Is This New Housing Trend Bad For 20-Somethings?

Photographed by William Mebane.
This is not what I expected for $1,600.

I’m standing in the middle of my new bedroom, which is a small white box measuring about seven by 12 feet with a double bed, Ikea side table, small dresser, light bulb hanging from the ceiling, and a metal air-duct pipe ominously poking out from the ceiling over my bed, looking ready to pour its contents onto my face while I sleep. A scratchy towel is folded and placed at the end of the bed.

I’m still standing there holding my wheely suitcase, when a guy scooches around me to put the final touch on the scene: a piece of notebook paper, tented, with “Welcome, Alden!” scribbled on it in marker. He places this on the towel and says, “Sorry, we usually do that before you arrive!”

I’m at Pure House, a so-called millennial commune in the Brooklyn neighborhood of Williamsburg. It’s one of several millennial communes currently operating or under construction in New York City. One commune in the Financial District, The Loft, seems to revolve around drinking and other bro-tastic activities. Pure House sounds a bit more like me. It offers the opposite: fresh juice, discounts on activities like yoga at its event space in Williamsburg, plus spontaneous dinners and brunches in a positive community of like-minded, creative people.

A great perk of Pure House is that it doesn’t require a credit check or any of the other onerous paperwork and financial requirements you typically need for an NYC apartment. It’s also month-to-month. To qualify, you just need to prove you’ll fit in. The application asks you to share your story, your passions, and how you would be an essential member of the community.

When we told the founder Ryan Fix (email signature: “Goosebumps never lie! Live Pure, Love Fully, Create Dreams!”) that we wanted to find out why people live in Pure House, he enthusiastically agreed to host me in an empty room and invite me to the two house events scheduled that weekend: a life-coaching session, and a storytelling salon hosted by something called Collective Sex that would touch upon polyamory, Tinder, and “clitoral confessions.”

This last event made me sit up. I haven’t said this before on the internet, but I’m in an open relationship. I have been for two years. I’ve gone to Burning Man twice. I’m a proponent of legalizing certain drugs. In short, I consider myself an open-minded person who gets excited for new experiences. So, surely I would love this place.
Photographed by William Mebane.
On Wednesday I pack a bag and walk from my apartment on the south side of Williamsburg to Pure House, which is housed in a red-brick, monolithic building in the middle of a sea of luxury condos on Kent Avenue. I can’t find an entrance, until Ryan directs me by phone to walk around to the back-alley entrance and up the stairs to the third floor.

“You already know one of your roommates!” Ryan says when I walk through the door, and Zach Troyetsky pops out of his room and gives me a hug. Turns out I’ve met him before at electronic music parties around New York. He’s 24 years old, with floppy, curly hair and a Brooklyn accent. He owns a juice company and has an arrangement with Ryan to provide juice to all the Pure House apartments.

Most of the Pure House apartments, including the one I’m staying in, are interspersed with artists’ lofts in this un-renovated former doll factory, with three more apartments in a row house a few blocks away. The vast floors of the factory, which is zoned for manufacturing but is in the process of being converted under the Loft Law, have been subdivided into large boxes to create rental apartments. Each of the commune’s apartments has been further carved up into four to five bedrooms centered around open-format living spaces. There are 27 rooms in all.

The rent runs from $1,350 to $1,950 a month. That’s affordable compared to everything else in this trendy neighborhood, where a typical rental can be more than $3,000 per room, according to Trulia. At Pure House, as Ryan likes to point out, the rent includes biweekly cleaning, fresh juice, utilities, basic household supplies, and what he calls the “soft value of the community.” (He used to offer a $4,000 package, which included life-coaching by him, massage, and fresh produce, but no one took him up on it.)

Having heard about that $4,000 package, I am surprised by the quality of the apartment. All the construction has been done with plywood and two-by-fours painted white — there is no insulation or drywall. There are only two small windows in the living area, so the bedrooms, kitchen and dining area, and two small bathrooms are shrouded in permanent gloom. Lighting is jury-rigged by stapling cables up the wall and over the ceiling. Cords run everywhere. The decor is sparse: a few paintings, Ikea furniture, a bike, yoga mats, and a dying palm tree.

