The thought of willingly sharing three bathrooms, one kitchen and a living space with 18 other people might seem like someone’s worst nightmare. But those living in the Establishment thrive off living cooperatively amongst a group.
Hidden behind overgrown brush in the Historic District stands one of San Luis Obispo’s oldest communal living spaces. Formerly the Colonial Hotel, the building was established in the late 1800s and served the community’s bustling railroad industry. But since the mid 1970s, the faded green building has been home to students, professors and even American novelist Jack Kerouac.
The building is just as eclectic as its tenants. Students, professionals and Cal Poly alumni all inhabit the old hotel and bring unique perspectives that make the space a mecca for flourishing ideas.
Mark Grayson is the oldest tenant living in the Establishment and has been involved in its community since 1992.
“Boy, talk about the souls that have passed through this place,” Grayson said. “Some amazing humans. You should hear the ideas that get conjured up around here.”
Grayson is also the founder of San Luis Obispo’s monthly bike night, and it seems to be a rite of passage for each of the tenants to have a set of two wheels. The yard is scattered with various bike parts and rows of bike racks line the back fence. This small detail coincides with the Establishment’s bigger mission: sustainability.
Tenants of the Establishment aim to reduce their carbon footprint and maximize efficiency. The home does not use any paper products. Most tenants use a bike as their main form of transportation. They strive to reuse, recycle and share as much as possible.
“This is the free fridge,” Cal Poly alumna Sara Della Ripa said as she opened its door to reveal an assortment of Tupperware containers. “If someone makes something and doesn’t want to eat it, then they put it in the free fridge. We raid it everyday.”
The home has five refrigerators and two industrial-style stoves to support its 19 occupants. Multiple sets of pots and pans occupy the overhead shelf space, but aside from these accommodating quarks, the space feels no different than that of a regular home.
“It’s fascinating how efficient this square footage is,” Grayson said. “Look at the footprint we occupy and the amount of things we don’t duplicate per every two people like in a regular apartment.”
Communal housing is a growing trend across the United States. With housing prices and populations rising, more people across the country are opting to cohabit in such communities. San Francisco is now home to dorms for professionals, and even San Luis Obispo residents are trying to move further in this sustainable direction.
But the shift has continuously been halted due to San Luis Obispo’s strict zoning laws—explaining why it is uncommon to see other spaces similar to that of the old hotel. Typically, only five adults are allowed on a lease in San Luis Obispo, according to city code.
The Establishment has a unique case with its zoning that has been grandfathered over the decades. Each room is coded as an individual apartment, meaning no room is allowed to be shared in the house.
Mayor Heidi Harmon and the City Council are looking at the Establishment as a model for future development in San Luis Obispo. The city aims to have developers tour the space in hopes that the model can be duplicated where the zoning allows it.
“It’s the No. 1 model I would like to see duplicated,” Harmon said. “It creates plenty of things we need: more density in the downtown, more affordability and more community.”
The community built by the Establishment has not always received praise, however. Over the years, the space has been dubbed a “freak show,” “hippie commune,” and “brothel,” to name a few.
“Once someone asked me where I was living, and when I said the Establishment she was like, ‘Oh, the cult,’” biological sciences senior Annie Ayers said. “It was super hurtful. This place is nothing like what people say it is.”
Ayers recalled her time spent living in the residence halls freshman year and said she had “never been so depressed” in her life. Now living in a similar setting, she finds the two communities to be incomparable.
“It’s interesting how you can be living with other people and have no community,” Ayers said. “There’s something about the intentionality of living here and choosing to come together and rally behind each other.”
Cal Poly alumnus and tenant Nikki Telegan said it does not take a certain type of person to live in this kind of environment and people get out what they put into the experience.
“Our intention is just to purely live well together,” Telegan said. “There are multiple types of people with different social skills and preferences. It has more to do with people that are willing to compromise and live from an experience with others.”
Aside from sustainability, the Establishment strives to provide a special sense of community for all of those that pass through the old building.
“We’ve had people wander in here that either need a place to sleep or just don’t know where they are in life and we all pitch in to help,” Grayson said. “We watch each others’ backs. Zero divide.”