Despite Controversy, Intentional Living Gaining Acceptance in Connecticut
All images by Keyvan Behpour
Update: On March 24, the city of Hartford filed suit against the homeowners to enforce a cease-and-desist order they first served in October. The order that was upheld by a city zoning board of appeals in February. The city also seeks to collect fines, which could be as much as $200 a day, according to the Hartford Courant.
Meanwhile, an online petition requesting the city update its zoning laws has collected more than 1,400 signatures, and an Indiegogo account for donations to defray the group's legal bills has collected more than $4,000.
For their part, on March 25, the Scarborough 11 announced they had filed a lawsuit in federal district court citing a violation of their constitutional rights. They also were filing an injunction against the fines while the case is being considered.
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Depending on your timing, walking into 68 Scarborough Street in Hartford could put you in the middle of a house meeting, a discussion about the group’s chore wheel, or a puzzle-solving session with any of the house’s three children.
Walking into 68 Scarborough Street will also put you in the middle of a roiling discussion about families and zoning.
68 Scarborough is an intentional community of eight adults and three children. They are co-housing, which means that though they are not all related by blood or marriage, they are sharing space, living expenses and values—as would most functioning families.
68 Scarborough Street, however, is not a commune in the hippie-dippy sense—though they get asked that a lot. There are couples and singles, and their children, who sometimes plan talent shows and game and movie nights. There are also bedrooms with doors that close for privacy, though people tend to congregate in the common living areas. They appear to actually like one another.
“We live together probably more intentionally than most families,” says Julia Rosenblatt, a founding member of the HartBeat Ensemble theater group and one of the individuals who inhabit the 6,000-square foot brick mansion on one of Hartford’s toniest streets.
Some of the adults have lived together for years, most recently in another Hartford neighborhood where their living arrangement didn’t seem to worry the neighbors.
Not so on Scarborough Street. Last year, some neighbors petitioned the city to enforce zoning laws, which restrict dwellings on Scarborough to single families—though the law allows for an unlimited amount of live-in domestic servants. A zoning board of appeals hearing in February decided 68 Scarborough is in violation of zoning laws, but the group has vowed to keep the discussion going.So the two main conversations that swirl around the nine-bedroom dwelling are these: “What is a family?” Followed rather quickly by: “What are zoning laws for, anyway?”
A February Office of Legislative Research report looked at 13 towns’ definition of family in zoning regulations. Some required at least some relation—by marriage or blood. Some were less restrictive. According to the report, in East Hartford, family is defined as “individuals living together as a single, nonprofit housekeeping unit occupying a dwelling unit that has complete housekeeping facilities.”
The Scarborough 11 started life as an intentional community on Warrenton Street in Hartford—a far less chichi address, and one where they had no run-ins with the neighbors. But when one of the Warrenton group, Greg Tate, died, residents found it difficult to meet their bills. They expanded the group to include longtime friends, and began looking for a larger house.
How ironic that this merry group of low-impact, socially conscious people found a mansion on a lovely boulevard that threads its way through a wealthy Hartford neighborhood. The group pooled resources, and last August, purchased the $453,000 house, immediately sinking $20,000 into new plumbing to replace the copper pipes that had been stolen.
The structure came with an impressive pedigree. Built in 1921 and designed by the same firm that created the Heublein Tower, 68 Scarborough (below) features nine bedrooms and three fireplaces. Just three years ago, the Junior League of Hartford chose the home as its Show House, where designers came to strut their stuff, and turned the already well-heeled house into a fund-raising showplace.But the mansion was empty when the Scarborough 11 stumbled across it on a real estate website. Each came to see the house at different times. Josh Blanchfield, Rosenblatt’s husband, says he first got lost upstairs in the maze of bedrooms.
The modern-day concept of co-housing, which is more popular in urban areas, started in Denmark. It’s an idea that’s taking hold in places where housing is even more expensive than here in Connecticut. A report released in December by Partnership for Strong Communities says the state ranks sixth in the nation—at $1,337—for monthly median housing costs.
Yet Connecticut has been a slow adapter to new approaches to housing. Intentional communities that exist sometimes do so because of creative agreements between residents and landlords. An intentional community in New Haven operates on a private arrangement with the landlord. The lease covers two apartments, according to one of the house residents. And it’s located in a part of the city that is also home to a large contingent of Yale graduate students. The zoning is RM-2, or high middle density.
Some religious communities live intentionally in Connecticut with few complaints from their neighbors, though when members of two of those communities were contacted for this story, both declined for fear of stirring the waters.
A planned intentional community, Rocky Corner, in Bethany, will include 30 homes on 30 bucolic acres. Residents will own their own homes, most of which are 1,000-square feet or thereabouts, says Dick Margulis, one of the community’s spokesmen. The site includes a common house that’s five times the size of an average Rocky Corner home. Nine of the homes will be affordable.
“Intentional communities don’t all share the same intent,” said Margulis “Our intent is to live sustainably.” He said co-housing communities such as Rocky Corner are more common in Massachusetts, where the movement is at least 20 years old.
