Case Study: the story of Clarens Commons

A co-owned house in Toronto, CA

This is a reader-submitted case study from Clarens Commons, part of an ongoing series of deep dives on coliving spaces. To see others, visit the Supernuclear directory.

This is the first co-owned community we’ve covered since the Radish and we’re excited to (finally) cover some coliving communities outside the US. This is a long post, but so full of wisdom we think you’ll enjoy every line.

If you want to contribute a case study of your community, please let us know at heyo@gosupernuclear.com.  

Date founded: January 2018 

Location: West End of Downtown Toronto, Canada

Rented or owned: Co-owned by five people. Four are original owners. Currently there are seven housemates.

Amount of space: 7 bedrooms, 2 1/2 bathrooms, a spacious yard (by downtown standards), detached garage, and access to a laneway (which creates potential to build a laneway house in the future).

Governance: Sociocracy inspired consensus decision making. 

Origins

“How do we live well?” is a guiding question for the founders and residents of Clarens Commons. Some of our priorities in founding the Commons were our desire to:

  • Combat increasing levels of loneliness and isolation related to traditional thinking that success equals either living alone or as a couple / nuclear family. 

  • Respond to increasing levels of housing insecurity or instability in Toronto reflected in the high cost of housing and growing number of “renovictions”, where property owners exercise their right to evict tenants to renovate, and then charge new tenants much higher rents. 

  • Create a living situation that was intentional, emphasized community and connection, and cultivated deep relationships in order to make our house a home where we would support each other and our broader community through life’s highs and lows. 

Our founders were all part of several overlapping groups of social circles where conversations about, and experiments with, cohousing and coliving had been happening for several years. This included three of our eventual founders (Mandy, Karim, and Alex) who were already coliving with two other housemates in a rented house known as The Bastille. 

The Bastille provided an example of how living in this way could work: things like the ethic of shared costs, community focused events (live music, storytelling gatherings, games days, etc.), and the practice of consensus decision making. In the summer of 2017 the residents of The Bastille began to feel as though they may not be able to stay in their home for much longer. For some time, their landlord had been floating plans to take over the house for their own use. Facing this uncertainty, and eager to continue the shared living model they had built at The Bastille, the housemates started talking about new options for housing where this would be possible. 

Separately, Valery was renting on her own and had put off buying a place for several years as she was not ready to commit to solo living long-term. Having owned both a house and a condo previously (the former with a partner, the latter on her own), Valery had set a goal of figuring out how to return to living with others. A mutual friend of hers and Karim’s suggested she and Karim explore whether their cohousing goals might align. After a few chats they began to see some overlap, and their trust was solidified when they found themselves able to navigate with ease the high stress experience of Karim crashing Valery’s car while on a group trip. 

Valery and Karim began to look at properties together in September 2017. Several of the community members they hoped to eventually co-buy with were for various reasons not ready to confirm their participation. Reasons ranged from being unsure of the long-term commitment that buying represented to wanting to wait and see if the property selected met their needs. While the goal was to co-buy a multi-unit house with as many people as possible, Valery and Karim embraced the speed and flexibility of house hunting on their own with intentions to invite people to confirm their interest in being founders as high potential properties were found. 

They quickly realized that there were very few multi-unit properties on the market, and that those that did exist had asking prices far above the anticipated financial reach of their community. So, they began to focus more on properties that would accommodate those willing to live in one large fully shared house. Three months into their search, Valery and Karim made their first offer on a property, mostly to get some practice at negotiating. To their shock, the offer was accepted! 

Next began conversations to see who would be interested in buying in and founding the Commons. With only two visits to the house allowed between the offer being accepted and the sale closing in March 2018, this involved asking folks to agree to co-buy a house that they couldn’t actually see before saying “yes” to — a significant leap of faith. 

Mandy and Alex confirmed fairly quickly, and the timing ended up being just right for Yumi who reached out to Karim to talk about her housing needs just as we started recruiting co-founders. Sabrina almost said no; but, then an incident with a cockroach and another one with a washing machine convinced her to give living life with others a chance. 

In mid-January 2018 we kicked-off an eight month stretch of weekly, four-to-six hour meetings to co-design our community. In those early months, a few important areas of alignment within our group included:

  • Belief that the people / social design of the project would be the most important part over the physical space (in fact, the physical design would need to be in service of the social). 

  • Trust (even then) in each other as decision-makers and a 'good enough for now, safe enough to try' attitude. That doesn't mean it wasn't a scary leap with risks; but, in some ways taking that leap reflected and set the stage for growing trust.

  • A shared commitment to maximum silliness as exemplified by our fruit and vegetable inspired project team names of: Dolla’ Dolla Dills (finance), Project ManageMINT (administration), ColesLAW (legal), Guavanance (governance), and Lettuce Reno This House (renovations). 

Through weekly full group meetings and numerous project team meetings, between January and August 2018 we carried out an intense process of project managing a $200K renovation, finalizing our legal agreement and financial model, co-creating a house code, and evolving our priorities, values and ethics as a community. 

