Case Study: Whale House (Hawaii)
This case study was contributed by Supernuclear reader Corey Breier. Check out his newsletter here. The section on the “Anchor/Tenant” paradox particularly resonated.
Founded: October 2020 by Corey Breier and Simona Asinovski, on a six month lease
Location: Kaanapali, Maui, Hawaii
Rented or bought: Rented off Craigslist with everyone on lease
Physical space: 6br, 4ba 4800 sq ft vacation home 15 minute walk from the beach
Governance: Do-ocracy with consensus required on a few key items (e.g. guests, events, use of commons)
The idea for Whale House started in the depths of pandemic 2020, while we sheltered in place in urban cities and wondered “why not relocate somewhere in nature?”. One of us suggested Maui, drawn to its image as ‘Mama Maui the Heart Healing Island’, which, whether or not you believe in the ‘islands as chakras’ philosophy, becomes a self fulfilling prophecy as those attracted to such a brand find their way there. :)
Simona and Corey researched on Craigslist and found some incredible properties for rent at cheaper than usual prices, given that Hawaii at that time was under a mandatory two week quarantine for all new arrivals. This did not dissuade us in the least, as we reasoned we’d be among friends in a beautiful home with a pool. We settled on a vacant vacation rental property in Kaanapali, on the West Shore of Maui, that was renting for the same price per month that it normally charged per week outside of pandemic times(!)
Simona and Corey posted on Facebook with pictures of the house and the plan for a six month lease, to avid interest from equally pandemic weary friends. We created a spreadsheet (above) with basic contact information and questions around budgets, availability, and commitment levels to start. Then we conducted light application interviews to reconnect with friends we hadn’t seen in a while to assess COVID preferences and other factors, and fast-tracked the friends we were excited to live with.
Once we had a final list of 7 people for 6 rooms (with one couple), and a subletter plan for the folks who couldn’t stay all 6 months, we conducted a group FaceTime tour of the home, collected the down payment split equally, and had everyone sign the lease for an October 1st start date. (We had everyone on the lease purely following landlord preference, thought looking back this was a good move as it put everyone on the same level of commitment and buy-in.) Things were getting exciting!
I’ll never forget the ecstatic feeling of moving into that house for the first time. Meeting friends old and new at the airport, flying in together on an empty plane, realizing the house was even better than the pictures, and quarantining for two weeks in paradise with a house full of friends. We ordered bulk DoorDash together, played board games, swam in the pool, and generally got to know each other, as only the two founding members already knew most housemates, and the rest were strangers to each other who trusted our choices.
It felt like the ultimate pandemic hack. Nothing was happening on the mainland, and here we were in a beautiful warm place where socializing could happen more safely outdoors, the time difference merely meant early wakeup and work end time, and we had the beaches practically to ourselves, as the island was free of tourists.
We were lucky to have our house fit together as well as it did based off our initial choices simply choosing cool people we wanted to live with. I daresay a lot of that shared vision and lifestyle came from the fact that all of us had uprooted our lives during COVID to come to Hawaii and therefore shared a stage of life with similar desires.
There was a certain energy to the time-limited duration of the lease as well - everyone is incentivized to make the most of every moment, and even if things fail, the downside is time bound. I wonder if one could create so-called contract housing ‘marriages’ along similar lines, that expire if people don’t renew them, and allowed folks to start anew - but alas, leases is not so simple.
Once the quarantine ended, however, reality quickly set in and we learned firsthand that coworking and coliving in paradise came with its own challenges.
Perhaps our biggest challenge was the architecture of the house itself - as a vacation home, the house only had walls for bedrooms and bathrooms as the kitchen, living room, and dining room were all connected in one vast space. That’s great for maximizing sunset views and weekender family vacations, but not so great when you have 7 adults trying to work and take calls every day without getting in each other's way. Tensions arose around call spaces, air conditioning unit noise and temperatures, and allocation of the common areas.
