For 26-year-old Susanne Hackett, the house she shares with five other young adults in Columbia Heights provides not just affordability but a network of friends and community.
"It's nice to have a home base to come back to," said Hackett, editorial business manager for Traveler magazine at National Geographic. "There are people to talk to, there's a natural give-and-take and spontaneous fun."
Her parents in Seattle like knowing that she has friends looking out for her, while she appreciates the sense of security that has allowed her to take risks, such as leaving one job and temping for a while before she got her current job.
She likes knowing that there is always someone to walk with her to the Metro or just hang out with her. It does not matter if she has no plans for Saturday night. Staying at home can become an impromptu happening, like the time a couple of years ago when, in the January cold, the housemates all gathered up sleeping bags and blankets and sat on a hillside watching the stars.
The Harvard Street group house started in October 1999, when several friends, all former counselors at Shiloh Quaker Camp near Charlottesville decided to move to Washington and try to create a community similar to that they had experienced at camp. They called it Shiloh Urban Commune -- and have a bank account with that name, with which they use to pay some household bills.
It is a commune in the sense of sharing common spaces and basic values, with much of the idealism that propelled communes and intentional communities 30 years ago.
But mostly it's a city house, a large, well-kept rented townhouse a short walk from the Columbia Heights Metro station, that offers plenty of privacy (everyone has his or her own room) and a friendly haven in a diverse part of the District. Think of it as group house, like those where so many young people live in the Washington area, but just a bit more so.
"We're not just incidentally living together," said Stephen Velez, 31, one of the original residents. "We made a conscious decision to be in a shared space. We have similar politics. Across the board, we have a sense of social justice. We have a connection and an investment" in each other.
They also say they have a stake in the Columbia Heights neighborhood. Velez, who teaches third grade at C.W. Harris Elementary School in Southeast Washington, did his practice teaching just around the corner, and he enjoys seeing his old students as he walks the neighborhood.
When he was growing up in "Upper Northwest D.C.," there was a lot of the District he did not get to know, and he is savoring that exploration now. "I'm absolutely in love with this community," he said. Like the others in the house, he is aware of crime and safety concerns, but he stresses that, for him, the vitality and diversity of the neighborhood far outweigh the negatives.
The shared house has four bedrooms on the second floor and an apartment with two bedrooms and a second kitchen and bath in the basement. The six residents all work in people-oriented, service careers. Velez is one of three teachers in the house; two residents work for publications, and one is a community organizer.
Along with the human occupants, the house is home to an assortment of animals, including three cats, a 15-year-old tarantula named Alice, three newts, five fish and a "big giant snail," most of whom share Velez's bedroom.
Kasha Mustin, 28, another original resident, moved to Washington because of the house. Mustin, a former preschool teacher who is studying sociology and education at Trinity College, grew up in Charlottesville and was hesitant about moving to the bigger city. She worried about its impersonality and was concerned about feeling very alone in the midst of its bustle. The opportunity to live among friends made the venture comfortable.
Mustin says she needs time alone, more than the others. What makes the house work for her is the room in the basement where she can hide away, knowing that she can come up for company as she wishes. She likes that her housemates are basically a group of individuals pursuing individual lives, but with each other and a larger network of everyone's friends available for help or just some shared fun.
Will Doig, 24, who joined the house about nine months ago after coming to parties there for a couple of years, prefers communal living to going it alone. "Even though it has its unique difficulties, I think you get more out of it in the end," he said. "In fact, I think the problems that arise and the ways that we resolve them are really the crux of what communal living is all about."
He said, "Throwing parties, sitting around the kitchen and talking, going to the Raven for beers -- these things prove that we can live together really well, but the problems prove that we can still live together when everything isn't perfect, also. I think the key is to not let problems simmer."
He added, "I'm a compulsive mover. I've changed addresses six times in the five and a half years that I've lived in D.C. But until I leave the city, I'm going to stay [here]. I actually look forward to getting home and seeing my housemates. How many people can say that?"
Magdalena Scarato, 28, a third- and fourth-grade teacher at Friends Community School in College Park, said she often wishes she felt safer walking in the neighborhood. Safety is a concern of the housemates and something they do not take lightly. They walk each other to the Metro and to their cars.
Scarato has watched the house evolve since its inception. In 31/2 years, there has been turnover, but people never just move out; they move on, such as going into the Peace Corps. And they keep coming back for visits, bringing new friends who sometimes move in. Marc Seiden, 24, the newest resident, originally came for a visit with a former resident, then began dating Scarato. As soon as a room opened up, he moved in.
Seiden has lived in other group houses but said he likes this one the best -- by far. He likes the absence of "burdensome rules," and the lighthearted spontaneity. He also appreciates the open communication. From his experiences in other group houses, he has learned the importance of "stating your expectations, even in the little things."
Unlike many group situations, the house has few rules -- the main two being "smoking is allowed only outside" and "the kitchen is vegetarian."
There is also a "trash nag," a list of who is "sort of responsible for making sure that the trash gets out," Hackett said. The house functions on regular communication and on seeking solutions as a group. The four upstairs residents, concerned that some cleaning was not happening because no one wanted to do it, decided to hire someone to do the housework, a solution that has worked well.
Another defining characteristic of the house is the residents' close and friendly relationship with their landlords, Peter and Patsy Chick, who live next door. When the house has a party, they invite the Chicks, who accept.
"I remember the first time I met Patsy," Doig said. "I went over to their house to sign the lease and was complaining about some problem I was having with the D.C. bureaucracy. She took a drag on her Marlboro, looked at me, and in this raspy, steady, knowing voice, just said, 'Welcome to your nation's capital.' "
When anything needs fixing, the Chicks are there with dispatch. Arriving to fix a bathroom problem recently, Patsy Chick relished catching up on everyone's activities while her husband set about the repair. She would never simply rent out rooms, Chick said, and she would not rent to just any group of young adults. She had known several of the original house members when they were her daughters' camp counselors, and she has grown to respect the goal of the house as community and to enjoy the individuals it shelters.
"Our landlords make a huge difference," Velez said.
Hackett is amazed at the way her life has changed since a friend told her about the house. She remembers her first glimpse: It was fall, and everyone was sitting out on the porch. She liked the sense of caring that she saw. It reminded her of an outdoor education group she had been part of in college.
Because a room would not be available for a while, she started coming to house meetings well before moving in. When she was looking for a new job, it was another house member who steered her to National Geographic. "When I think of life since I joined this house," she said, "I think of all the wonderful people I've met," including the friends of friends who keep stopping by.
She tells of a piece of junk mail that arrived recently, addressed to "The Family at -- -- Harvard St."
The housemates loved it. Whatever anonymous computer spit out the label got it just about right: The group think of themselves as a family in the best sense of the word.