Millennials are less likely to own a home than their parents were at their age and they are more likely to be lonely.

Not exactly a winning combo.

Even worse, these two challenges feed into each other. A lack of affordable houses erodes our sense of community, making us more lonely.

That’s why one millennial, Trish Becker-Hafnor, created Chase Street Commons in Denver, Colorado — it’s an affordable, community-style approach to living that seeks to address both challenges for millennials.

“As a generation, we’re realizing that what we’ve built doesn’t actually work for anyone,” says Becker-Hafnor, a social worker at the University of Denver and creator of the co-housing project.

“We crave something different, so we’re looking for creative ways to live together and we’re finding creative ways to build that into our own lives,” she says.

The heavy toll of loneliness

More than half of all baby boomers owned homes by age 30. For Gen Xers, that number dwindled to 48%, and for millennials, it’s 42%. Meanwhile, the average age of a first-time home buyer rose to 55 years old in 2020, an all-time high. A lack of affordable housing is an obvious public health problem, and the problem is more and more pronounced for each subsequent generation. Poor housing has been shown to have a wide range of negative health impacts, including respiratory illness, bodily injuries and mental health.

Loneliness, meanwhile, isn’t often thought of as a public health concern, but its effect on our mental and physical health is enormous.

“We’re not doing well as a generation,” Becker-Hafnor says. “We’re suffering. We are in the middle of a loneliness epidemic. Over half of Americans experience loneliness on a regular basis, and it’s killing us. People who are lonely are 32% more likely to die earlier than people who are better connected, so it makes loneliness as bad for your health as smoking 15 cigarettes per day.”

Indeed, more than a third (36%) of Americans reported feeling “serious loneliness” — that is, experiencing loneliness frequently or almost all of the time. Shockingly, loneliness was particularly high among young adults, ages 18 to 25, a time of life typically seen as being rich in friendship and social activities. The high amount of loneliness among this age group might explain why co-housing is increasingly popular with young people.

Two crisis, one possible solution

Becker-Hafnor’s solution is to promote co-living. Instead of single-family homes, co-housing families reside in apartments or condos (often called co-housing developments) or planned communities specifically designed to foster community.

“The standard single family, that dream actually separates us from what we actually dream of the most,” Becker-Hafnor says. What we really dream of, according Becker-Hafnor, is a life filled with friendship, purpose, personal growth and a feeling of belonging.

That’s something that she hopes she can bring with Chase Street Commons, a one-acre tract of land she’s developing into a collection of affordable, communal spaces, inhabited by families who believe connection and community are the keys to a healthier, happier life. She calls it a “micro village.”

Chase Street Commons takes the communal living principles of a condo co-op (or similar co-housing structure) and applies them to a living arrangement that’s closer to traditional homeownership. In this way, it’s a more palatable form of communal living for many people. People can enjoy the connection afforded by a co-housing development, but they can still own their home and they don’t live in a cramped apartment.

At the moment, the parcel of land includes several abandoned homes. Becker-Hafnor’s plan is to convert them into a mix of private residences and shared spaces for the community. When finished, the multi-generational community will include up to five households. Cars will be allowed only on the perimeter of the property, with the interior filled with green space and walking paths.

The most radical aspect of the project is the economic structure. Traditional homeownership involves the physical home and the land beneath it. Chase Street Commons will use a land-lease structure, allowing families to buy just the home, and gradually buy the land beneath it over time. The structure drastically reduces the down payment, which is often the biggest impediment to homeownership.

Becker-Hafnor herself lives in a more traditional co-housing development called Aria Co-housing. It’s a former convent that was converted in 2017 into 28 condo units. She moved to the space specifically because she found living in the suburbs so alienating.

Traditional co-housing spaces like Aria are short on the creature comforts that we associate with traditional homeownership, but they do offer plenty of shared space, such as communal gardens, community centers, media rooms and kitchens. (Imagine a more grown up version of living in a college dormitory.)

“The difference between co-housing, or any type of people living in close proximity, and the traditional neighborhood is intention,” she says. “The people who live here live here because they want to live more communally. When they join, they agree to participate in the community, attend community dinners, to give their labor toward bettering the community and the surrounding spaces.”

Rethinking how we live

Chase Street Commons and communities like it are just one way the concept of housing and home are shifting. Over the years, more people have begun to accept alternative living solutions such a nomad life (people touring the country in sleeper vans and working remotely) and tiny homes (structures that make efficient use of just a few hundred square feet of space).

All of these living arrangements are radical departures from the classic idea of homeownership. But these ideas aren’t new. If anything, co-housing and other collective living environments are a reversion to a more primal way of life. Humans lived in collectivist societies for the vast majority of their existence.

“We are lonely or isolated, we’re disconnected from each other and we have a crisis of meaning,” Becker-Hafnor says. “So the solution that I saw was building a place where people can come together, they can live in close proximity with one another, they can support one another, they can be valued for being human and not just for what they produce and we can be kind to the land that we live on.”

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