Co-living – a form of intentional community where like-minded people share living space and amenities – is commonly seen as a temporary fix for students and young professionals trying to cut living expenses in big cities. However, with 15 million single-mother families in the US alone (among which 30% live in poverty), the past few years have witnessed an upsurge in single mothers entering this market and opting to live together in so-called ‘mommunes’. Growing demand has led to the flourishing of online platforms, such as Roommates with Kids, ShareAbode and CoAbode - often founded by single mum entrepreneurs themselves.
The central idea of a ‘mommune’ is the pooling of domestic and childcare-related resources such that the economic burdens of single parenthood are lessened. According to Child Care Aware of America, childcare costs can eat up 37% of a single parent’s household income. These costs are compounded by a general lack of affordable housing in urban centres, particularly in strong school districts, as well as discrimination from weary landlords and housemates. Mommunes afford parents more downtime by splitting chores, finances and babysitting duties, and their day-to-day lives are enriched to the benefit of their children.
Beyond financial security, mommunes also provide single mothers with a sense of solidarity, empowerment and emotional support. “We were a family”, said one mommune resident, “we went to the supermarket together, cooked together, ate together, shared childcare… the children became like siblings”. This is vital given that single mothers are at greater risk of physical and mental health disorders compared to married mothers. Could this movement also be contributing to a greater shift in family structures?
The prevalence of mommunes points to a broader cultural shift towards a sharing economy based on collaborative consumption and ‘access over ownership’. This ethos also underpins the creation of sustainably responsible spaces and lifestyles. Clothes and children’s toys are handed down, groceries are bought in bulk, and heating is shared, resulting an overall reduction in waste and energy use.
Innovative strategies are needed to address the issues of alienation, demoralization and vulnerability that beset low-income, single-mother families. That said, mommunes are not a silver bullet. R. Kelly Raley, a professor of sociology at the University of Texas at Austin, warns that the inherent instability of (transitioning into) co-living setups can be harmful to children, ‘who thrive in stable homes and with consistent relationships’. How else can urbanization and the housing market be rendered more inclusive to single parents? What role could ‘mommunes’ play in building sustainable urban communities?