We were never on our own as we did this. We had parents and friends give us advice on what to renovate and how. We had the invaluable pro bono legal expertise of a good friend who helped us create a legal and financial model where all six of us could co-own different percentages of the property. We had large groups of friends give up their weekends to help us sand down and paint walls upon stairs upon baseboards in the summer heat while our house had no power. It was a journey made possible through the support of community. 

By the end of the summer of 2018, all six original housemates had moved in. While various home improvement projects, as well as culture co-creating and house managing, took place after our move in, we happily shifted to once-a-month meetings at that point while at the same time kicking off weekly house dinners that continue to this day. 

Inner workings

We make decisions based on consensus, and reach consensus using a number of practices drawn from sociocracy. We are committed to avoiding hierarchies. There is no veto or final decision making power based on ownership or percentage shares.  We meet monthly, have an agenda, and record all of our decisions. We use practices such as rounds where each person gets a chance to share their thoughts with the goal of listening versus responding to what others have said, voting on a scale of one to five to let us know when more discussion is needed, and, if we reach an impasse, have agreed upon practices for managing this. Among the housemates are several long-time and emerging facilitators and we often bring a lot of creativity to how to find a path forward on a given issue. 

Besides the mechanics of the decision-making we invest a lot of time, energy, trust, vulnerability and honesty into how we live together. We each take responsibility for sharing our personal needs, while keeping in mind the needs of the house. We have a shared commitment to “talk about it when it’s a one” to encourage each other to raise issues when they’re small and easier to talk about (a one out of ten, or even one out of one hundred!) versus brushing them off until they become irritants that are much bigger and so harder to talk about. Practices and values like this are included in our house code, which is not a legal document but something we developed collaboratively to guide the culture of our community. 

Our legal agreement protects us in a worst-case scenario, but it’s not really our guide to navigating our shared lives and it’s not the reason this arrangement is working so well. Still, to have that worst-case protection, we worked with several lawyers, including our close friend, in drafting a comprehensive agreement. We chose to focus it on complex “what ifs.” For example, what if someone wants to sell their share of the house, or what if someone misses their portion of the mortgage payment? We discussed these scenarios at length, decided on our preferred solutions, and documented them in the legal agreement.

There are many challenging situations our community has navigated in the last almost four years. The one that gets the most attention, though, is how we navigated two housemates leaving and three new ones joining Clarens Commons in 2020.  

From the start we always understood that while we intended to live together for a long time, life was going to happen. As we were drafting our legal agreement we started a running joke about the eventuality of someone having to leave for “a dream job in Copenhagen, or whatever.” In early spring 2020, Valery and Yumi both “moved to Copenhagen.” For Valery, this meant a move to Ottawa to live with her partner and then 5-year-old stepdaughter after more than a year in a commuter relationship. Yumi moved within the city, also to be with her partner. 

Their departure was earlier than expected. Co-creating a process by which the two of them could leave gracefully and three new housemates could join joyfully tested the limits of our collective. Like so many other challenges, we got through this with an incredible amount of creatively-facilitated dialogue, loads of hard work — including another round of support from our good friend to update our legal agreement — and a tremendous amount of trust that we all had the community’s best interest at heart. 

Valery and Yumi both sold their proportionate shares, with new co-owner Braden and three of the remaining housemates buying varying percentages. The sale price was decided and agreed upon collectively, with everyone sharing relevant facts and perspectives across several rounds of meetings, surveys, and long emails. It was not an easy process. There were tears. However, there was also a lot of laughter and a commitment to doing what was best for each other and the Commons. 

The transition also led to a decision to add renters to the community. Shilbee and AdilI had been seeking the right coliving opportunity for a while and were drawn to the effort and thought that the Clarens Commons founding community had contributed. They felt like it would be a gift to join the community; however, they were not looking to co-buy.  Adding renters into the mix did not alter the commitment to non-hierarchy or consensus decision making, but it did reduce the barrier to entry into the community which everyone supported. 

New housemates Braden, Shilbee and Adil all said “yes” before the pandemic started, but by the time they moved in public health measures were either ramping up or well in place. Coliving during pandemic lockdowns, restricted lifestyles, full-time remote work, and the anxiety of shifting health and safety guidelines certainly added new problems to navigate. The same values that supported the Commons founding also applied here: open communication, default to trust, and a willingness to stay curious and compassionate in the conversation until we find our way to the solutions with which we can all live. It also entailed the willingness to collectively navigate the different needs of the housemates, and at times, to make difficult sacrifices in order to serve the mutual welfare of the house and the community. This has been a challenging and beautiful process. 

Finances

We handle capital and operational costs separately. Those who own contribute to capital costs in alignment with their proportionate ownership share. Our shares range from as low as 2.7% to 42% based on different financial means at the time of purchase. The two major regular capital costs are the mortgage principal and a reserve fund kept in case of major repairs. We trust everyone to deposit what they owe to our shared mortgage bank account each month. This is a great example of the role of trust in our community because while our lender is aware we own different shares, technically each of us is responsible for each payment being made in full. If one person stopped paying for some reason, everyone would be in default unless we made up for that gap.  