For Ryan, who at 40 has worked in finance, real estate, tech, and now describes his career as helping others manifest their dreams, this is more than just a living situation, even though people tend to stay for only three to six months. He sees himself as a sort of personal guru for the people who end up there. He has been attending Burning Man for 10 years, blogs about collective consciousness and gratitude on Tumblr, and counts among friends the Airbnb founders and the organizers of two different morning raves. “I care about them and they care about me,” he says of members. “My favorite thing to do is to help people actualize their dreams.”

Ryan says he turns down a lot of applicants; ones who give one-word answers to the application questions, or come off as judgmental. And this is definitely a judgment-free zone, steeped in alternative and startup culture. A half-hour after I arrive, one member shows me his website for his new intimacy party (what some would call a sex party). Ryan calls his relationship with his 24-year-old partner, Jane Ribotto, “non-conventional,” which is to say, non-monogamous. We realize that we have several acquaintances in common: DJs, Burning Man attendees, and couples in open relationships.

“I had a brain tumor when I was younger, so I feel most comfortable when I’m close to death. I do a lot of extreme sports.”

I ask Ryan if he was worried to allow a reporter in who is a little less open-minded. “I don’t worry about anything,” he says. “I had a brain tumor when I was younger, so I feel most comfortable when I’m close to death. I do a lot of extreme sports.” This is how it is talking to Ryan, I find. There is no small talk. Everything is always deep and personal.

At 6:30 p.m., two more roommates arrive home. Lorena Morales, 28, moved here from Guadalajara, Mexico, to attend the School of Visual Arts in Manhattan for nine months. She’s reeling from a bad breakup with her girlfriend of three years and since arriving, has lopped off her hair and dyed it black. “It’s a good way to get to know the city,” she tells me that evening, when I ask her why she chose Pure House. “You become part of a community instantly.”

Lorena the artist makes sense in this context, but I’m surprised when I meet my other roommate: Lesley Hauler, a petite brunette who had just graduated from the University of Georgia this year. She seems, well, normal, changing into a sorority T-shirt and leggings to watch TV on the projector. For her, the move was at first pure housing calculus. When she was offered a six-month contract writing for AOL, she had two weeks to find a place. She looked at The Loft, but it was too expensive. The application for Pure House seemed daunting, but she was shocked by the ease of the process, which merely involved a Skype interview with Ryan. Since she moved in, she seems to be on a path away from conventionality.

"Living here, I’ve learned to embrace my own experiences and individuality. A totally other side of me came out that I loved."

“In college, I don’t want to say I was a follower, but I wouldn’t branch out much. Living here, I’ve learned to embrace my own experiences and individuality. A totally other side of me came out that I loved. And it had to do with these people bringing me out of my shell,” she says.

“The first thing that happened when I came in [was] Zach gave me a hug. Two hours later, Sam [an old roommate] came running through the door and gave me a kiss on the cheek,” she says. She likes that Ryan sets up a time to talk with each new person when he or she moves in. “It takes a bite out of my paycheck,” she admits. “But where we live is great.”

As I talk to Lesley, I find myself trying to mentally step back into my Tory Burch flats at 22, when I was bored and lonely, seeking friends, shedding my southern sundresses for a leather jacket and shredded jeans. Or, two years later, after my boyfriend kicked me out of his apartment and I was sharing my best friend’s bed, searching for an apartment I could move into immediately. I wanted to peel back the top layers of NYC and dive into the underground. I did it slowly, finding friends one by one, trying this and that, until I got to where I am now, knee-deep in the alternative community. I love my apartment and my friends, so Pure House doesn’t interest me. But that’s me now. What if I had moved into Pure House at one of those pivotal points? It seems like a glorious shortcut.

