The Financial Aid Dorm: What it's like living with 6 people in our Futurama-themed, "halfway house for twenty-somethings"

September 4 | Guest post by Jackie

IMG_20140819_181804At first glance, my house doesn't look particularly offbeat. There's no collection of comic book memorabilia, no spooky skulls, no wall covered in gears, no rainbow hallway runner or psychedelic nude painting in the living room.

The walls are beige or white and somewhat bare. The carpet upstairs is off-white, and there's a pretty standard dining room table with six matching chairs. Sure, there's a Tardis teapot hanging around, beer brewing supplies, and an entire shelf devoted to board games, but those things seem pretty standard and tame around these parts.

Look a little closer, though, and you'll notice the comical number of computers hiding here and there. Seven or eight bikes in the garage, corralled by a bike rack made of two-by-fours. Five cars that come and go. The duplicate cookbooks and kitchen utensils, the camping equipment lining the walls in the garage.

And, of course, the five bedrooms that are definitely occupied by six adults.

Since I finished grad school, I've been living in a sort of halfway house for twenty-somethings: not a college dorm, but definitely not a single-family situation. There are six of us here (with my boyfriend and me sharing the master bedroom) — three full-time engineers, and three PhD students (engineering and physics). The idea for our house, named the Financial Aid Dorm (see: Futurama, Mars University episode), was born while the boyfriend and I were sharing a tiny bedroom in a crappy apartment with an insanely nosey and controlling landlady, and our grad school friends were still in standard issue on-campus housing. We would all daydream together about what it would be like to live in a communal house all our own, with freedom to do what we wanted and hang out all the time.

It took about six frustrating months to find a place. Long story short, the rental market in Silicon Valley is rough, and five-bedroom houses that are biking distance to Stanford, at a reasonable price, that aren't falling apart, are near public transportation, and with landlords willing to rent to young adults instead of a family with kids, are difficult to come by. But we did it, and after a big meeting where we hashed out who would live in which room and how much each person would pay (there was a whiteboard involved), we were ready.

Each room even got its own Futurama-themed name: the Lovenasium (the room I share with my boyfriend), Panucci's Pizza, Teddy Bear Junction, the Slurm Factory, and the Cave of Hopelessness (that's the small one downstairs).

It's been about two and a half years since we moved in, and it's good, but things haven't always been smooth sailing. We started out with some "spirited debate" about how clean common spaces need to stay, whether shoes should be taken off inside, how soon after cooking people should do their dishes.

Very quickly I learned how different some of our cleaning philosophies are

My boyfriend and I are pretty much agreed with each other, but add four more adults with their own habits and opinions, and I sometimes still get frustrated… Why don't they realize that it's much easier to clean food off things before it dries into a crust overnight? Why can't things just stay in the spot where I put them? Has someone really not noticed that all the sharp things have been going into the same drawer for a couple years now (and who put the pizza cutter in the dishwasher)? Dammit, someone just bought more tupperware again, even though we would have plenty if we just cleared out the rotting leftovers from the fridge.

To prove a point after yet another round of new Tupperware, I cleaned out the old leftovers and recovered SEVENTEEN CONTAINERS!
To prove a point after yet another round of new Tupperware, I cleaned out the old leftovers and recovered SEVENTEEN CONTAINERS!

One time I also thought I had lost a package for a month, because one of my roommates had taken the mail in and absentmindedly put it in a random corner instead of where it usually goes. We're also all very susceptible to distributed responsibility, and make dish sculptures in the drying rack, trash sculptures in the trash can, and get so many Amazon packages that there's never enough room in our recycling bin. And I'm far from blameless — I'm pretty sure I've broken the most glassware, and none of it belonged to me.

I also sometimes just want to be alone

There are days when I feel the almost visceral weight of too many people around. After 15 years of mostly having my own bedroom, including college, it's hard to share with my boyfriend when common space is fair game for five other people at once. There are times when I feel like there's no space in this house I can definitively say is mine.

