Case study: The story of RGB

A 9 bedroom coliving space in San Francisco

This is part of an ongoing series of deep dives on coliving spaces. To see others, visit the Supernuclear directory.

Founded: 2015
Location: Hayes Valley, San Francisco
Rented or bought: Rented with two residents on lease
Physical space: 9br, 4ba 3100sqft Victorian mansion with 3 living rooms and a large kitchen.
Governance: Do-ocracy with consensus required on a few key items (e.g. new members, changes in dues).
Website: RGB-house.com

^The RGB “Green Room” circa 2018

Origins

RGB came to be in late 2015. Kristen and I started dating, things got serious, and friends started asking “are you going to move in together?”

In my mind, there was only one option: We have to get a 1br apartment together, right? That’s what couples do at this stage.

Kristen had other ideas.

Kristen is a behavioral scientist, and that means our life choices are based on what’s backed by research, not what other people do.

And the research is clear: Nothing is better for your happiness than strong social connection and nothing is worse than long commute. Ergo, we were going to live with a bunch of people in the middle of San Francisco.

This idea didn’t come out of nowhere. Coliving was in the air in our neighborhood in San Francisco. The Haight St Commons — later formed — now has 15 coliving communities within walking distance. The neighborhood was dotted by gold rush era Victorian Mansions — many of which have been subdivided into small apartment units but some retained their original, grand splendor. We were particularly inspired by The Embassy — a stunning coliving space a few blocks away.

The search

Kristen and I started hosting a dinner series for people interested in forming a coliving community. It started with friends and then expanded outward to people we didn’t know. We met roughly once a week for a couple months. Some people dropped, some remained, and a subset of the attendees went searching for a mansion to fit at least 10 people. The listings on Zillow and Craigslist were frustratingly unlivable, so we needed to get a bit more creative.

We found a family living in Hayes Valley who had previously been renting their mansion room-by-room short-term. We had a proposition: What if we rented the whole thing from you?

Luckily the couple was supportive of the idea. They had wanted to live communally themselves when they were younger and were eager to support our mission. They told us the space had a long history of cooperative living: It was a hippy commune in the 60s and a brothel back in the gold rush era.

After a number of meetings to build the relationship, we were able to agree on a lease. We negotiated a couple key terms: 1) Building an extra bathroom (by dividing an existing large bathroom in two) so that there wouldn’t be a line for a shower ever 2) Making sure we could swap people in and out of the rooms at will. Kristen and I became master tenants and would shoulder the responsibility of the lease.

10 people moved in. Roughly half of them were our longtime friends and the other half were people who we recently met who were attracted by the idea of creating a coliving community.

Move-in

No one at RGB had even done coliving before. We were all community newbs. So we were writing the script as we went.

Early lessons learned (first few months):

  1. Many people = much stuff: When 11 people move in together, they bring 11 people’s worth of stuff (including about 8 irons). We spent 2 years getting rid of things before the space felt clean and comfortable. Be very intentional about what people can bring into the communal space.

^ Whose iron will win IRON SURVIVOR and become the one communal iron?

2. Don’t underestimate setup costs: There is more stuff to buy than you think — furniture, kitchenware, etc. You need a mechanism for spreading the cost of this upfront outfitting amongst initial and future residents. We came up with a system where one person loaned the money and got paid back over 2 years via house dues.

3. Rules and norms take time: We thought we were going to figure out all of our rules and norms upfront in a single long weekend. Rules and norms take time to absorb. They need to be introduced slowly over time to really take hold. It took years for this to happen.

4. Communication platforms matter: Get everyone on the same communication platform. It doesn’t matter as much which one (we used Slack). We didn’t realize how important good asynchronous communication is for busy communities to run effectively. We are rarely all around at the same time to meet in person. Most discussion happens digitally.

5. Cultural artifacts: We took lots of pics/vids from the early days, but regret not taking more.

6. Quiet time not so hard to find: We had a fear that it would be hard to get alone time and that people would try to talk to you when you wanted quiet time. We even fashioned “leave me alone” vests that people could wear. This fear turned out to be unfounded. People can read your body language. No vests needed.

Year 1: Forming and Norming

The group wanted to create a culture that was high-trust and based on norms of good behavior rather than a long list of rules. The goal was to spend as close to zero time as possible arguing small details about how the community runs. To us, 2-hour house meetings building group consensus sounded like an utter nightmare. That scarce group time could be better used enjoying each other’s company.

So do-ocracy was the obvious choice for a decision-making philosophy of the house. Want to do something? We trust you. Just do it (as long as it’s reversible). No need to discuss it (unless you want input).

What we found with do-ocracy is that a lot more stuff happened. Take away the barriers to doing, and people do more. And most of the stuff is good. It turns out people don’t go out of their way to do shitty things to their friends. Yes some bad ideas happened, many mine, but the good ones overwhelmed the bad.

^Palette benches: A bad do-ocratic idea (quickly reversed)

It was a culture of “yes.” Yes to guests (we’ve probably hosted 100+). Yes to events (we had a multiple per week). Yes to interior redesigns (they happened once every ~6 months).

And we placed a lot of focus on setting strong norms for contribution.

The “BilboBraggins” Slack channel (an idea borrowed from The Embassy) became a cultural touchstone.

^Do something good? Tell everyone about it on #Bilbo_Braggins

Instead of silent heroism, we encouraged people to brag loudly about their contributions to making life better in the community, no matter how small. Public norms of people contributing lead to …. not surprisingly … more people contributing: “Look at all this work people are doing for me I might do some myself.”

