Bunk beds, roaches and nerdy geniuses: my year in a Silicon Valley hacker house

The lives of tech entrepreneurs arent always as glamorous as theyre made out to be, as I learned living among them on a dangerous San Francisco street

For the past 12 months of my life, I paid the bargain price of $1,250 per month to sleep diagonally in a bunk bed in a 10ft by 10ft room that I shared with a 32-year old man. Because I am 6ft4in, sleeping diagonally in my undersized accommodation was the only way I could make it through the night without getting cramps.

Welcome to my life in the hacker house.

In July last year, I left my home in the comfy suburbs of Washington DC to make the 3,000-mile drive west to San Francisco, with my mother along for the ride. I had just graduated from college that May, and as the cliched story goes, I was in pursuit of the tech dream. I didnt have a lease, or a job. Because of the high rent in the Bay area, you usually cant secure a lease without a job offer, and well, you cant exactly say the jobs were coming easy. So I just went for it.

Upon reaching Louisville, Kentucky, I received a call from a friend. You should look up hacker houses, he said. Its a place where a bunch of tech people live to hack and build stuff.

I had never heard of a hacker house and his description was vague, but it sounded cool enough. That night I dug around the web, found some houses and zoomed in on my favorite, the Negev. It prided itself on being a tech-first community that offered a movie theater, workspace, industrial-sized kitchen, weekend activities and a tech CEO speaker series.

Rent was steep for a shared bedroom, but I would get to live in the heart of downtown with some crazy smart engineers. I applied that night.

The following day, I got an email while rolling through Kansas.

The director of happiness wants to speak with you.

I shot my mom a worried look. Coming from the east coast, I had a general fear that everyone in San Francisco would be obsessed with self-help books and feelings. However, I was about three states away and didnt have a home, so I clammed up and hit reply.

Late that night, in a little Kansas hotel, I sat down for my interview via Skype with the director of happiness, Mike. I was pretty nervous. He looked normal and asked standard questions about why I wanted to live in the Negev, how I would contribute, and what I had built in my past. I kept my answers short.

We said goodbye and the following morning I received an email.

Youve been accepted into the Negev! ... Time to pay rent.

I was in.

Pulling into San Francisco, I had a few hours before I met Mike for my move in. Curious, my mother and I decided to drive by my new pad. The Negev is a pretty purple city building in the SoMa (South of Market Street) neighborhood, which was regarded online as a magical place to live.

I was stoked. Until I drove down Sixth Street.

Sixth Street is far from the magical land I had read about. Instead, it was littered with trash, glass, and disposed needles, and it reeked of urine. My mother was in horror, trying to convince herself this could not be where she was leaving her precious cargo of 23 years.

Maybe maybe we have the wrong address? she asked, clearly in denial.

Nope. I was home.

Mike showed me to my room. I opened the door and was, to my surprise, thrilled with the crafty set-up of my soon-to-be-roommate, Brantley, a 32-year-old software engineer. The room smelled of downy air freshener and sported a clear view of the half-complete monster structure that I would come to know as Salesforce Tower soon to be San Franciscos tallest skyscraper. Standing 1,070ft tall, this tower of luxury stood as symbol of the glory and opportunity to be seized in Silicon Valley, the reason for the madness.

That night, while making my first dinner in the house, I opened a cabinet door of spices and just caught the glimpse of a sparkling cockroach skittering away.

A sense of worry ran over me.

The Negev is a startup in and of itself.

The house was founded in 2013 by an ex-Googler named Alon Gutman, nicknamed Guti, and a controversial character named Danny Haber, who ran the operation with the same cut-throat mindset of efficiency and persistence that most startups have.

This would be fine, except that housing in San Francisco is a pretty sensitive subject due to the rent inflation and gentrification driven by the tech boom.

Upon moving in, I soon learned Sixth Street is one of the epicenters of the gentrification debate. Before the Negev was a tech utopia, it was the San Francisco Gospel Mission, a nonprofit, Baptist-based mission for homeless people.