Thankfully, my boyfriend is an introvert as well, and we're pretty good about telling each other when we'd like to have the room to ourselves for a little while. But if both of us want alone time at once, someone still has to venture out downstairs. I get extra grumpy if I've been kicked out while one of our friends is watching a loud movie, or has other friends of theirs over.

These downsides are part of the package when you've created a family of friends

And after we've all been living together this long, it does feel like we're a family. Our first Christmas here, I went with another roommate and picked out a Christmas tree for my first time ever. We also host a yearly Christmas party, where we serve mulled wine and make cheesy decorations for the tree out of pipe cleaners, popsicle sticks, and clay. In the fall we go apple picking together, followed by lots of apple pie and apple crisp. We take turns surprising each other with cake on our birthdays. And in the spring, when Game of Thrones is on, a big crowd piles onto the couch every Sunday to watch people be naked and murder each other.

Five fucking things of mayo is what happens when you have this many roommates.
Five fucking things of mayo is what happens when you have this many roommates.

Then there are the everyday things

I'm pretty lazy about making plans in the evenings and on weekends, but usually at least a few friends are around and I can get some socializing without leaving the house (or having to bike back home late at night, like my boyfriend and I used to do). As I mentioned before, we all brew beer, and always have a keg of something on tap. My roommates are obsessed with board games and cards, and most nights there's a game (while I take the chance to recharge in my room). We always have enough people (and invite even more) to go out for dim sum. I can bake whatever I want and know I won't have to eat it all myself. A lot of times someone has made too much curry and I get invited to help eat it (not to mention how much cheaper it is to buy all our staples at Costco). And recently I was home sick from work with a migraine, and one roommate came back with ice cream for me.

As I write this, it's Friday night and three of my five roommates, including my boyfriend, have left to hike the John Muir Trail for three weeks. A fourth is working furiously on his PhD thesis to get some simulations up and running and join them when he can. The fifth is probably working late or out with other friends. I myself have a week before I leave for my own vacation, and am looking forward to getting some time and space to myself for reading, sleeping in, and catching up on errands. But right now, I've got to say, the house is feeling awfully empty.

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  1. Aw, this is lovely. An intentional choice of who you live with that comes with pros and cons.

    9 agree
  2. Do you guys have a chore chart or something like that or is it an ongoing issue to figure out who is going to do what when?

    How often do you all do a big at home dinner together?

    • Not, OP, but having lived communally for many years, I can answer. My roomies and I (total varied from 4 to 7) used a chore wheel that rotated weekly since none of us liked any one chore more than others. This meant no one person got continuously stuck with one crappy chore (for me: bathrooms), and the weekly rotation event was a weekly reminder to do chores. Win-win. We attempted to be responsible for putting our own dishes in the dishwasher and generally straightening up after ourselves, to varying levels of success.

      As for family dinner, there were a couple of us that loved to cook, so we, schedules permitting, took over Sunday dinners. We didn't have an official "each person cooks dinner for everyone at least once per week" policy but the non-Sunday dinner cookers generally tried to over-cook during the week to make up for it. Or they bought us pizza, which was great too.

      5 agree
    • No chore chart. I think it's the kind of thing that has to be implemented right away on moving in, but even then it probably wouldn't have flown because of the way our mess tolerances have lined up. I like to do a little cleaning at a time, while a couple others will wait until people are coming over or something and then CLEAN ALL THE THINGS. In a perfect world we'd all clean our own messes, but even I get kind of lax sometimes, and we've all learned to accept that things aren't always how we want them.

      Group dinners vary a lot, but it seems to work out to one a week on average. It's also understood that you help clean if you didn't cook.

  3. My SO and I are getting married in a month (eep!) and we just moved from a 4 person apt to a 3 person apt…me, him, and our friend (and my bff, his girlfriend, when she starts studying for boards :). I really love living communally. I kind of hope that we can end up in a situation in the future where we're sharing a triple decker with friends and their kids. I love the sense of community and shared space and experience. I'm and introvert, too, and I like bringing the excitement to me instead of having to wander looking for it. Anyway, props to you! Hooray for twentysomething communal living!