BilboBraggins modeled good group behavior and highlighted invisible work. It showed the members how often people clean, how often they cook, how often they do the little things that keep the place functioning. Humans are good at imitation. Bragging begets doing.

Gratitude pairs well with contribution. A gratitude practice, both in house meetings and in its own #gratitude Slack channel, reinforced the appreciation for people’s do-ocratic contributions. (More on this here).

We didn’t need a chore wheel. The trash was taken out without having to assign anyone. When the kitchen was left a bit messy, someone would just clean it. For things that no one wanted to do (like cleaning the bathroom), we hired a weekly cleaning service. It was an affordable luxury split 11 ways.

Doing, bragging, thanking is the cycle that made the gears start to turn at RGB.

Year 2–4: Cultural Evolution

Culture evolves.

Circa 2016, the culture was underpinned by the idea of “Mutually Assured Non-Complacency” or “MANC.” We wanted to help the members of RGB achieve their personal goals. People set public goals for themselves in Quarterly MANC sessions and other members of the community helped them achieve the goals.

Circa 2017, the “Tribe” — the wider non-resident community around RGB — began to form. Tribe Dinner, held on alternating Mondays, became a neighborhood institution. Every other Monday. A resident and a non-resident would team up to host. A game of one-upmanship began with people trying to make this dinner better than the last. Since you only hosted once every ~6 months, you were able to go all out.

^An early Tribe Dinner: Simple, classy

^A later Tribe Dinner: Extravagant, smashy.

But if you asked anyone circa 2018 what RGB was about, they’d probably have told you “pranks” and “play.” Some serious mischief makers arrived on the scene around this time.

^Nancy O’Flannigan, the Three-Headed Goddess of Shenanigan

The main “artistic output” in this era was shenanigans and pranks. One prank was even covered in Mashable and Buzzfeed.

Kidnappings became a regular occurrence. Blind dates setup by the community were truly blind, with both parties blindfolded and setup on a mission. Kidnapping even played a role in a marriage proposal.

The name itself became its own meta-prank. We created a series of postcards to answer the age-old question of “what does RGB stand for?”

^My favorite answer: Ruth Gator Binsberg. Real answer: Red Green Blue.

The 2020 version of RGB is yet again evolving. Kristen and I moved out to start Radish in early 2019. By late 2019, all of the original community founders had moved out and a new generation are defining a new era. Some of the practices continue, others will evolve or be replaced by something better. It’s the circle of communal life.

The inner workings

Note: Inner workings circa 2018 as recalled by the author.

Food: Everyone buys into the shared food program. One person orders, but everyone can add items to the order. “Abundance mentality” means everyone gets what they ask for. Shared food goes into the “abundance fridge.” Private food you buy for yourself goes into the “scarcity fridge” with a label. Most food is shared.

Guests: There’s a dedicated guest room. You book it on a shared Google Calendar. Guests can leave a donation if they want, but are not charged. Pink sheets are “guest sheets.”

House meetings: There is a bi-weekly house meeting. Rotating host who decides the agenda. House meetings can be about logistics or just bonding … up to the host.

Recruiting: Many rooms are filled by people already in the wider community (The RGB Tribe). For others, we host open houses and then meet afterward to discuss who might be the best fit. They are invited over for a sleepover to see if the feel is right on both sides.

Finances

Financial principles:

  1. 100% transparency: Every dime collected and spent is tracked and made available to all residents. The “Master of Coin” tracks everything in QuickBooks and sends out a report each month.

  2. No one profits: Any excess funds are pumped back into the house or distributed out to residents.

  3. Cost predictability and single transaction per month: Everyone pays fixed dues into the house pool every month ($255 per month), which covers all shared expenses. Monthly expenses vary but average out over time. If the Master of Coin thinks we are consistently underfunded, they will ask to raise dues.

  4. Voluntary progressivism — The “AwesomeFund”: Some people have more financial resources than others. We give people the option of contributing additional money to fund extraordinary projects outside of the scope of normal house operations. This fund is called the AwesomeFund. Uses have included subsidizing rent for artists-in-residence.

  5. Rainy Day prep: Running a community is risky and liabilities abound. Before anything bad happens, we collect a Rainy Day fund from residents so we have funds already on hand when the unexpected happens. This can also pay for eventual move-out expenses so you don’t need to track down people years later.

Mechanics:

  • How rent gets paid: Individual residents pay their individual room rents into a shared bank account. The landlord is sent a single bulk payment from the account each month. We use Cozy for this.

  • How communal expenses work: The community pays $255 per month into a communal shared PayPal account which covers food, utilities, a weekly maid and events. The PayPal is attached to a bank account with an RGB debit card.

  • How vacancies are handled: The cost of any rent shortfalls in a given month are split between the current residents.

Decision-making

Almost all decisions are do-ocratic — made my individuals without formal process.

A handful of critical decisions require consensus. A small set of emergency decisions are made by the two leaseholders (and have never been used).

Day-to-day decisions: 90%+ of decisions are made do-ocratically with no voting or discussion. The doers can choose to consult with the house if they want guidance, but not required.

New community members: Consensus — 100% of people give an affirmative Yes. We look for a majority of people to be “Hell Yes” or majorly excited.

Changes in dues: Consensus.

Special powers of the two master leaseholders:

The leaseholders at RGB take on extra liability without any compensation. To protect their risk, they are allotted some special powers. These are “break glass in case of emergency” powers and have never actually been used.

  1. Asking individuals to leave the community

  2. Disbanding the community if it gets mean or boring

  3. Overruling recruiting decisions when it may lead to excessive vacancy: All housemates bear the cost of the first vacant room as a group. Master tenants eat the cost on the second and beyond.


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