The Negev building. Photograph: Andrew Frawley

Despite this controversy, the Negev started filling rooms while still under construction in January 2014 with a great emphasis on community. Its slogan was: Its like a frat house but clean. From the get-go, the house was established for tech entrepreneurs, designers and engineers to live in one place, spur technical discussion, motivate each other, and sometimes be social.

To inspire a sense of closeness and tribal brotherhood, the founders pulled strategies from college fraternities to filter new recruits. Noah Ruderman, a software engineer who has lived at the Negev for three years, recalled his interviewing process from 2014:

I was asked to go to Pier 54 at 11.00pm. Its completely pitch dark and I pull up in an Uber and its just this abandoned warehouse. My Uber Driver looks at me and says, Yo man, are you good? He thinks I am suicidal. Nope. Just finding somewhere to live. I call Danny and say, Hey man, so I am here and this is just an abandoned warehouse. He tells me to go around the back. I am walking. Its totally dark. The water is right next to me. I am like, Okay. I am getting killed for sure.

I walk in and theres like six guys who were also apparently interviewing. We were all sketched out but having fun with it. After a series of interrogations, the interviews ended with a test: screaming Guti von Gutman [the founders nickname] at the top your lungs. So, you could say it was an interesting experience.

Another early tenant, Will Harris, who also had the Pier 54 experience, reminisced: It was like a real startup. The house had 15 people. It was always under construction and never had hot water. You had to be a special kind of person to live there, only focused on building your company.

Ruderman shared similar thoughts on the early days. It was very much a figure it out kind of place. I showed up and was like: Wheres my room? They were like, Go find one. When we first moved in, there were piles of mattresses for people to pick up and there were not enough for everyone. There were stories of people legitimately sleeping on clothes.

Despite this, the Negev thrived. The tone for the house had been set: personal sacrifice in the name of entrepreneurship and community.

A defining moment for the house was in 2014, when Salesforce hosted a Hackathon a competition in which engineers compete and create new products from scratch in 36 hours. The Negev competed in large numbers against 1,000 other engineers. There were six finalists, two of whom were from the Negev, netting prize money of $85,000.

When I moved into the house two years after, one of the two winning checks still sat above the cabinets and was tactfully used to impress potential new tenants.

Early Negev residents were the types of people who were receiving entire salaries in bitcoin back when it was trading at $200 or were busy in the early stages of a new-age tech startup, some of which are now funded in the tens of millions. Most notably, a friend of the house in 2014 who used to come by and hang out was Vitalik Buterin, who, at the time, was talking about his cool new company they should invest in, ethereum, an alternative to bitcoin that now boasts a $32bn market cap.

When I moved into the Negev, I knew nothing of its questionable beginnings or tenants. In fact, I was pretty content. The house was no longer under construction, I actually had a mattress, hot water was flowing and the living room sported a mural and ping pong table.

Things were promising.

However, it soon became apparent that it was not all so glamorous. Brantley Beaird, the current house president (formerly titled director of happiness), put it this way: Living in the Negev is not, uh luxurious.

Ping-pong table or not, the rooms are small, and the showers microscopic. Doors fell off hinges, bunk bed ladders were snapping in half, shower heads would vanish and lights wouldnt work. The cockroaches certainly outnumbered us, and solutions from management were at best Band-Aids on a gushing wound.

Community posts on the house Facebook group dating back to 2014 tell the story:

Posted by Anonymous, September, 2014: Help. This is the second cockroach I have found in my cabinet. I dont want to touch it.

Posted by Anonymous, January, 2015: Since it seems we cannot get rid of the cockroaches in the house, I propose we start loving them.

Negev Representative, January 2015: Our pest control guy is coming on Wednesday to make sure the cockroaches are history

Two years later, I sent this message and picture on Facebook:

Andrew Frawley (me), May, 2017: @negevrep i dont think our cockroach problem is solved

Salt for dinner? Photograph: Andrew Frawley

When contrasted to the life on the street just outside of our front door, the Negev does sound luxurious. There was something soul-crushing about Sixth Street, so most of the tenants would avoid the street itself as best as they could.