    3 agree
    • I'm getting married soon too and my fiance and I are going to (still) be living communally. I've gotten a lot of those "Aren't you going to get your own place when you get married? Don't you two want your own space?" And my response is always why would we change once we are married? We decided to live communally because we dearly love our friends and we love the idea that we are building a community and a support system. I would love to continue this through even when we decide to have children- even though some of my roomies would definitely not want to be around kids.

  4. The best thing about the MAYO is that is all EXACTLY THE SAME MAYO! HAHAHAHAHA

    19 agree
  5. What place do you go apple picking? I've been looking for a good orchard near Silicon Valley now that I can't get to my favorite apple farmer (Joe at Hillview Farms) at the markets due to work conflicts.

    And I feel ya on the rental pricing here, you're lucky if you can find something under 2K for a 1 bedroom with less than an hour of commute time that's not in the top 100 most dangerous places in the US to live (EPA or Oakland). Oakland amuses me by being in the top 10 of the most dangerous places to live AND most expensive places to live.

    Congrats to you on making it work!

    1 agrees
    • Oh man, for apple picking we have to go all the way to Santa Cruz, some place in Watsonville. I gotta say, though, I grew up in the northeast and while it scratches the itch slightly, it's not the same at all. Super mild winters make up for it though.

      And yes, fuck Silicon Valley housing prices. I was curious about these new apartments they built in my town by the train station, so I looked it up and they *start at* $3k per month for a tiny single bedroom studio. And this is south bay, an hour from SF!

      We also looked at a couple houses in EPA during our hunt, and they were pretty strange. The first had all these oddly shaped rooms with built-in drawers lining all the walls, and was surrounded by extremely pot-holed streets and no grocery stores. I vetoed it as the one person without a car. The other one I didn't see in person, but my friends bumped into the current tenant while touring it and he seemed like a nice guy, but he had no idea the landlady was showing the apartment (illegal without his permission in CA) and was actually in the midst of suing her for some entirely different violation of renter laws.

      • Watsonville seems to be really good apple growing climate. I'll try to make it to an orchard there soon, apple season is coming early this year due to the drought.

        EPA was screwed over in so many ways for a long time. Things are gentrifying, for better or worse, and prices are soaring to match. Apparently they didn't have a supermarket type grocery store in the city limits for 23 years until Mi Pueblo moved in in 2009…so yeah, things will be a bit different there than the rest of the bay.

    • I second that Watsonville or Santa Cruz would be probably the best bet. There's a nice place for berry picking in Portola Valley and I totally can't remember the name of the farm, but it's off 280 and Alpine. Lots of good berry picking in Santa Cruz as well 🙂 Apples I'm not as familiar with. Come over to my parents house, they have a very productive apple tree this time of year… haha

      We are DYING to move out of Silicon Valley so we can afford a real house (currently living in the bad part of town and our shitty tiny condo with a nazi HOA is worth half a million dollars on Zillow right now) but Husband works for Apple so we can't go too far. Blehh.

  6. This is awesome. But y'all really need to consider communal mayonnaise 😛

    4 agree
    • DUDE. OMG. I don't even like mayo, but it's definitely a communal food. I think 2 or 3 of those were from moving in (when 6 people combine their food, there are lots of repeats) and the rest were because the existing ones got buried or someone assumed we didn't have any while at the store and got more…On the other hand, we are constantly running out of mustard. Like, all the time, wth.

      2 agree
      • Might I suggest keeping a list (with accompanying writing utensil) on the fridge for communal food? Then if an existing jar is emptied, the person who emptied the jar could write it on the list and you could potentially avoid multiple jars of mayo and no jars of mustard (in a perfect world, anyway).

        1 agrees
        • Oh yeah, totally! We do that already. But we still end up with dupes if something gets hidden or put in an unusual spot, then someone else can't find it and writes it on the list.

          We also have two people who shop at Costco for the house, and one time they both came back with the same stuff because they decided to go on the same day without telling the other. Hehe.

