Peace, Love, and Interest Payments: How to Run a Modern Co-op
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 ways—with nuts and without.
On the refrigerator is a summary of the home’s “Document of Intention and Practice.”
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 Maitri—which means, according to the favored interpretation of members, “loving kindness” in Sanskrit—with its strollers strewn about the front yard, a new bike shed, and a rain-water barrel in the back.
There are two gardens—one out front, and one toward the side of the house—with 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 culture—an 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 events—a 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.