We manage operational expenses evenly, with some variation for things like which room each of us currently lives in. Other operational costs include things like household supplies and furnishings, property taxes, and home insurance. When Valery and Yumi moved out, the Commons bought out their depreciated share of purchases above a certain value (things like a projector and screen for watching movies) and then Shilbee, Adil and Braden bought into them. This is so that every resident feels ownership of the house’s tools, appliances and furnishings and can comfortably use them as their own. 

We get group consensus for expenditures that are over $150 a person. This is often through a messaging thread. If discussion is required we wait for a monthly meeting. Karim is a spreadsheet whiz and has created a very easy system for entering and tracking who spends and owes money. Anytime the balance is above ~$300 people e-transfer money to each other to rebalance the accounts. Different people take on paying each of our bills and entering it into the spreadsheet and large bills like property tax are paid and entered into the sheet at the start of the year by those in a position financially to carry larger costs and broken down monthly for others to pay back in smaller increments over the rest of the year. 

Food is a very important part of our house culture, and hosting meals with 20+ guests was not uncommon in pre-pandemic times. In order to reflect our desire to feed those we host as well as ourselves as a collective, all of our food is shared and costs for it are managed like all of our other operational costs. 

Chores

For the most part, rather than a chore rotation, we opt to be ‘masters of our domain.’ We each have set chores that we are consistently in charge of so you get really good at doing them! In assigning these chores, we operate by the philosophy that our numbers let us optimize: you probably don’t have to do a chore you dislike because there will be someone else who’s into it. If there’s anything no one likes to do we find a way to rotate it. This was established when we moved in by listing out all the chores that existed, getting people to volunteer for the ones they wanted to do, and then recalibrating if needed to ensure the split feels fair. Every few months we check in on how people are feeling about their chores and adjust as needed.

We also have monthly home improvement days where we tackle bigger tasks like minor repairs or new builds. Pre-pandemic we often had community members drop in to help with these. Before Valery moved out her stepdaughter came to one of them. She is still talking about how fun it was a year and half later!

Lessons learned

  • Keep it fun: Since few people choose to live with their project teams, we learned quickly how important it was to never stop finding time to have fun together. That’s included house dinners, community movie nights, clothing swaps, a bursting at the seams co-warming party, storytelling events and much more. It’s also included silly initiatives and rituals together, like an annual time capsule, a celebration playlist to blast whenever someone has a big win, cozy movie screenings in our pyjamas and building a scavenger hunt for friends . . . all that fun is integral to the process of building a community with deep relationships where people really care about each others’ well being. It’s also where some of the greatest joys of coliving come from.

  • When “Copenhagen” happens, your relationships and practice at making complicated decisions together are what will save you: legal documents that lay out a process for early exit are important to have for many reasons, including that they ensure you’ve spent some time thinking about a process before you need it. However, when the time for change came we found room for generosity and grace rather than relying solely on our legal agreement and that made for a much better transition. It wasn’t easy. We had to have some hard conversations about significant sums of money in the tense early months of the pandemic. However, the time we dedicated to relationship building, as well as our maturing relationship with sociocratic consensus decision making, made it possible.  

  • The financial barriers to entry need fixing: While we were successful in creating a low-barrier entry to joining the community as either a buyer or renter, we recognize that happened because some of us had access to wealth (and in several cases intergenerational wealth). While what we did was radical by some people’s standards, in other ways it is not radical enough. We are very conscious of the reality that significant community contributions helped to build Clarens Commons. We want to support the efforts of others who want to live like this but don’t have the same resources we did or who, like some of us, want to do so but don’t want to have to buy a property to create housing stability. We were pleased to have one of Toronto’s biggest newspapers write an op ed about what we did that called on mortgage lenders / government policy to support our model. However, getting lenders to put more people with resources on title is far from the only barrier. There are zoning laws that favor single family homes over multi-unit dwellings that contribute to high housing costs and a lack of housing stock suitable for multi-unit coliving or cohousing in the city, and a costly city and provincial land transfer tax that’s paid everytime someone buys into the property among other barriers. When reflecting on the question, “How do we live well?” we’re convinced Clarens Commons is part of the answer. And it’s only part. 

Post Script:

As (possibly?) the first example of six unrelated people buying a house together in Canada we got a lot of media coverage. You can read more about us here and here. This one includes some videos. Here’s a radio interview

Clarens Commons stories are also peppered across episodes of the Life Without Us podcast. Check out Episode 4 featuring Supernuclear author Gillian Morris!


(from Phil and Gillian) Thanks to the humans of Clarens Commons for sharing their story! Special thanks to Valery Navarette, Alex Stokes, and Mandy Sherman who were the principal authors of the above.

If you’ve lived in a community, would you be willing to share a bit about it here? We might follow up with you to produce more posts like this <3

Curious about coliving? Find more case studies, how tos, and reflections at Supernuclear: a guide to coliving. Sign up to be notified as future articles are published here:

And you can find the directory of the articles we’ve written here and those we plan to write here.