A Family You Can Choose

Community-focused group houses are a staple of Washington real estate

August 3, 2012

Current and former housemates of the Lamont Street Collective, a seven-room group house in Mt. Pleasant, share an interest in art and social activism.

Eric Sonnenberg, 34, has never really lived alone.

For the past 10 years, he’s has shared a five-bedroom group house in Mt. Vernon Square with friends and strangers.

Sonnenberg chose it over a studio apartment because of “the social aspect,” he says. “I was afraid I’d end up being a hermit in an apartment by myself.”

Sonnenberg isn’t alone in his desire for togetherness. Most cities have group houses — typically large rowhouses where people share rent, utilities and living and dining areas — but D.C. is famous for them.

Maybe it’s because of the throngs of young, unpaid interns who need cheap housing during their stint on the Hill. Maybe it’s because, according to real estate experts, the D.C. area has a serious housing shortage. Or maybe it’s because we ran out of things to be famous for. But group houses proliferate in the District, sheltering entry-levelers, artists and students alike.

Why do so many D.C.-area renters trade privacy and cleanliness for cheaper rent and a sense of community?

Like Sonnenberg, many are looking for a community.

“Probably for a lot of people it’s a good substitute for family,” says Lauren Konopacz, 25, another roommate at the Mt. Vernon Square house.

Many D.C. group houses have rich histories and personalities of their own, with cute or terrifying names such as Jam Jar, Rocket Ship, House of Payne or Thug Mansion. There are even nudist group houses advertised on Craigslist and a fabled “polyamorous” house in Petworth, according to Daniela Aramayo. Aramayo lives at the Lamont Street Collective, a group house in Mt. Pleasant where housemates have shared a culture of art and social activism since 1975.

Of course, money is a factor, too. D.C. is expensive, and group houses are an affordable way to live here, says Debbie Kaplan, chief operating officer at Urban Igloo, an apartment finding service.

“You can live in a really nice place if you’re willing to share a place with lots of people,” Konopacz says of the trendy Mt. Vernon Square area where she lives.

A room in her five-person house ranges from $800 to $1,000 a month. That’s hundreds of dollars less than a studio in the area.

More Than Cheap Rent

Cheaper rent shouldn’t be your sole reason for shacking up with four or five housemates, veterans say.

People who thrive in group houses are those who embrace shared living — from shared grocery bills and “family dinners” to epic house parties, says Seth Campbell, 38, an artist, musician and dog walker who has lived at the Lamont Street Collective for 10 years.

Be prepared for the downsides: lack of privacy, roommate tensions, noise and the inevitable messes.

“You have to accept a certain amount of chaos,” Campbell says.

“We found a burrito in a closet one time,” says Jacob Moschler, who lived in the Mt. Vernon group house for six years. “It had been there a while.”

Endangered Species?

Unfortunately, that $500 room in Columbia Heights is growing increasingly hard to come by.

“People are not buying in general right now, so there’s more renting going on, which makes them scarcer,” Kaplan says.

Rent prices are up all over the city, and group houses are no exception. Even in up-and-coming areas, rooms that once rented for $500 a month are approaching $700 to $900, according to Craigslist postings.

And some houses that had been rented out to groups for years are being sold off to single families.

“The collectively run group house is kind of an endangered species,” says Ken Srdjak, 26, of the Lamont Street Collective.

As the number of houses decreases, competition for the rooms in them heats up. The Mt. Vernon housemates receive 75 to 100 responses every time they advertise an open room on Craigslist.

“We end up having to ignore a lot of people who are perfectly nice,” Sonnenberg says.

But with new buildings coming on the market, the competition should lighten up. “Come next year, it will probably be better for renters,” Kaplan says.

Renters hope D.C. never loses its group house culture.

As Lamont Street’s Hillary Lazar says, “I can’t imagine living in D.C. and not being part of this community.”

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Vicky Hallett · August 3, 2012