Still, it feels like a normal roommate situation tonight — just a few girls watching TV and gossiping about their dating lives. I help Lesley make her Bumble profile a little more interesting — she wants to date more creative guys, instead of the usual finance types — by rewriting her bio and choosing pictures that are a little less “basic” (her words). Then, I go to bed early. I sleep fitfully that night in my cold room (mental note: bring blankets), and the next morning I’m woken by three different phone alarms going off throughout the apartment at 6:30 a.m. "We can hear everything,” Lorena tells me before she leaves for class. "I’m getting used to it. I have earplugs.”

I spend my Thursday swaddled in my warm clothes, working at the dining room table in silence until Zach gets home at 5 p.m. and spends two hours distracting me with Burning Man pictures. He takes me to the apartment downstairs, for which he’s taking over the $5,000-a-month lease. He’s going to rent out the rooms through Pure House, and hopefully make enough to cover his rent.

That evening Ryan offers everyone a discount code to the positivity dance party The Get Down, but I miss it because I forget to check Slack, the communication platform the Pure House uses. Instead I go out to dinner in the neighborhood, and my partner sleeps over in my room (no sex, I wouldn’t subject my new roommates to that). He confirms that it’s not just me — it’s freezing in there.

Jane, who’s putting on the Collective Sex event on Sunday, invites me via email to have lunch with her and Ryan at their apartment across the hall on Friday. Compared to my apartment, it's supremely cozy, filled with vintage furniture, plants, dream catchers, rugs, oil paintings, African art, and even an upright piano. Afternoon light streams through a window into the dining room. Ryan is working on his laptop in the living room, and Sophia, their roommate who does energy-healing workshops, is working at the dining room table.

They met dancing in the subway, which turned into a discussion of the lack of the sacred feminine in institutions.

Jane, who is tiny, has a tendency to burst into spontaneous expressions of joy. When Sophia leaves, Jane calls out, “Oh, Sophia! Have the best day, ever! Thrive!!" She’s lived in New York for two years, but got involved with Pure House in the spring when she met Ryan. They met dancing in the subway, which turned into a discussion of the lack of the sacred feminine in institutions. When they met for dinner two days later, they, “accidentally fell into a two-hour meditation. It was just cross-legged eye-gazing,” she says. “We made up a term; we call each other ‘energetic companions,’” she tells me as she makes a salad for us.

I’m having trouble receiving all of this information with a straight, non-judgmental face.

Jane explains that they are thinking about instituting “guardians” for the apartments, who would help foster the culture they are trying to create and encourage people to hew to a new set of principles, which she just wrote the night before. They include: Show Up; Participate; Gift; Share Your Passions; Nourish Mind, Body, and Spirit; Create Rituals; Express Gratitude; and Live with Integrity. Ryan also wants to institute an alternative monetary system that revolves around values instead of money. I’m down with the tenets, which are very Burning Man-y. Who doesn’t want to nourish their mind, body, and spirit? But the alternative money system seems so pie-in-the-sky, I can only nod and smile.

Ryan has a deep voice that he molds into the singsong cadence of positive affirmations. He speaks with a smile always, though when he’s talking about something negative or painful, it turns into a grimace. And this forced positivity, I think, is what starts planting the seeds of unease in my stomach. I get the feeling that whether or not he disagrees with me, he would force himself to be non-judgmental, keeping that exact same expression. It’s like the hippie version of southern hospitality. Except, instead of, “Bless her heart” it’s, “no judgment.”

“You are absolutely correct that I always do my best to stay positive, which can be challenging for me internally,” Ryan tells me later. “But it's one of the many things I'm working on.”
Photographed by William Mebane.

That afternoon when he shows me the other apartments, I’m careful to be positive and excited as I duck under pipes. Ryan shows me bedrooms. “Are you sure this is okay?” I ask, wondering how the residents would feel about him letting a reporter into their rooms while they aren’t there. He says it’s fine. We catch one guy leaving his apartment with a lady friend, and Ryan tells me he’s getting over a bad breakup. “It’s so nice to see he has a female friend now,” Ryan says.

In the evening, a roommate named Lindsey reveals to me that you can actually switch on the heating system, which pumps hot air out of a large hole in the wall upstairs. You can only have it on for an hour, though, before it overwhelms the upstairs bedrooms with heat. That’s why it remains off and the apartment is cold 90% of the time.

