At the Omega House, an “intentional community” near 24th Street & 1st Avenue, residents collectively buy food to share. They split up house chores. They spend time at their farm in Wisconsin making maple syrup. They become board members at the house’s nonprofit. They run a community garden where a neighboring house burned down in the 70s.
Minneapolis council members are exploring a new ordinance amendment that would expand intentional communities like this one, allowing more unrelated people to share a residence. The change would allow intentional communities to register with the city and share housing up to the maximum safe occupancy.
Council Member Cam Gordon said current rules prohibit more than three unrelated adults living together in low-density areas, and more than five unrelated adults living together in high-density areas. He said new occupancy rules would depend on the size of a house, with some of the biggest buildings holding about 10 people.
“A big mansion somewhere could allow a pretty large intentional community,” he said.
Gordon said he’s been interested in the issue since first running for office a decade ago. While door-knocking, he met three guys sharing a house who had two extra bedrooms but no relatives to move in. The issue arose for same-sex couples before passage of the marriage law, as well as committed couples who hadn’t married. He said a student co-op near the University of Minnesota is interested in new grad student housing, and he’s heard from seniors who want to share a home and hire a housekeeper.
“For me, it’s an affordable housing issue and also a social justice issue,” he said.
Council Member Lisa Goodman, a co-sponsor of the amendment, said blood relation is an “antiquated way of thinking about family.”
“I don’t understand what would be different if six or eight or 12 people related by blood are living together versus people not related by blood living together,” she said. “People define their families differently in this day and age.”
She said many intentional communities already exist throughout Minneapolis.
“No one knows they are there; it’s not really a problem,” she said.
A directory of local intentional communities includes a queer-friendly group sharing vegetarian and organic food in a Victorian house in South Minneapolis, a students’ cooperative near the University of Minnesota, and Mennonite Worker housing devoted to simplicity and prayer.
Pending city approval, Joseph Walz would like to house 10-12 people in a 7,000-square-foot house he calls “Dreamland 2” at 3301 1st Ave. S.
“This house is huge, and you can only have six people in it,” Walz said. “It’s a perfect house for an intentional community.”
The house includes a sunlit solarium room, a “Harry Potter” room tucked in a closet under the stairs, a basement movie room for screenings and TED Talk nights, and a backyard patio and Japanese fountain. Walz would like to convert a carriage house into communal office space with a treehouse atmosphere and off-the-grid power.
Dreamland 2 is waiting for the city’s stamp of approval to complete renovations for a fourplex. The house includes three floors above ground, and the current R2B zoning doesn’t allow a fourplex, Walz said.
The house was constructed in 1908, and Walz said it had fallen into disrepair before he bought it.
“It was a gem in the rough. And it was really rough,” he said.
The first incarnation of Dreamland, an intentional community near Lake Street & 21st Avenue, was sold for construction of an adult education center.
Walz spent three months studying intentional communities throughout Europe, including the Hafenstrasse in Hamburg. According to the Fellowship for Intentional Community, people started squatting there in the 80s and fought eviction for years before a housing cooperative purchased and renovated the homes in the mid-90s.
“Evolutionally it’s more natural to be in that type of living situation,” Walz said. He said independent living is not the norm throughout history. As the city works to grow its population, this is a tool the city can use for free, he said.
“It’s a great way to bring people together and not feel lonely,” he said. “It’s also a lot more financially secure.”
Josh Tolkan lived at Omega House at 2412 1st Ave. S. for three years before recently moving. He estimates that rent at Omega House was a bit less than a neighborhood studio, between $450-$515 per month plus $150 per month for food.
“You’re getting a lot out of that,” Tolkan said. “A lot of your food is paid for, with access to a huge farm property.”
Systems of allocating chores are often evolving, he said. They have tried everything from permanently assigning favorite jobs to tagging dishes people leave behind in the kitchen. For a while, a resident computer programmer created “chore-bot,” which assigned a randomized list of chores each week.
Thanks to the farm, the kitchen is stocked with apples every fall. The house sold 300 pumpkins last year as a fundraiser. Housemates make about 20 gallons of maple syrup every year using a wood-fired cooker, splitting up the work time.
“It’s probably one of the older community houses in the Twin Cities. It’s really an amazing structure,” Tolkan said.
He said a group of psychology grad students purchased the house in the late 60s, living together as a social experiment. Omega House is unique in that it was bought collectively and left for the future, he said.
“Omega House is something really special. It has a great legacy,” he said. “There is no one who owns Omega House.”
Tolkan said he thinks it’s a good idea to allow more density in the city and accommodate more creative housing situations. He wants to make sure tenant’s rights are protected, however, to prevent residents from performing a lot of work and not receiving equal benefits.
Council Member Gordon said new rules would include safeguards so unscrupulous landlords and problem tenants could not take advantage of the new law.
As currently drafted, landlords flagged by the city for additional inspections could not open intentional communities. Noisy or unruly houses could be stripped of their legal status.
The Cedar-Isles-Dean Neighborhood Association discussed intentional communities at a June board meeting.
“It will affect all neighborhoods,” said CIDNA Chair Craig Westgate. “As prices go higher, more and more people will start sharing.”
“In the old days, we had a lot more density per house,” said resident Bob Corrick. “That’s why our population declined. They’re trying to get that back to what it used to be 30 or 40 years ago.”
Intentional communities would be defined as self-identified groups of two or more people who live together and share in the management and maintenance of the residence. The city already allows exceptions for religious groups, supportive housing, halfway houses and emergency shelters.
Council Member Goodman said the biggest objection she hears relates to cars; neighbors seem to express more concern about friends’ parked cars than kids’ cars. She said they must ensure no one concentrates sex offenders, party houses or other problems inside new intentional communities. Another concern in neighborhoods like Lowry Hill with large houses is preventing over-occupied rooming houses, she said, but rules can be based on existing city regulations like the fire code.
“I think we can put enough safeguards in place,” she said.
A new intentional community in Powderhorn Park is called “The LightHouse.” Owner Josh Adams said it’s an expression of the kind of place he and his fiancée want to live in.
“We wanted to be close to people that inspire us,” Adams said. “Going for your dreams is a big part of who we are and what we want the house to feel like.”
The LightHouse has hosted movie nights, a MayDay Parade brunch and house concerts that feature musicians who live in the house. On one occasion, a resident came home with armfuls of flowers that Trader Joe’s was throwing away — they teamed up and passed out flowers to neighbors, passersby and the nearby hospital.
Adams said landlords should be sacred in society.
“They have such a profound ability to influence the quality of life,” he said.
He’d love to encourage other property owners to think harder about creating community.
“The more you invest in relationships, the longer people stay,” he said.
Community meetings to discuss intentional communities are Thursday, June 30 from 7-9 p.m. at Van Cleve Park, 901 15th Ave. SE; and Aug. 4, 6:30-8 p.m. at University Lutheran Church of Hope, 601 13th Ave. SE.