How to Run a Modern Co-op
by Ruth Samuelson
Jul. 20, 2009
Dinner at Maitri House is supposed to start at 6:30, but often begins
later. It takes a long time to fix a meal for 20 people.
Tonight Tarek Maassarani, one of the house's founding members, is
cooking. The brown marble counter is loaded up with basil and bags of
various greens. Maassarani's focused on preparing Brussels sprouts
with mushrooms and dried apricots two wayswith nuts and without.
On the refrigerator is a summary of the home's "Document of Intention
One covenant within its 12 pages is the practice of group dining:
"We will have several regularly scheduled vegetarian meals each week
at which everyone is invited to eat together. We will try to
frequently be at group meals with each other, and attendance is not required."
Among the other covenants: no TVs or computers in most common areas
because "devices can tend to draw us into non-interacting
activities." There's a long list of shared practices: Bicycle Share,
Supplies Share, Housework Share, and two different car shares (one is
for a designated communal car; another encourages residents to share
their personal cars "to the greatest extent possible").
There's even a line of thought about junk mail. Residents are
encouraged "not to be put on new mailing lists, to be removed from
preexisting mailing lists, and to get put on 'do not mail' lists."
Their house is a large brick colonial with a yellow door on Manor
Circle in Takoma Park. It's easy to pick out the Maitriwhich means,
according to the favored interpretation of members, "loving kindness"
in Sanskritwith its strollers strewn about the front yard, a new
bike shed, and a rain-water barrel in the back.
There are two gardensone out front, and one toward the side of the
housewith broccoli, squash, tomatoes, kale, chard, lettuce, arugula,
beans, snap peas, beets, carrots, potatoes, amaranth, and various other herbs.
"I'm not sure what we don't have," says Maassarani.
The community fluctuates in size, although 20 seems to be a stable
number here. There are six children total, and eight parents. The
residents say the correct name for their setup isn't "commune," or
even "co-op," though the latter's a decent default.
"I would term it as an intentional community," says Maassarani, 30,
who knows from co-ops. He and his wife, Holly Smith, 33, helped found
H Street Community Market around late 2003 in their old neighborhood
near Gallaudet University.
The market is slowly working toward opening an actual storefront. So
far, 150 people have pledged to contribute dues and talks are ongoing
on a partnership with another local business.
But aside from the co-operative element, Maassarani's market and his
house have entirely different organizational structures.
"The privileges for the house is that you get to live here," he says.
Another: operating without leader.
"Consensus decision-making would probably doom a store to failure," he says.
Residents do, however, get a type of dividend in the form of shared
ownership of their house.
Technically, the property is backed by a limited liability company
(LLC) put together with some help from Silver Spring-based lawyer
Mark Kreiser. The idea behind organizing in this manner was equal
ownership, despite the fact only certain members could contribute
significantly to the house's down payment.
Ryan McAllister, 32, was one of those people. He actually first
conceived of the idea years before when he bought a home in
Hyattsville. He remained in touch with his real-estate agent, Chuck
Bailey, now a personal friend, and around late 2006, started
searching for another property in which to start his intentional community.
Bailey of Long & Foster Real Estate of College Park says of
McAllister: "He's a very smart guy, and he's very clear about his
vision, and very clear about taking action to bring that to reality."
McAllister seriously considered one house in Hyattsville and another
in Takoma Park before landing on Maitri's eventual location. By that
time, there was usually an entourage coming around to check out
various properties. McAllister, Maassarani, and others were already
beginning to write the house's vision and intention documents.
In the course of that process, the LLC was formed.
"We made a way for people to buy in no matter how much money they
have," says McAllister.
Each month, Maitri dwellers make three payments: One covers the
mortgage, utilities, repairs, and other general needs; another covers
food costs; the third is an equity payment for buying shares in the LLC.
Currently, the owner of the house is "McAllister, Ryan et al,"
according to Montgomery County documents.
