Jessy Kate Schingler left her job at NASA, moved to San Francisco, and helped turn a 7,500-square-foot, eight-bedroom mansion near Alamo Square into a creatives’ residence called the Embassy.
In the Mission District, Jordan Aleja Grader and her partner, early Facebook engineer Justin Rosenstein, did the same thing with a 6,825-square-foot mansion, calling it Agape – Greek for love, appropriate since Rosenstein was the technical lead on the Facebook “like” button.
Tom Currier, a 22-year-old who dropped out of Stanford’s computer science program when he earned a $100,000 Thiel fellowship, runs four large tech houses in the Bay Area – Dragon Stone, the Lodge, Olympus and Founder’s Nest – and is talking about getting a similar place in Tahoe.
Across San Francisco and the region, young technocrats are taking over the leases of grand estates and transforming them into modern-day communes. Unlike hacker hostels, these “co-living spaces” are meant for entrepreneurs seeking a more permanent home and adopting a lifelong philosophy of communal living: shared groceries, family dinners and an emphasis on group perks (i.e., yoga rooms and bowling alleys) over personal space.
“We’re seeing a shift in consciousness from hyper-individualistic to more cooperative spaces,” said Grader. “We have a vision to raise our families together.”
Bill Harkins, a real estate agent who was working with the Embassy group, said that in the last six months he’s seen a number of large and organized roommate troupes looking for high-end residences.
“You know, I’ve been in this business a while, and this isn’t entirely a new thing. We used to have this thing we called communes – it was all free love, drugs, but it was the same spiritual concept,” he said while leading a group on a tour of a 23-bedroom building in the city. “In this case they just have more employment.”
The number of new, technology-driven communes in the San Francisco area is extensive and almost overwhelming – there’s the Sub, the Laundry, Engine Works, Box Factory, Light Side, the Loft (a beautiful flop house), Sugar Magnolia, the Convent (a converted convent that is very fancy), the Center (complete with two in-house yoga studios), Monument, the Hive, the Factory (top secret), La Mancha, Woom Coop, Ghost Town Gallery (built around an art gallery), and one just called the Commune.
Often backed by tech millionaires with ambitions beyond profit, the organizers talk about building homes with reduced rent options for desirable characters. They see themselves pushing against gentrification’s dulling effect on the city.
The leased mansions are just the beginning. The founders of Open Door Development Group, a real estate development firm for co-living properties, plan to start buying apartment buildings and residential hotels and converting them. Eventually, they hope to build from scratch.
“What I liked about space was the idea of creating human settlements,” said Schingler, the former NASA engineer and co-founder of Open Door. But “I don’t have to go to space to do that.”
Schingler started the Embassy in August 2012 with her husband and a friend. On the corner of Webster and Oak streets, it’s a dramatic yellow Victorian with a grand portico. Inside, the walls are made of English oak. There’s a music room, dining room, baby grand piano, solarium, craft room and a living room with three sunny stained glass outcroppings where residents lounge and work during the day. They have four 3-D printers and a bowling alley downstairs. The Wi-Fi password is NetPositive.
‘It’s an upgrade’
“Co-living isn’t a sacrifice – it’s an upgrade,” the 32-year-old Schingler said. “Having this over-the-top mansion is helpful because it sends that message.”
On a recent Sunday, about 40 friends arrived at the Embassy, food in hand, for the weekly “family” potluck. Some young men circled the dining room table looking at visiting developer Eliot Shepherd’s new product, a small Bluetooth box that can keep track of keys. He was staying in the house guest space – a membership-based hostel that helps pay the rent and keep a flow of new people coming through. The house is structured as a “do-ocracy,” where those who do the most chores have the greatest sway in house decisions. “We’re not trying to build isolationist, internally focused communes out in the middle of nowhere; we’re rebuilding cities,” said Schingler. “It’s how our generation likes to work, and it’s how I think we like to live.”
“It’s San Francisco. There’s a kind of radical openness to us,” said Mike North, the founder of North Design Labs who lives in the building and teaches a course called Cooperative Innovation at UC Berkeley. “Anytime I have someone coming to town for a meeting, I’m like, ‘Look, come stay at the Embassy – these are all the people you need to meet.’ “
Visiting parents get the master bedroom, with curved bay windows and a chandelier. “Rightly so!” said Sue Dunfield, 60, from Ontario. Her son, Derek Dunfield, is one of the house’s founders. He was finishing his postdoctorate in behavioral economics at MIT when he decided to start the house.
“I wanted to empirically measure whether what I was studying worked,” said Dunfield, who now works for PlanetLabs, which plans to launch 28 Earth-imaging satellites next year. “We’re testing out seating arrangements lately – experimenting with iterations of Sunday dinner.”
