Group house norms really do seem toxic to many people.

by deluks9172 min read11th Jan 202131 comments

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The SF Bay AreaLocal Community Theory/PracticePracticalCommunity
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Be careful about joining rationalist group houses. The environment is toxic to a lot of people and can lead to a ton of conflict. This seems important to say since a lot of people are considering returning to Berkley/TheBay.

This analysis is general and examples can be cited from many houses. But I personally lived at Decision Tree for about a year. For context, Decision Tree is an eight-bedroom house in North Oakland. The amount of interpersonal conflict has been very high. The worst situation predates my arrival. But I want to state this explicitly: I was involved in a bunch of conflicts. You definitely should hold this against me. In my opinion, a lot of the conflicts involving me came down to me being pro-cleanliness, bothered by tons of noise, and loud about some very unusual political beliefs. But I was also combative in how I handled some things. I regret much of my behavior. However, a huge amount of conflict in the house's history did not involve me.

I have now explicitly made myself look pretty bad. I deserve to look bad. However, the point I am trying to make requires doing the opposite as well. Before I lived in the Bay I was a member of Overcoming Bias NYC for a few years. For about two years I lived at the four-person apartment that usually hosted the weekly meetup. My reputation was quite good. When I applied to be a REACH host I asked for character witnesses from the people in NYC who had run the most meetups. The reviews were good, Shrinkant even called me a peacemaker unprompted. If you doubt these claims you can ask the people who were actively running OBNYC during my time there (Jacob Putanumonit, Shrikant, Sam R, Zvi, etc). You can also talk to the people I lived with in NYC (ex: Geoff C and Alex M).

Crowded bay group houses are not toxic for everyone. But they are toxic for a lot of people. Some group houses have only lasted months before they dissolved. There are just so many potential issues. For example: Covid pre-cautions, noise, cleanliness, politics, amount of clothing worn in common areas, taking up space in common areas, showers, etc. The situation is even worse if money is an issue for any/many housemates (DT certainly had money issues). A large group house is also likely to have residents coming and going on relatively short notice. Even if you like the current house culture you need to be vigilant about maintaining it over time. If money is an issue, open rooms can put the house under financial pressure and make it harder to be selective. It's notable that in a big group house 'coalitions' who want different things can easily form.

There are several prominent examples of people who got into a lot of trouble in the Bay community but were members in good standing of non-bay rationalist communities. Their housing situations were frequently quite bad. I am not writing this to convince you to have 'sympathy for the devil'. I am trying to warn you that if you put yourself in a suboptimal environment you might behave in ways you regret.

Before you join a group house make sure you fit in well with the existing culture. And make sure there are mechanisms to prevent the culture from changing in negative ways. Even if you quickly get out of a situation that is bad for you, relationships might be ruined. It is very easy to end up disliking people you got along with well before you lived together. All my warnings are much direr if money is at all tight. Group houses are unusually plentiful in the Bay. But some of the most toxic situations (involving clear abuse) occurred in rat houses outside of the Bay. The warnings generalize. Arguably posting this violates some norms but I have tried to be nondescript except for listing some reasons why you might not want to live with me. 

I regret writing this but when I moved to the Bay I pre-committed in my mind to writing up my perspective. Things have obviously gotten crazy due to Covid. But I have to say the warnings that were given by people like Zvi seem much more correct after moving to the Bay and trying out a Bay group house. I think it is important to give people an accurate impression and that requires being open about negative outcomes.

Be careful lest you hurt someone else or get hurt yourself.
 

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A bunch of people have alluded to Decision Tree being "non-representative" in ways I worried people might interpret as "unusually bad" rather than "different by design in ways that predictably made things harder". I also think there are some lessons from the Decision Tree experiment that aren't currently obvious and could save people a lot of heartache. So I got permission from the organizers to share more of the story.

There was a group house in the bay that had a history of taking in strays (more than one in fact, but we're only talking about one). They would get to know people, usually online, with job loss, needing to escape abuse, or just wanting to move to CA and needing some help to get some feet under them and give them a few months couch time and food. It worked in part because the hosts were really good at boundaries and so really could limit themselves to just providing couch, food, and an amount of emotional support they were truly comfortable with. I don't know the whole roster, but I know at least four people this house took in who were much better off for it, and no one who was made worse off.

But they only had one couch, and it took months to get people on their feet, and so many people needed help. So with the help of a benefactor they decided to create an entire house dedicated to giving people this launching pad. That was Decision Tree. The plan was to subsidize rent and provide various RA/RD types to help people get on track.