My experience, however, was different. Not only did I live on Sixth Street, but I worked there too.

Along my commute, I passed hourly hotels, food kitchens, STD clinics, and needle exchanges. As a daily occurrence, I would see drugs being sold, people pooping and having sex, crack smoked and people stiff as a board with heroin needles still in their arms. Id be offered drugs, be chased by naked people, yelled at, and hit on by sex workers.

I witnessed car break-ins, saw countless fights, dialed 911 four times for people unconscious on the street, was attacked by people twice, and I have one leg scar from when a pit bull attacked me.

The most harrowing experiences would be at night. My bedroom window faced an alley, and it was not uncommon to fall asleep to the monotonous sounds of crying and the screaming hysteria of someone on the street who was losing grip on reality, be it from drugs or isolation.

Those at the Negev tried to involve ourselves in the community at least a little. One tenant who worked at Apple organized volunteering at the local food kitchen every Sunday for months. He was probably joined by 20 different people who volunteered at some point.

Its peanuts in light of the problem, but the effort shows awareness.

My assumption moving into a community of software engineers was that they were going to be absurdly smart and painstakingly awkward. I was correct in that they were smart, but surprisingly, they werent very awkward at all. After my first week in the house, I remember calling a friend back home: Dude, these guys can code and play guitar.

The culture was always changing as people moved in and out. Mostly, though, the house was universally defined by tech entrepreneurship and an open mind.

The internal dynamics get really interesting when you realize of the 45 people living in the house, about 15% were women, a representative sample of the tech industry. While hookups between roommates happened, it was uncommon. Still, the house did seem serve as a consistent spawning ground for legitimate romantic relationships between roommates.

That was always cute to see.

Inside the Negev: a cozy dinner with roomates. Photograph: Andrew Frawley

Sometimes we sported a heavy party culture, but what defined the Negev during my stay was hustle.

When I moved in, there were about four startups being run out of the basement, with a fifth guy working on a research paper who consistently worked 100 hours a week and would only break for Mario Kart and Subway. As if thats not crazy enough, one tenant I know is working two full-time jobs and neither company he works for is aware of the other.

In my first month, there were six of us unemployed at the time. Woefully seeking income, we built a daily ritual of job hunting together at the kitchen table until sunset. At sunset, our roommates would come home from long days of coding to relieve of us of our tranquility and launch us all into a series of activities such as the card game Exploding Kittens, TV Shows like Rick & Morty or discussions about Elon Musks latest project.

Almost every single resident had some sort of project or craft outside of their day job: stand-up comedy, making music, building apps, building VR games, building bots, becoming photographers etc.

Unfortunately, though, hustle doesnt always lead to results or income. While I was catching up with Will Harris, the early tenant who has been with the Negev from the beginning, he urged me to tell the story of those who dont make it.

Everyone hears how rosy it is out here. No one tells the story of the majority of people who do everything right, work their ass off and still end up leaving the city in six months, broke, with crushed dreams.

During all months of the year, there were always three or four people treading water and hardly breathing. Not everyone makes it. In the house, we saw startups die. Companies go under and talented workers are thrown into hell-storms of survival. Good men and women tear through savings and end up eating stale leftover food in the community fridge.

You havent lived until youve seen a six-figure software engineer eating someone elses pizza crust.

Its the strange adversities that everyone in the Negev put themselves through that made the experience so attractive. When I first moved into the Negev in August, my plan was to move out in three months, but instead, I stayed an entire year. The most warming memory I have in the house was during Thanksgiving: we hosted a 25-person family dinner of roommates and friends.

As Mike said: I think the main benefit most people get out of living at the Negev is that they make numerous lifelong friends. Thats something thats hard to come by for many adults after college and Im really grateful to have lived there for that reason. Its an alternative lifestyle I wish more people would give a try.

If you happen to find yourself on Sixth Street in somewhat sunny San Francisco, look for the pretty purple building with the red gate, ring the doorbell and say hi.

Tell them Andrew sent you.

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2017/sep/08/tech-silicon-valley-san-francisco-entrepreneur