That night, I go out in the neighborhood and have every intention of going back to Pure House. But I can’t bring myself to sleep in my hard, cold Pure House bed again when my cozy apartment is just 20 minutes away. I never thought I would appreciate radiators so much. I pick up my stuff from Pure House on my way home.

On Saturday, my partner and I go to The Kitchen, an upscale townhouse in South Williamsburg that Pure House uses for events. Paintings of beautiful, empowered women line the walls, with a nude of Jane serving as the centerpiece. Six of us — none Pure House members — convene downstairs in the basement. There’s a cuddle-puddle room on the side filled with pillows and lit with pink light. We’re there for a four-hour session with the life coach Melissa Carter, and two hours in I’m trying not to cry as she singlehandedly excavates all my feelings of inadequacy regarding my writing, plus lack of mourning for my father. By the end I have a notebook full of next steps and strategies, and I feel empowered and grateful that Pure House has connected me to this workshop. Still, I decide to sleep at my apartment again that night, after I roll by Pure House to see if anything is happening. Just Lesley watching Love Actually with her friends.

Sunday morning, when I get back to the Pure House apartment at 11 a.m., Zach and Lesley are straightening up the apartment in preparation for brunch, which Ryan has been plugging on Slack all weekend. Lorena shows off new tattoos on each of her arms. By 1 p.m., the apartment is filling up with people. Lesley is trying to work, but keeps getting interrupted by all the commotion. I'm handed a kale-blueberry-banana smoothie. Anthony from across the hall brings a panini press for breakfast burritos. Zach sets out a spread of his juice, and his friend shows up with a labradoodle. I count 16 people present in the communal space: some members, some former members, and some friends.

Refinery29's photographer is in the living room, and I can hear Ryan urging Javier, who will be a Pure House guardian and host, to get his photo taken. “I don’t want to have my photo taken,” Javier declares, but Ryan doesn’t stop pressing him until he agrees.

When we sit down to eat, Jane, clothed in a black, velvet embroidered cape, announces their plans for guardians, and reads the principles to the assembled members. “If, when I'm reading them, if you could be really close to somebody and consensually put your hands on them, that would help,” she says. This doesn’t surprise me at all, even though I know to some New Yorkers it would be off-putting. It’s all about connection and contact here…consensually, of course. I take my partner’s hand as Jane reads. Some people listen attentively, while others stare off into the distance.

After brunch, Ryan walks me to the other Pure House building, a row house with three apartments, where I meet yet another member who just moved out of an apartment she shared with her boyfriend. “It doesn’t sound like Javier wanted his photo taken. Whatever happened to consent?” I tease Ryan as we walk over. “Oh no, it’s not like that at all,” Ryan says. “He never wants to have his photo taken, but I think it’s important for his personal development to be comfortable."

This much is clear: Almost everyone I’ve met has either just moved to New York City, just gotten out of a relationship, or both.

This much is clear: Almost everyone I’ve met has either just moved to New York City, just gotten out of a relationship, or both. Pure House is a community of people in transition, and Ryan isn’t just providing a physical space. He’s trying to get them to see the world his way: as a place of infinite possibility, where you can do anything that lights you up, and create your own vocabulary to describe your experiences. He might encourage you to quit your job and travel the world, as he has done with a recently divorced Pure House member, or shove you outside your comfort zone because he thinks it’s good for you.

He sees himself as a facilitator, though, not an influencer. “Sometimes the members do come to me for personal advice,” Ryan tells me later by email. “When that happens, my support is acutely focused on listening intently and helping them to identify the questions that will guide them towards an answer that feels right to them.”

He has good intentions, but I’m afraid this community could devolve into something unhealthy. The way he acts reminds me of advice I once heard about taking LSD: Once you get back from your acid trip, you need to integrate back into society, no matter what enlightened knowledge you’ve attained. You’ve seen the way the world should be, but you shouldn’t expect the world to change for you. Ryan expects the world to change for him and Pure House members.

My weekend at Pure House could have ended there, but there was one more event that night that I had been looking forward to: the Collective Sex storytelling potluck.