Unfortunately this meant that you went from a house full of fully functional people + one rescue person, to a house full of rescues (with the people who became functional fastest leaving soonest).  There are a million reasons someone might need a place to crash for a few months. An unfortunate number of them are also reasons someone might be a difficult roommate. People who have only ever lived in dysfunctional situations, or are coming off a major trauma, are on average either harder to live or find living with other people harder. The subsidized rent meant that some portion of people genuinely couldn't afford to move, which could force housemates to stay together where richer people would have moved apart. 

So that's why I think Decision Tree is not a great data point for group houses as a whole. 

I went to boarding school, and my heuristic after a number of years there was: Living with people you like is awesome. Living with people you don't like is terrible. And living with people you think are okay... is also terrible.

I think it's pretty rough to move in with people you don't know. At my house we do a 2 month probationary period, after which we all vote on the person, and if the score isn't high enough we don't offer them full time.

I'm old, and my memories of being young, poor, and having multiple roommates I don't know and love are rather distant.  I never saw co-living as particularly attractive, and I've long been in the "good fences make good neighbors" camp, so I'm likely not the target of this warning.

But I think there are some good, general, pieces of advice that could be extracted from this - I'd frame them as recommendations, rather than as warnings.  They apply to ANY sharing of significant parts of your life, not just Bay-area group houses.  I wish I'd read it before going into business with some acquaintances.

  • Don't do it for the money.  It's fine to save money when possible, but that should never be the primary reason for a living arrangement.  Do it because you expect to enjoy and be satisfied with the daily experiences.
  • Culture and "fit" matters more than you think.  Don't go into it without knowing what's important to you and what's important to your partner(s).  
  • Yes, "partner(s)".  Anyone you're living that closely with on a day-to-day basis is more than an asset-share arrangement.  You have shared goals and habits that affect each other's happiness.
  • Have an exit plan (preferably multiple).  Know what you will do if it becomes too painful.  
  • Have exit triggers.  Know what "too painful" means.  Decide in advance how bad it'll get before you have to live in your car (or whatever your worst-case exit plan is).
  • Have a way to track positive and negative experiences.  Don't trust your memory to know what happened last week.  This is key to staying somewhat objective about the exit triggers.  You don't want to be too objective (and you really don't want to use this as evidence to beat your housemates up), as this is all about your emotional evaluation of your living situation.  But you also don't want to overreact to temporary problems.

Don't trust your memory to know what happened last week. 

This applies more generally to relationships including business ones of all kinds. "Last week" is pretty accurate (though it can sometimes be mere hours if strong emotions are involved). 

If there is a wiki page on group houses, this definitely belongs there.

I like the idea of co-living with other rationalists (in theory, never tried it), but I would definitely want to be able to leave quickly if I ever changed my mind.

One thing I'm confused about on the subject of rationalist group houses is whether there are specific failure modes compared to just group houses. Like I'm certain I don't want to live in a group house, just because I don't want to have to deal with that many people in the place I live, but the group house being rationalist or not is irrelevant for that.

I've lived in both rationalist and non-rationalist group houses and observed a bunch more. In my experience, there are special upsides and downsides that come with ideological/subcultural group houses that you won't find in e.g. a house formed by a regular friend group or a bunch of people thrown together by Craigslist ads. Those features appear pretty similar whether the subculture is rationalists or animal rights activists or an artistic scene or whatever, and I've seen stories similar to the OP's from several different subcultures. I think communities like these are net positive overall and I expect I'll be living in group houses in the future, but some people absolutely do get burned and it's worth being especially careful because of how entangled the social scene is, even beyond the regular roommate issues.

Curious to hear more about your view of what the unique up/downsides are.

I've heard loads of... stories about DT. In my opinion, it is both an unhealthy environment for many types of people, as well as not being representative of the general concept of a group house. 

As someone who has lived in a quasi-rationalist bay area group house for nearly 10 years, and seen it through both good and bad sets of housemates, this post reads like someone writing, "Polyamory Could Be Toxic For Some People!" which is true, but nonetheless, a bit offensive, and not very informative. 

I agree that Decision Tree was non-representative by design (in ways I'm not sure are public), in ways that will make it perform worse on average. I think that should have been noted more explicitly. I also think deluks is being really brave in naming something that made them a worse person, and I'm grateful they provided that data point.

Yeah, I think DT is very unrepresentative. I also think COVID really sucked for everyone, and increased the variance of everything by a lot. I am definitely extremely glad I wasn't living alone during COVID and had friends in my house that allowed me to maintain basic social functions during the harshest parts of quarantine, but it also definitely created conflict and was stressful for many. 

Strong +1 to this - the pandemic sharply increased both some of the costs and some of the benefits of group housing.

