizes the surplus of high quality goods currently going to waste for aesthetic or superficial reasons throughout the city.
The group also holds clothing swaps, shops at thrift stores, and engages with the local street clothing trade. Chaim talked about the silent neighbourhood system of clothing trade where people put used clothing on the side of the road for free to be picked up by someone else. When Chaim is done with his clothes, he does the same and continues the reusing cycle.
Mika and Owen married on the property, and they both borrowed various pieces of formal attire from their roommates to use during the marriage ceremony rather than spending money on a tuxedo and gown. “It’s been really nice, especially for us as young family, living here and doing more with less,” says Mika.
“I find that when you’re on your own, you feel so small and powerless,” says Khadija. “When you’re with a group and you’re surrounded by [your values], it really feels like a norm.”
The home hosts various events, workshops, and fundraisers for social and environmental causes. “With our collective power, we’re able to do a lot,” says Chaim.
The group has provided space for fundraisers for the Unis’tot’en, an activist group against Enbridge Northern Gateway and Pacific Trails standing for unceded Indigenous land. The house’s kitchen is also opened once a month to Food Not Bombs, a volunteer organization preparing vegan food for the homeless and those with a low income. The residents have also hosted events for a volunteer-run, non-profit group called the Beehive Collective using graphic media to communicate resistance to corporate globalization. In addition to environmental and philanthropic events, the roommates welcome gatherings for local bands and poets. “[These] kinds of things we’re able to do as a group. We wouldn't be able to [do them] on our own,” explains Chaim.
Unist'ot'en Camp. Photo from the Vancouver Observer, courtesy Unist'ot'en Camp Facebook page.
Despite all the benefits to living as a community, Owen explains that there’s a challenge in terms of the lucrative benefit for landlords who typically divide large buildings into suites in order to rent out the separate units. Their building, kept whole, was once a psychiatric care home. “There’s fewer and fewer intact community houses,” Owen says.
“[Victoria] is progressive, but there’s a lot of change that needs to happen to support people living in communal housing,” adds Chaim. In fact, this community home wouldn’t legally function in Saanich according to a bylaw that states no more than four non-blood related people may live in a single dwelling.
“People are disconnected from community, from family, [and] from neighbours,” says Mika, “As a person who went through birth and pregnancy and becoming a mother of a child, I’ve noticed that you really need to have strong community network.”
This particular community house allows the residents to live their values: they conserve energy, food, and resources to help the earth; they offer space to supported organizations and artists; and they find time within lifestyles of decreased financial demand for their passions and for human connection. And finally, as a group they express how intimate proximity to one another positively shapes each individual by both challenging and building the human experience.
“I really hope that other families [experience living in] community houses,” says Mika. It’s a lifestyle her family plans to maintain for the foreseeable future.