"As long as there's a mortgage outstanding, we're not able to
transfer the title," says Maasarani. But the LLC is given "first
right of refusal on the house," if it were ever up for sale, meaning
that the LLC would be able to buy it for the exact sale price offered
by another buyer. The LLC pays rent to the owners, who pay the
mortgage company every month, says Maasarani.
Neither McAllister nor another member, Megan Donohue, pay equity
shares since they both spent substantial amounts acquiring the house.
The more money that's contributed over time, the more evenly the
shares will be distributed. Members receive interest payments every six months.
If people who live at the house want to leave, they can either
withdraw their shares and end their relationship with Maitri or they
can keep their shares, keep receiving payments, and, if the house
ever sells and Maitri shuts down, they can cash out.
Donohue says the LLC works; they couldn't have true communal living without it.
"In the larger vision of everyone buying into the house, we're more
invested in keeping it up, and we're more invested in the long-term
vision that this will work," she says.
Donohue came to the house with her two children, Makiya, 5, who is
adopted, and Noah, 3, her biological son. The three of them share a
room on the second floor and, though it's clear she spends time with
them individually (they were chilling at a swimming pool earlier
today and went on a camping trip last week), they are very
comfortable playing with/crawling all over other Maitri adults, who
in turn act as caretakers and disciplinarians.
McAllister, for example, takes Donohue's kids outside before
tonight's dinner. "I recommend we don't put sand in the rain barrel
because then it will be full of sand and not rain," he warns.
From there, the children head into the playroom, where Susan Cho,
41, is playing with Liam, a little blond baby and, at 7 months, the
youngest member of the house.
Liam's parents are Mary and Chris, who live on the house's first
floor. Cho and her boyfriend, Eric, live next door to the playroom,
where ear plugs often come in handy, she says.
Well after 7 p.m., Maassarani finishes the meal and sets it out
buffet-style on a kitchen counter for everyone to serve themselves.
Besides the Brussels sprouts, there's a dish with glazed salmon;
veggie potpie with chard, collared greens, turnip greens, mustard
greens, onion, and a pizza dough crust; an attempt at an egg souffle
with mushrooms and onions; and a seasoned risotto boiled in an onion stock.
Turnout is on the low side. Three parents and four kids have
stationed themselves toward one end of the table, which is actually
two rounded tables pushed together.
Further down, there's Cho, still watching Liam as he bounces in a
little seat on the ground, and two sub-leasers, college students in
Washington for the summer.
One of them, a University of Wisconsin-Madison student named Rebecca,
was drawn to Maitri House because she'd always wanted to live in a
co-op. Her school has a healthy co-op culturean international house,
a Jewish house, and a liberal activism house, which advertises "our
home is an open resource to activist groups like: Food Not Bombs,
Stop the War, Radical Cheerleaders, & the Madison Art Collective."
These co-ops sit amongst the fraternities and sororities.
"I don't know why they put the hippies next to the capitalists," she
says, but that's the way it goes.
Afraid of all the distraction, she opted out of living in a college
co-op, but specifically searched one out when she came to D.C. She
landed in a nightmare house, a "faux-op," she says, merely marketed
as a co-op, but actually ruled by the landlord with a reign of
terror. Her current LLC arrangement is much more to her liking, she says.
Symbolically, the LLC says a lot about the nature of Maitri, but
ultimately, Maassarani believes it has less to do with the house's
success than the Kum-bah-Yah approach of having constant gatherings
with house members to air concerns, communicate with each other, and
have a good time.
There's a "human support group" twice a month, where people talk
about what's going on in their lives and "we self-teach things like
nonviolent communication," says Maassarani. Maitri has held several
open-to-the-public eventsa cookout/yard sale/open house, and a movie
night. It really values interacting with its Takoma Park neighbors,
who are welcome to attend "Expressionfest…an open-mic-type thing
without a microphone" that's a reoccurring event.
Hearing himself share all these names, Maassarani pauses and chuckles
for a moment. Even with all the outreach, he knows the word
"Expressionfest" won't turn up in the next Webster's edition.
Another way the housemates bond together: "Once you gather together
as 20 people, you tend to have your own language," he says.