I admit that I am surprised. I would have expected less stress in a group house than in any cohabitation with fewer people. Or maybe that is because it was stressful - but even more so in smaller groups? I really miss the polls on LW 2.0, otherwise, I would instantly create one now.

The short answer is: more people = more individual preferences to deal with

I wonder whether that is why early close communities like monasteries did have and needed to have such strict rules about all aspects of life. For example the Rule of St. Benedict.

That is a super interesting point.

So group houses did have enough socializing. More than they wanted. This suggests that there is a sweet spot between lonely singles and group houses. Thinking about it, I'm lucky and pretty close to such a sweet spot. My four kids and I live in one house and they also live in the household of their mother and step-father across the street, That means seven people in two houses who can meet each other but also have enough private space.  

What do you think the sweet spot is?

This is roughly my take. 

I think I probably agree with the object level advice here (i.e. "be careful", "make sure you have a good culture fit", "make sure you have an exit plan if you can afford one"), but it's framed a weirdly.

I agree with Tilia that DT, from the outside at least, looked like a pretty extreme outlier in terms of how bad group houses can get and not a good place to draw general conclusions from. 

I think there was also a ton on coronavirus-related-drama in lots of houses, and that this is more of a feature of "the pandemic is legitimately stressful, and I think it makes everything much harder for everyone, especially when multiple people have to suddenly renegotiate norms."

A decent number of people get into polyamory due to the rationalist community. If someone got involved with polyamory thanks to the community and it went badly, I think it would be reasonable to write such a post. Especially if they would have done the opposite if things had gone well. I should note I myself am poly. There are definitely houses that have gone even worse than DT. 

Also the most obvious to me example of 'good standing outside the bay -> 'got into a huge amount of trouble in the bay' also had no connection to DT.

I've also heard a lot of negative accounts of DT (possibly the same accounts others in this thread have heard, so plausibly don't treat this as a separate data point). The conclusion I drew from the accounts is 'DT has unusually unhealthy norms for a group house, and the particular ways it's bad are pretty unusual for rationalist group houses'.

I lived in DT and it was awful. OTOH I lived in quite a few other Rationalist houses (in both the bay and nyc) and they were all positive experiences.

I think making sure you filter for similar cleanliness levels, adultiness levels, lifestyle, etc is extremely important.

To me, living with random people you just vaguely like is still pretty good if they are a good lifestyle, etc match.

But it only takes ONE person to completely ruin a group house.

My feelings here are so confused. I basically agree with all of the comments so far, even though some of them kind of contradict each other. I really like Dagon's points of "don't do it for the money" and thinking of the people you live with as partners. I wrote about the latter earlier in the pandemic. 

I would also like to admit to having behaved far from admirably this year and having been involved in a lot of conflicts. But everything is really different because we've been in lockdown for nearly a full year. Prior to lockdown, my group house was on balance a positive thing in my life, but I wasn't ready to be forced to spend every waking (and sleeping) minute with eight other people for a full year with no escape.

If your experience at a Bay group house was only during the pandemic (and Decision Tree at that, which as everyone else has noted is really not representative), then it's very unsurprising that it was toxic. Very few Berkeley houses have survived lockdown fully intact (i.e. without anyone leaving and with no bad feelings), and a number of houses dissolved completely.

 Negotiating COVID precautions is stressful. Being locked in a house with other people and not getting to do any of the things you want to do is stressful. This has nothing to do with rationality or even really group houses; it's caused plenty of conflicts among non-rationalist friends and family members of mine.

My general take on this whole situation is that it's really hard to be a person. Living in group houses comes with a lot of potential benefits (more serendipitous social interactions, cheaper rent, coparenting, shared resources, accountability partners), but any time you live with someone, there will be things you disagree on and need to negotiate. It turns out that most people are just quite bad at those negotiations, especially when they get emotionally fraught (like COVID precautions). There are some situations where it's worth it to get good at those negotiations (e.g. with a person you're marrying), but it is really hard. 

The only way I know of to live with someone without experiencing this stress is morally and epistemically questionable at best: When I was in college, it was generally accepted among my friends that in three-person apartments, two people would ally socially against the third (usually without the third's knowledge). While this is a nasty thing to do and requires both parties to lie, it was really important for our friendship. I survived living with two of my best friends two different years, because any time anything went wrong, we could blame it on the third girl, which let us sidestep the vast majority of the conflict that comes from living together. If the trash didn't get taken out, we didn't have to fight about it amongst ourselves, we could just say it was the other girl's fault. It also made it easier to admit to mistakes, in a complicated way. 