“In Connecticut, everyone says, ‘Co-what?’” Margulis says. Some local Bethany residents originally voiced opposition, but Margulis explains, “We overcame it because we had the law on our side.”
In her 2013 book Snob Zones: Fear, Prejudice and Real Estate, New York Times correspondent Lisa Prevost explored how zoning can be used to discriminate. Connecticut, with its abundance of wealthy neighborhoods, figured prominently in her reporting, and she says the discussion on Scarborough Street is one that’s ongoing throughout the state.
“The reaction—the overreaction—of the neighbors just amazes me,” says Prevost. “You see this over and over and over again in Connecticut when any one challenges the housing status quo. In Darien, people were calling an affordable housing law ‘economic terrorism.’ In Bethany, they’re called ‘fellow travelers,’ an ‘invasion.’ It’s this inability to think beyond the way everyone’s always lived.”
Neighbors’ opposition to the living arrangements on Scarborough haven’t focused on the character of the house’s residents but more on preserving the character of the street, says Michael O’Connell, a Hartford attorney who last year signed on with 17 residents to ask the city to enforce the street’s zoning laws.
“What we have faced over close to 30 years is periodic efforts to take away the residences and turn them into something else,” says O’Connell, who has lived on the street since the mid ’80s. “It’s not just roommate or boarding houses, but also some institutions have come in and tried to take over the houses.
“Our notion is that we really want to preserve this wonderful single-family residential area.”
O’Connell, who was born in Hartford’s South End, says haphazardly applied zoning laws could dissuade potential homeowners from moving to the street.
“On one level, we feel very sorry for this problem created for this group of people who have moved in and tried to do work on that house,” he says. “One side of our perspective is to feel uncomfortable for them and sorry they’re faced with this issue.
“But we want to lure some of the people back from the suburbs. One of the concerns that has faced us over the years is setting a precedent. If we feel sorry for somebody, or we feel that they’re good people and doing something good . . . but we let the zoning rule be totally ignored—that’s a problem.”Lest we dismiss zoning outright, we should remember before there were zoning laws to impose some kind of order; neighbors who felt put-upon by, say, a nearby boisterous bar, had only nuisance laws to protect them. And those weren’t effective.
Hartford’s low-density R-8 zone was adapted in the 1960s, and applies to single-family residences with lots of 12,000 square feet, and homes with at least 1,500 square feet of living space. Hartford’s zoning laws say the R-8 designation encourages “the future development of these very low-density residential areas for primarily residential purposes by prohibiting conversions, roomers, most institutional uses and all business uses.”
But such low-density areas have fallen out of favor in towns like Hartford, which are hemorrhaging young people like the Scarborough 11. What people want is walkable, high-density neighborhoods—the antithesis of Scarborough. Intentional living in some of the city’s empty properties just might be one answer to woefully behind-the-times zoning designations because zoning sometimes serves as little more than a deep moat to keep out the have-nots.
“So much of single-family zoning was written as a way for people with money to exclude those with less money,” says Prevost. “Who needs roommates the most? People with less money. If you cap the number of unrelated residents, you’ve effectively excluded people who need to live with other people for affordability reasons.”
Religious communities around the state live intentionally with little to no complaints from the neighbors. And just across the street from the Scarborough 11 is a mansion purchased in 2013 for $660,000 by the University of Connecticut Foundation for UConn President Susan B. Herbst as a site, as Jon Lender wrote in the Hartford Courant, “to woo big donors.”
O’Connell says street residents asked about the foundation’s purchase and were reassured that though there might be the occasional fund-raising event, the residence would remain what it was zoned for: a single-family home.
“It’s a difficult situation,” says O’Connell, who heads the city’s historic preservation commission. “We focus on restoring and maintaining historic attractions of the city. I work downtown, and am very involved in restoring downtown. We want to maintain and restore the single-family residential areas as well.”
While the conversations continue outside, inside the Scarborough house there’s a quiet domesticity. Housing meetings help keep everyone informed. A household account is monitored by Maureen Welch, a Windsor Locks native who returned from California to live at 68 Scarborough. She is the house’s ex post facto accountant. Groceries are purchased as a group. The housemates tease Simon DeSantis, a relative newcomer, about his love of expensive, single-origin coffee, which he purchases for himself and labels as his own. “It isn’t fair to make your housemates foot your expensive tastes,” he says.
DeSantis came to the house through his relationship with Welch. When the two met, she told him that co-housing was a big part of her approach to life, and if he wanted to be in her life, he would need to live intentionally as well. DeSantis says meeting Welch’s housemates was more intimidating than meeting her parents. That’s understandable—he wasn’t going to live with her parents.
Perhaps the height of weirdness came when The Learning Channel called, offering the group a reality show that features alternative families. Rosenblatt talked to producers for some time, but the group decided no.
“I think we know enough to feel like the least healthy thing you can do is have your community put under a microscope,” says Hannah Simms, another housemate.
That, and the group couldn’t imagine television audiences would want to tune in every week to watch them do what they often do: Sit around watching Netflix and playing vigorous rounds of board games.
(This article was originally published on a different platform. Some formatting changes may have occurred.)
This article appeared in the April 2015 issue of Connecticut Magazine
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