As if on cue, Schingler called dinner to order. There was lemon pepper split peas with roasted corn, dozens of deviled eggs, lamb, a Catalonian tomato dip, duck and wild rice soup.
Not every co-living community needs a mansion to make it work.
Leroy Clunne-Kiely, 25, lives in the Loft – a large high-end South of Market loft with mattresses that are shared among residents. Each pays monthly dues for the right to use the mattresses on a first-come, first-serve basis.
“You just grab what you get each night,” said Clunne-Kiely, an engineer who pays $400 a month and has lived in the space for a year. “It’s given me personal freedom. When you can live and work unconventionally, it becomes easier to succeed.”
And even in the low end of the co-living setups, there might be a billionaire in the next bunk bed.
“We have one of Twitter’s first angel investors staying with us. I think he likes to know what the young entrepreneurs are up to,” said Tom Bielecki, 24, who stayed in a co-living space in the city after flying in from Calgary to pitch his startup – the automation of 3-D printers – to Y Combinator. “None of this culture exists where I’m from. It’s like coming to the moon.”
Neighbors have been known to object to these types of arrangements, and, depending on the locale and living situation, the legality of a co-living setup might be questionable. But closing them seems to be like cutting off the heads of a hydra, considering that Open Door and others are trying to make a business out of the concept.
“The neighbors started to realize 18 people do not look like three people,” said Peter Thompson, 33, who lived in a commune that was forced to shut down. “But it just split, and those guys have started three more houses now.”
When they were MBA students at Bainbridge Graduate Institute in Seattle, Ben Provan, 30, and Jay Standish, 28, came up with the idea of a real estate investment firm that buys buildings and converts them into co-living spaces. When they moved to the Bay Area, they tapped architect Todd Jersey and Embassy co-founder Schingler and together formed Open Door Development Group.
“Our goals are impact, income and inspiration,” Standish said. “And we don’t think we have to sacrifice on any of them.”
In their 3,600-square-foot Arts and Crafts mansion in Oakland, they’ve been testing the idea of community-lite. They use a private Facebook group for polls on house issues (most recently a “no dishes ever” policy) instead of holding long meetings. They use apps like Splitwise for cost-splitting and Groupme for communication. They pay their rent and utilities through Dwolla. They’re thinking about buying a Tesla to share.
Part of their goal is to fight market forces that make cities less diverse. By creating a curated community rather than just a luxury housing development, they feel they can build diversity into the plan. “We have to have economic diversity,” said Provan. “It would be boring otherwise.”
On a recent afternoon, Standish, Provan and Schingler toured a $30,000-a-month rental property at Masonic Avenue and Haight Street. Harkins, the real estate agent, said the neighborhood is changing.
“A building like this used to be reliably USF students or families. Now the families have gone to the suburbs, and they’re happy there after a year or two,” he said. “And now it’s these groups. Everybody’s under 30.”
He stood in the kitchen while the team examined closets (“Micro-units?” someone asked). He said he preferred to rent a building to a large, self-monitoring collective rather than to individuals. Later, the group decamped to Magnolia, a brewery on Haight Street.
“There’s a lot of baggage around the word commune,” said Provan. “So part of what we’re doing is rebranding it.”
They talked about their plan to buy residential buildings zoned for single-room occupancy. There are hundreds in San Francisco, primarily in the Tenderloin.
“At the same time, we don’t want to price anyone out,” Schingler said. “So it’s hard. It’s complicated. We have to be thoughtful.”
Residents of Agape see themselves as a part of a spiritual movement as well as a housing one. A 6,220-square-foot Queen Anne Victorian dating from 1900, the home has 12 official residents but often holds many more. Of the dozen, three have 9-to-5 jobs at startups and the rest are entrepreneurs who work from home.
Grader thinks living harmoniously and communally is one of the goals of technology, especially social media. Rosenstein, her partner, left Facebook with $130 million in stock and has developed software for communal living with Facebook co-founder Dustin Moskovitz. Called Asana, it’s designed to help groups of people work together more effectively.
“If we use it right, our capacity to connect and cooperate grows through our technology,” said Grader. “It’s the point of technology.”
Jonathan Mahler, who is in his mid-20s and lives in the house, said he divides his time between real estate investments, large-scale stone-carving, and writing about feminist theory. He plans on co-living forever – “eventually sharing babysitters, cooks.”
“Before this, I was living alone in Brooklyn, trying to do the entrepreneurial thing without any feedback, and it doesn’t work.”
Nellie Bowles is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org Twitter: @NellieBowles