          2 agree
  7. Forgot to mention, but we keep track of all our shared expenses using a group on Splitwise (on mobile, otherwise I'd link it too). All communal food and energy/internet bills go on there, and you can set up recurring payments with reminders like we do for rent. When rent is due it tells us how much to pay each other, so we settle up once a month. Way easier than spreadsheets or a whiteboard.

    4 agree
  8. Love this! I indie published a novella called "Lawrence and the Machine" about a house of roommates like this one, though a bit darker… it's on Amazon if you'd like to dive into the dark side of dorm living!

    1 agrees
  9. I love reading about intentional living communities of all kinds. Thanks for sharing your story!

    3 agree
  10. "Five fucking things of mayo is what happens when you have this many roommates."
    Yeah but only one of those is the right mayo. Jesus you might as well have fucking Miracle Whip in the line up.
    I say death to the Mayo Pretenders! Keep your own.

  11. "with landlords willing to rent to young adults instead of a family"
    Ahahaha! I remember this!
    Davis had actual ordinances against "5 or more adults who weren't related to each other" living in the same abode.
    For all the good that did them.

    • I didn't get it at all! My sister and I did way more damage to our living spaces as small children than as mid-20s-aged adults. Kegs of homebrew notwithstanding, my household is well past the blackout-drunk, lampshade-swinging, noise-complaints parties phase. Not that we were ever really in it anyway, since we're all nerds here…

      1 agrees
  12. BAHAHAHA – oh, multiple condiments, overflowing recycling and the "mysteriously disappearing" Tupperware. Sounds like my living situation while I was at circus school for this past year. Not one, but two different houses – first one I had five roommates with me and in the second house, three other roommates. Even when things were rough (as they inevitably can be with that many people living together and working together in the same school program), it was a great experience and I wouldn't change it for the world. Plus, I have great memories of non-circus activities, like hot sauce eating contest (we had 4 or 5 bottles of hot sauce…seriously, who the f*k needs that much hot sauce), MST3K nights, Battlestar Galactica marathons, late night conversations and impromptu dance parties.

    1 agrees
    • Side note: We totally need that much hot sauce in our house. And there's only 2 of us.

  13. Although it wasn't intentional, this sounds a lot like living at my mom's. Instead of Mayo it was peanut butter.

  14. This is almost EXACTLY my living situation. Minus the graduate students. I live with my Mom, my fiance, three other roommates (a total of 6). Two of them are moving out soon so it will only be 4 of us. But then another one of my friends is moving in, thus bringing up the total to 5. I have a big house. My fiance and I are kind of the "house parents", letting everyone know the ground rules and we help delegate the chores. Luckily, we have two fridges so we are able to separate the fridge space by 3 people per fridge. We have a very strict don't-eat-my-food-unless-you-ask-then-replace rule. Other than that we are all pretty lax about the house. This article sums up the whole, I need alone time issue. It can be hard when one of the roommates invites their girlfriend/boyfriend over and then you feel obligated to hangout or be dressed in something other than yoga pants and a stained tee shirt. BUT it all pays off when with the CRAZY good savings you get from all renting a house together. I cant say how true this article is enough.

    2 agree
  15. My brother and his roomates called their old place Robot House because of Futurama! They're in a different house now so they've given it a different name, but the situation is still pretty similar to yours. I love the atmosphere of their place although it does tend to stay on the cluttered side.

  16. HA, when I was first reading this I was thinking "Most twenty-something people I know here in Santa Cruz live in exact same setup…" Then it turns out you live in Silicon Valley!
    Even though I miss the dorm-like social aspect of having lots of friends around, when I visit these houses I get very stressed! Lots of clutter and mess, people (strangers!) coming and going at all times, little privacy….I'm spoiled now with the privacy that my fiance and I have with our apartment (although rent is AWFUL). Maybe my ideal setup is more like a sitcom, where everyone has their own apartment/house next door and they just visit each other all the time 😛

    • Um, the sitcom setup sounds totally perfect. What I would love is a private bedroom, bathroom, office/guest room, and kitchen to share with my boyfriend, and then a common living room/social space where everyone can go when they want to socialize and throw parties. But yeah, rent is a big dream-killer. Blarg.

      1 agrees

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