The housekeeper

by toonalfrink1 min read3rd Dec 201815 comments


Life ImprovementsPractical
Personal Blog

A simple idea, inspired by my residence at the EA Hotel. I would like to see it tried.

Take a relatively large rationalist sharehouse. Let everyone pay 10-20% more rent. That money goes to one person, the housekeeper. That's their wage, and their job is to work full-time on (something like) the following:

  • Housekeeping. They clean, cook shared dinners, do groceries, do dishes, etc. Or they outsource it. They make sure it gets done.
  • Community building. They could do this internally (hosting weekly house meetings) and externally (hosting events for the wider community). They might also work on developing rationality.
  • Upgrading the house. For example they could keep a library, add high-lumen bulbs, put up nice art, etc
  • Coaching, mental health counseling, conflict resolution, etc
  • Admissions. The housekeeper tries to pick people with the best personal fit

Plenty of stuff to do. I think this will have some obvious and not-obvious benefits:

  • It is most likely more efficient than everyone doing this stuff by themselves, allowing a net increase in work done.
  • It will most likely increase the quality of life of everyone living in the house.
  • I expect this kind of job attracts people that tend to be huffelpuff-virtuous, and we want more of that.

You might add a mechanism for accountability, for example by having the housekeeper send around a weekly memo about what they've been doing, and some mechanism for hiring and replacing housekeepers if people want that.

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Boarding houses used to be quite close to this, and I would love for the EA / Rationality community to have more of those. But also they fell out of favor for a reason (mostly legal, I think, but perhaps also increased wealth and housing stock). In particular, it seems like the person being more of the house manager (who selects guests as they desire / ultimately owns the house) than the house keeper (who is dependent on the goodwill of their fellow tenants) makes the system more sustainable / polishes some of the rough edges.

Homemakers are still around, though, and my sense is when there's a group house that has something of this flavor, it's because there's a house affordable on one or two programmer salaries that is large enough for ~8 people, and so there's a space for spouse/boyfriend/girlfriend whose primary contribution is 'being part of the family' and 'making the space nice.' There it seems important that they're part of the family instead of a Hufflepuff recruited from the hinterlands primarily to act as a servant.

[Note that it's particularly weird to have a master-servant relationship coincide with a 'community building' role; if everyone likes Alice's parties thrown at The House, and Alice is friends with everyone at The House, it's a little weird for The House to fire Alice for not keeping the place as tidy as they like, because presumably that damages the friendships and the broader community fabric (since, say, Alice might not be a fan of The House anymore).]

FYI Event Horizon in the Bay does this (mostly focused on logistics stuff rather than community manager type stuff AFAICT, although I don't live there so I'm not sure)

Yup, and it turns out the idea proposed in the OP is actually way more complicated than it sounds. For one thing, it's unlikely that a single person would be very well-suited for all of the jobs listed (e.g. I am good at the ops/logistics stuff but shy away strongly from the conflict resolution type stuff). But more importantly, it's unlikely that everyone in the house would be happy enough with every decision the housekeeper made that they would be able to function as autonomously as described. This happens even if the housekeeper is entirely competent at all of their tasks, because people will just have conflicting tastes about things like decorating - this is basically inevitable in a larger house.

I also think it helps people have buy-in to their house if not literally all of the tasks are assigned to one person. At Event Horizon, the 'housekeeper' isn't in charge of cooking house dinner or running events, which lets more people do something tangible for the house as a whole (besides just a chore), and leads to a diversity of events tailored to what different subgroups in the house want to do. We also have monthly 'virtues' which just means that everyone volunteers to do something nice for the house, which can range from 'replace some light bulbs' to 'draft a proposal for a new house system' to 'make it so we have a library.' I think this is pretty important.

Bottom line I agree that some version of this thing is likely a good idea for most larger houses, but it's a part of working out systems for house governance, which is a really complicated task. I'm hoping to write a mini-sequence in the coming year on what I've learned about running a rationalist house, but I don't currently feel equipped to write an authoritative section on house governance systems because we are still very much in the middle of working that out.

(I will note for completeness sake that though running Event Horizon is definitely enough work to be someone's full-time job, it's never been paid enough for that to be practical for anyone, so I'm not totally sure what house leadership would look like if someone was putting all of their working effort towards it.)

How many people are at Event Horizon?

It was 16 when I took over the house a little over a year ago, currently down to 10 permanent residents, which is the lowest it's ever been while I've been here.

Why do you think it's fallen down to 10?

We gave the lowest floor of the house to REACH, which I think is the biggest difference.

The second part is that I think the house now has on average people with more stable lives and more stable financial situations, which makes less people interested in stacking themselves like sardines into rooms to get around high rent prices.

Was the name "Event Horizon" chosen specifically in reference to what happens when you pack things as densely into a small space as you can?

It's had a huge range, from about a dozen to just over twenty.

When I was at Event Horizon, I was one of the people voting that we should spend more on the house manager, but also at the time about a third (maybe even half?) of residents of Event Horizon were living on runway, and so a 10% increase in rent would mean 9% less time to lift off. And with 10 people (the size of a more normal house), this just covers rent for the house manager; being able to pay them a somewhat reasonable salary looks more like a 20% or 30% increase in rent.

Beware hiring for jobs that are difficult to manage and evaluate. Cleaning and light maintenance can definitely be hired out if you don't mind the economics (if residents have more money than time for such things).

Community building, coaching, and admissions should probably be separate from housekeeping, and should likely be an elected or otherwise group-sourced role. There may be payment involved, but these activities should be done by members, not employees.

Note: if part of the goal here is community building stuff, this is also a role that other people in the nearby local community can potentially pitch in towards. (This requires a fair bit of trust / demonstration that the person is able to fill the role)

when we were more people at the Macroscope (, the last tool we were using was weighted reverse auctions:

My current rent is NYC is already as high as I can justify. But I would prefer to pay 1680 for a room in a house with a housekeeper than 1400 in a house without. I think $1400 is a reasonable price for a single room in many locations.

If the housekeeper were to earn a wage of 3x rent, 15 other housemates would be required at those price points. That's a lot of cooking and cleaning.