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5 ways Americans are making non-traditional homes work

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The New Better Off looks at the changing financial landscape of where we choose to live

The colorful courtyard of a cohousing community
The Temescal Crossing cohousing community in Oakland
John Cary

In her new book, The New Better Off: Reinventing the American Dream, Courtney Martin presents a frankly depressing statistic: Two-thirds of Americans today don’t believe they’ll be better off than their parents.

A large part of that sentiment has to do with our homes. Millennials are living much differently from Gen Xers—choosing “urban burbs” over cities, moving back in with parents, unable to afford buying houses—while more and more boomers are struggling to find affordable ways to age in place. The way cities address the current housing crisis will dramatically shape the definition of “better off” for generations to come.

The front cover of the book The New Better Off

Martin herself lives in a place that might present a solution to many of these issues: a cohousing community in Oakland. The structure varies from community to community but the idea is the same: Families have private rooms oriented around a centralized kitchen and other common spaces.

In this op-ed about cohousing, she talks about the many benefits of such a community—sharing tools, food costs, and even child care responsibilities. But the movement hasn’t caught on the way tiny houses and micro apartments have—yet.

Does the “new” American dream mean giving up on home ownership? Can we really be “better off” if we move in with our parents or a handful of strangers?

“The American dream is evolving to be about building communities of mutual interdependence—not to mention joy—and finding work that is meaningful and flexible,” Martin says. “I'm in favor of keeping the language and keeping the very American habit of ambitiously setting our sites on the good life.”

Martin reveals five insights she discovered while researching her book about how our homes are changing—including smart solutions she saw for making our living situations even better.

Moving in with our parents is good for us.

“I loved learning that two-thirds of those living in multigenerational households actually said their relationships have improved since they moved in together. The mainstream media narrative about ‘boomerang kids’ puts this in such a negative light, but it turns out that generationally segregating ourselves is not the healthiest, happiest thing.”

Cohousing could fix the housing market.

“In theory, cohousing solves so many problems facing both stressed out, working families and aging boomers who don't want to be institutionalized in nursing homes like their own parents were. In practice, there are still a lot of legal and financial barriers to building these communities which we need to collectively work on, starting with public funding.”

A shared meal at Martin’s cohousing community
John Cary

More local investment can keep neighborhoods affordable.

“The way I tried to address gentrification in the book was by looking at the ways in which people are returning to the local in a variety of ways, including investing. Right now, Americans have nearly $30 trillion in investment, but only a fraction of one percent of that is invested locally because of all kinds of outdated laws. Some very smart people are looking at how to reform those laws, and shift people's mentalities, so that new residents could invest in the neighborhood businesses in fundamental ways, not just their own private homes.”

The new better off doesn't necessarily mean renting for life.

“If you crave the security of home ownership and have steady work, you should be able to get a fair mortgage, but if you don't want the responsibility that comes with home ownership, you're not a loser just because you don't have a deed. Expanding affordable housing options and cracking down on predatory banks should help increase the chance that more people can live the way they want to live without going into dangerous debt.”

The way we buy homes is changing.

“People like Janelle Orsi [known as the “Sharing Lawyer”] are working on new models of home ownership altogether where, for example, someone agrees to be a steward of the neighborhood's affordability when they buy, meaning they never sell over a certain cap. It's all pretty experimental, but it gives me hope that there are creative ways ethical people are trying to challenge these complex problems.”

Watch: A tiny home in the mountains