The next challenge was carsharing. We naively thought that we could all share one car just like we shared the home, but that meant you had to do everything all together, or you were stuck at home. As time went by and the social circles of the house diverged, we quickly realized that was untenable, even though we had already gone in on a minivan together, and those who could afford it rented their own cars to move about freely. Sharing cars is not like sharing a home - in Supernuclear terms, cars are ‘rivalrous’ because one person’s usage prevents anothers, while houses are not - multiple people can be in the kitchen together.
The biggest challenge came a month or two into the lease, when the landlord triggered a two way break clause in the lease we hadn’t worried about, stating either party could give 30 days notice and exit the contract. Suddenly the catch with the steep vacation discount made itself clear - obviously, the landlord was using us to cover quarantine losses and wanted to break it as soon as vacation rentals restarted.
This triggered a terse round of negotiations with the landlord and among the house, which luckily ended in a workable arrangement for all. We would pay higher rent to cover some of the difference, depart the home during the Christmas vacation week when they had a booking, and switched some housemates with another house of mainlander friends that started up around the same time nearby. They got more peace and quiet (and more walls!) and we got new housemates who didn’t mind the chaotic nature of our home.
Once we had our ‘final lineup’ and a confirmed six month lease, things calmed down slightly. We would go surfing together, follow workout videos on the lawn, do acroyoga, and a few house dinners. We had a rotating chores list, a house slack for communications, and separate groceries for less coordination costs, as aligning the bulk DoorDash order preferences was hard enough. In my next home, I think I’d rethink the separate groceries decision, as sharing groceries cuts down costs but more importantly, it makes everything more communal and collaborative, which bodes well when you share a home.
The decision structure of the home was a light doocracy, with group consensus required for things like guests and event hosting. If you aren't familiar with the term doocracy, it basically means that every member of the house is empowered to make decisions without needing the full house to weigh in. Best practices include saying what you plan to do first so folks can weigh in, and only do things that are reversible. (For more on group decision making, see Phil's post here.)
We also had weekly house meetings at first to cover guest policy, commons disagreements, and make trip plans, but it turned out biweekly meetings worked just as fine. It seemed people were waiting to bring up issues at the meeting, and with no meeting, they just brought them up directly with relevant housemates, which saves everyone’s time! We’ve heard of houses who’ve removed house meetings entirely using Slack emoji voting, which seems ripe for missing the nuances of live conversation, but worth a try.
The Anchor Tenant Paradox
As the founding members, the landlord liaisons, and the only people who knew the majority of the house at the start, we found ourselves in an interesting position that other ‘anchor tenants’ might share. We had been coliving before, but this was the first time we were involved from square one, and let me tell you, it’s a distinct experience!
Some days we felt like the CEOs of a cohousing startup: fielding inbound info requests from third parties, putting out fires with the landlord, and managing logistics with our housemates. It’s nice to have strangers recognize your name with awe when they hear you started the house, but that minuscule egoboost hides many hours of admin work behind it.
I’m not sure how to decentralize that work - landlord comms make sense to centralize in one person to reduce their friction and keep them happy. But pretty much everything other than that could (and should, from our learning) be spread out amongst the community so people ‘dogfood’ their own administration, and feel involved in the outcome. It is not easy to rely on others to complete tasks that materially detract from your quality of life if they are not completed, however (like curbing trash bins).
Being a friend as well as the de facto landlord is difficult too. Nobody wants to make leadership decisions that put a community over an individual. If you’re friends with your landlord, you can get concessions you wouldn’t normally get, which is great for the tenants. But as the landlord, at the extreme that means you might have to evict a friend.
One housemate got so fed up with admin work that they asked us to explicitly ‘be their landlord’ and make decisions without their involvement, so they can just say yes or no. I can understand why - yet the danger of deciding on behalf of others is that you may decide wrong and be held responsible. Plus such a tenant starts to act like one, rather than a co-creator.