My partner and I show up after 7 p.m. to The Kitchen. The den downstairs is completely full of people sitting on every available surface. Jane announces that this is a safe space and demonstrates the preferred communication system: snapping instead of clapping, rubbing and thumping our chests, and humming if we like what we hear. As the women (and one man) get up to share their stories of dating, sex, mental illness, and polyamory, the room is filled with humming and thumping. A camera is set up to record all the stories, which will go online. In-between stories, we are urged to give the people around us consensual massages.

Most stories are powerful, brave, and touching. One woman describes how Joni Mitchell’s Blue became the soundtrack for her deep depression, and how she eventually pulled herself out of it. Another says what she would tell her five-year-old self, covered in flour because she wanted to be white, about beauty and strength. But one woman’s story leaves me disturbed and worried for her. Without going into too much detail, it's incoherent, full of the type of behavior that you normally see from people in the throes of a manic episode. At the end, I'm waiting for her to acknowledge the fact that her behavior in the story is out of the ordinary, but she doesn't. She just ends the story to tepid snaps. It is so un-self-aware, like a real-life version of those exploitative “It Happened to Me” essays. The snaps for her are tepid. Afterward, I talk to Zach and he tells me she told the same story at the last salon. “That one gets me a little weirded also,” he says. “Hey, it's all about acceptance, right?” I wonder why nobody has offered her feedback, and who told her that her story should be shared with 40 strangers. Maybe because we’re not allowed to be judgmental, and therefore, helpful critique is not allowed either.

The time has come for Jane’s story, which Ryan has been teasing as something very big and personal. Ryan gets up to make an announcement. “This is a sacred space,” he says. “Please do not get up and leave during someone’s story. It’s disrespectful.” At that moment, a man decides to leave, and knocks over some glasses, causing a racket. Everyone laughs good-naturedly as he fumbles up the stairs in embarrassment. But when I turn back to Ryan, I find him staring fixedly at the man’s retreating feet, jaw clenched. “I’m serious,” he says. “This is a sacred space, and I am requesting that you respect it while you are here.” The room goes quiet.

Jane tells the story of her abortion, and I am left both weeping and scratching my head as I try to understand some of her alternative vocabulary. What does it mean that your child must be made of stardust?

At the end of the storytelling, everyone is split into groups of four to talk about what they had heard. Madi, a pretty, bright-eyed 23-year-old, is in my group. She just moved from Nashville after breaking up with her partner, and though she isn’t living in Pure House, she considers it her real home and talks about the community it provides with the fervor of a recent convert. She’s been attending Collective Sex sessions. “I’m not ready to tell a story yet,” she says. “But I am in awe of these women.”

Maybe it’s best that I didn’t get involved in a place like Pure House right after college. It feels like the current of this community can push you far out into a dangerous sea of vague, sparkly vocabulary and non-judgment verging on enabling. The friends I’ve made in the six years I’ve lived in NYC range from self-described bougie girls who work in marketing to queer creatives, but they all love and support me and my choices. I also know they could call, and have called, me on my bullshit, and that grounding has kept me kind, happy, and high-functioning.

Then, it occurs to me: Maybe I’m making my friends uncomfortable. They’re just trying to live their lives, make rent, and fall in love, and I’m over here like, “My open relationship is great! I walked around topless at Burning Man! Warehouse parties are awesome! LSD is therapeutic!” Maybe they’re nodding and smiling, and then making a mental note to avoid me lest I drag them into a 'shroom-fueled techno orgy. If that is true, then I need to reexamine my life.

We are supposed to share our feelings with the group. If I were to share my true feelings, I would say, “What the fuck happened in that girl's story?!” Or, “I would really, really like to leave now.” Instead, I am thinking about how to translate my thoughts into the language of spirituality and sex-positivity when three people turn to me expectantly.

“I am sitting in my discomfort,” I carefully say. And they seem to be satisfied with that answer.

Editor's note: A previous version of this story included additional identifying details of one of the stories told at Collective Sex. These have been omitted, and certain names have been changed to protect the privacy of individuals.

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