I don't really have a conclusion here. I think the conclusion might be that you're right, living in a group house is horrible and I hate it. But also, being a person and having to interface with other people at all is horrible and I hate it, but it's just something I have to do and I don't think it has anything to do with 'toxicity' in group houses in general. Also disclaimer that it is past my bedtime and I'm not always so pessimistic but it has been a truly awful year on the social front and this post and writing this comment made me feel a lot of feelings.

I am curious what the main causes of conflict were. From your account, it looks like COVID precautions were the main reason and this is also mentioned in the OP and in other comments.

Negotiations about COVID precautions were not a major cause of conflict, but the situation of being in full, absolute, no-interactions-outside-the-house lockdown for many months let conflicts brew, fester, and come to a head (if I may grossly mix metaphors). I'd mostly ascribe it to the kind of close-quarters chafing that leads people to say "don't live with your friends unless you want to hate them", just ramped up a notch.

I lived in a Fraternity for most of my undergraduate schooling. The same problems you had we also had. noise, cleanliness, politics, amount of clothing worn in common areas, taking up space in common areas, showers, money. Except, fraternity level. It seemed every semester there would be at least a few altercations between roommates, it's just natural. 

However we being an 'organization' really helped us function as a group of a bunch different people living in one house under one banner. We specifically had internal structures for dealing with grievances between roommates and keeping the house running smoothly. I understand these are hard to scale to 8 people, but it might be interesting to know regardless.

*We had a standards board run by one person who would receive complaints anonymously or otherwise, who called on preset people, not involved in the grievance to analyise it and come up with the best way the problem could be solved. Roommate mediation, extra chores for aggressor, fined, etc. These were considered to be "just business" punishments, not hard feelings. (although people being people they take it however they will).

*We had house meeting every week, about upcoming events, changes to the house, and changes we would like to see to the rules of the house, everybody without a good excuse had to be there. It kept people up to date about what was going on and established clear do's and dont's. 

*We had an advisor who would also come in and mediate / check that the house was going in a good direction. 

*If a person was really not working out behaviorally their would be an anonymous vote for if that person stays or goes based on the grievances, then the people voting would also give them a set time to move out by also based on the grievances.

Conflict is inevitable with people living together, but having trusted people on top of a set structure really helped mitigate the problems that could have arose

I have never been apart of a 'rationalist' group, nor am I truly sure what a group like that does, but if there is a community of people that live together that think of rationality as a banner rather than a practice, having organizational living rules I think would really help. 

I quite appreciate you writing this esp. given that it will obviously be unpopular with some. My own group house experiences have been broadly positive, but I nevertheless think it's important to see people pointing out things like this instead of just giving the "rose-colored glasses" view.

Sorry to hear you had such bad experiences. Community is often hard. I lived in a community house in my 20s, and it was quite chaotic. We were more hippie co-op than rationalist collective, but we had one particularly dramatic conflict between older, more responsible progressives and the younger, party-oriented anarchists.

I also met my wife at that co-op and we are still happily married. So it wasn't all bad. :)

Creating a culture and formal rules, especially for negotiating differing values and/or personal conflicts can really help. Don't shy away from governance, or even creating an official co-op with a charter and so on.

I think it would be worth defining what you mean with group house given it seems you don't count the four-person apartment as one. 

There are several prominent examples of people who got into a lot of trouble in the Bay community but were members in good standing of non-bay rationalist communities.

I don't know anything about this, but I'll note that 'the Bay community' =/= group houses.

I am extremely confused. You mention that the situation preceded your arrival, however, I recall you arrived while I was living in DT and I can't figure out what you're talking about. I'm not extremely good about reading the room, so this is not surprising by itself, but I would have expected to notice if there were huge regular problem. The worst discussion I recalled was about finding out who was the owner of something in the fridge. As far as I know, we never figured it out and assumed it was left by someone who didn't live it anymore. Kind of gross, but clearly not the level of conflict you are mentioning here.

The only thing I can really think which explain that I didn't notice conflict is that I only stayed a month, so probably didn't have time to build real one nor to be taught big pictures of current problems. However, I must state that I really enjoyed this month, and I would have happily stayed longer if the room was not rented to somebody else.

I probably conflate DT and the Bay Area, after all I discovered both at the same time. I really enjoyed the bay area, and this probably reflected positively to my thoughts about DT.

I'd note that I was already confused before. I've discovered after moving in that DT was not just a shared house but was created with a purpose, and I never really understood why I was offered a room. Just "having someone paying one month of rent instead of leaving a free room" do not seems a good explanation, as there are probably other people that would have been helped far more with a cheap room than myself.