Landlords and tenants are transactional relationships - money for housing. But community anchors and housemates should be more relational, trying to co-create something magical together. Co-creating everything is ideal in theory, but in practice it becomes death by committee of every tiny house decision, so there’s some balance to be had in the middle.
The Seeds of an Ecosystem
What’s more, we set an example for our friends, and many of them followed us to Maui. At its peak, there were at least six other group homes composed of mainland transplant friends on the island, and we were all part of one big groupchat where we would post tips and events and communal aid. We kept mostly to our own COVID pod, but also befriended island residents as well.
It was a unique time in our lives, when we all worked remote and had nowhere better to be, and so could say yes when invited to uproot their lives and move thousands of miles away. People would marvel how special that time was, especially fresh arrivals from the quarantined urban mainland, where we could all socialize safely, our social calendars were full, and nobody got COVID, at a time when others were weathering the depths of a winter and a virus.
A Note on Hawaii Transplants
We couldn’t finish this post without mentioning the dynamics of urbanites moving to a rural area during the pandemic. Whether it was Hawaii or Colorado, Maui or Lake Tahoe, tensions erupted all over the nation at this time as other yuppies did what we did. They called us colonizers and gentrifiers, and their critiques were rooted in very real difficulties brought on in first and second orders by the pandemic.
As a case study on coliving, it’s outside this article's scope to respond to those critiques directly. All we will say here is what they say in Hawaiian: “malama ‘aina”. Respect the land, respect the people. That is good advice no matter where you go, no matter how long you stay.
We did our best to practice both ‘aloha’ (good vibes, to oversimplify) and the lesser known ‘kuleana’ (responsibility) by talking with Native Hawaiians, wearing reef safe sunscreen, donating to local nonprofits, and educating ourselves about the 50th state’s sordid history as a sovereign kingdom overthrown and annexed by American businessmen.
You don’t have to move to Hawaii to do the same.
Learnings for others
If you do start a coliving home, whether urban or rural, what can you learn from Whale House? Here’s what we would say:
See how much you can crowdsource and democratize the house tasks away from the anchor tenants or core members, both for their sanity and to facilitate stakeholdership.
Don’t cobuy or share vehicles, unless you truly think you can do every social thing together all the time.
Read your lease carefully, and develop contingency plans ahead of time for potential challenges.
Make it as easy as possible for your landlord to say yes. Send them gifts, send rent on time, make them love you.
Sharing meals at least, and groceries at most, do volumes for house unity. We didn’t do that at Whale House, and my hunch is that was one of the reasons it felt less communal than other homes with shared meals I’ve inhabited since.
Choose your house carefully. Walls are your friend. Quiet private spaces are your friend, for even the most extroverted among us. (We even jerry rigged a cloth cabana on our patio to bootstrap an extra private space towards this end.)
Vet your housemates beforehand for minute preferences like recycling, quiet hours, diet preferences, and the like. Those little friction points add up.
After the Whale House lease ended, many of us stayed on the island longer, and started new homes together. That ecosystem flourished, and the groupchat continued long after we left, as the world opened up again. There are several of that group who still live on the island to this day, although the majority returned to the Bay Area and the mainland.
With this time behind us, it breaks our hearts to think of how many people have transactional housing relationships with landlords who view them solely as rent money, and housemates by necessity, not choice! But we understand why that is - it’s considerable effort to facilitate a community house, and when you don’t own the place, all of that goes up in smoke as soon as the lease ends. Then again, the relationships and memories and community magic such a house creates last forever in the minds of everyone who ever visited, as we know it has for Whale House.
So we’ll finish by thanking everyone who was involved in cocreating Whale House, in all four of its incarnations, including housemates, sublettors, visitors, and friends. And thanking especially those of its first cohort, who believed and took that leap to cosign a lease with us sight unseen.
It was an honor and a privilege to live with you all. <3
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