A Peek Inside Seattle's Remaining Communes

Jun 27, 2014

Four people live in a cozy home on Capitol Hill, which they call WOW, for Wild Old Women.

Or that’s what they used to call it; now they call it Wild Old Women And One Young Man, since a godson of one member joined a year ago.

When I visited WOW House on Thursday morning, they had canceled a community meditation session for a house meeting. “We’re having a chicken crisis,” Paulette Hopke, 60, told me as I walked in. The chickens were dying, and one needed medicine. They had already spent $600 on her care.

Paulette Hopke of Wild Old Women (And One Young Man) House holds an ailing chicken.
Paulette Hopke of Wild Old Women (And One Young Man) House holds an ailing chicken.
Credit KUOW Photo/Isolde Raftery

They were good humored and laughed a lot through the meeting. There was talk of mercury being in retrograde (apparently when planets and people go loopy), and on the table in the kitchen was a news article about a fire that had damaged PRAG House.

PRAG, one block away, is another group house established during days of heady revolutionary fervor in the 1970s.

PRAG is perhaps the best known of community houses in Seattle, notable because Seattle City Councilmember Nick Licata and House Speaker Frank Chopp both lived there. Licata left in 2000 after spending 25 years at the house. The 12 current members have been relocated temporarily while the fire damage is repaired.

There are other communes in the city, most of them established in the 1970s and early 80s. They range in dogma, from the Emma Goldman Finishing School on Beacon Hill, which describes itself as an egalitarian 12-bedroom commune, to Jackson Place, which has separate apartments but communal meals. There are roughly 20 in Seattle and more than 100 across the state.

For Carol Anderson, 73, of WOW, these are secret houses in a sense, adhering to the notion that “you don’t have to sell your house. You can give it away.”

Referring to the residential part of Capitol Hill where she lives, now a prohibitively expensive neighborhood, she said, “This used to be such a fun neighborhood with more group houses. Now it’s double income white people. It’s boring.”

We have featured five of these Seattle communities, including WOW and PRAG. We’ve also included more photos in the slideshow at the top of the page.

PRAG House, established as a cooperative in 1972. A fire on the roof there last week has forced its 12 members to move out. Among its former members are Councilmember Nick Licata and House Speaker Frank Chopp.
PRAG House, established as a cooperative in 1972. A fire on the roof there last week has forced its 12 members to move out. Among its former members are Councilmember Nick Licata and House Speaker Frank Chopp.
Credit KUOW Photo/Isolde Raftery

PRAG House

Location: Capitol Hill

Established: Summer 1972

Number of Residents: 13 members, including two children. (“There were always kids in the house,” Licata said. He raised his own family there.)

Previous residents: The Sisters Of Saint Joseph; wayward girls; antique dealer

In the 1970s and 80s, journalists and politicians gathered at PRAG House to joust and drink. The original members were mostly members of the sociology department at the University of Washington. It was a time when Boeing appeared to be going bust and housing on Capitol Hill was cheap. The group pooled their money and plunked down $4,200 for a 37-room mansion.

Philosophy: From an essay Licata wrote in Communities, a magazine about living in community: “In the beginning we were a political collective in the fullest sense: we wanted to change the world by changing our environment and our lives. No processed foods entered the house, only one phone was allowed but no TV, we shared a ’54 Ford Pickup for local trips and also to haul our 30-pound metal milk canisters in from some farm over an hour’s drive each way come Sunday evening.”

PRAG House is owned by the Evergreen Land Trust, which holds cooperative houses, farms and forestlands in the Puget Sound area. Many communes are owned by one member, which some commune dwellers say skews the power dynamic toward the owner.

Sammy the cat poses in front of WOW House on Capitol Hill.
Sammy the cat poses in front of WOW House on Capitol Hill.
Credit KUOW Photo/Isolde Raftery

Family photos in Carol Anderson's room at WOW House.
Family photos in Carol Anderson's room at WOW House.
Credit KUOW Photo/Isolde Raftery

WOW House

Location: Capitol Hill (one block down from PRAG)

Established: 1978.

Number of Residents: four (plus a WOD, a Wild Old Dog named Leda, a WOC named Sammy and four chickens.)

Cost: $450 monthly

Value of note: “We have a queer identity; we are gay-identified.”

If these walls could talk: In the late 70s, a political theater group practiced their lines in the backyard for a play opposing Initiative 13, an anti-gay measure. A next-door neighbor took issue with their message and brought her radio out back and cranked up Christian music.

Carol Anderson bought the 3,000-square-foot home in the 1970s with her husband. They later divorced, and she turned the home into a group house. She raised her daughter here and turned the house over to the Evergreen Land Trust in 2009. Being a member of the trust is subscribing to a belief system of no cruelty to animals, no chemicals and living a sustainable life.

Bright Morning Star, in Seattle's Greenwood neighborhood, finds its roots in the Quaker tradition of peace activism.
Bright Morning Star, in Seattle's Greenwood neighborhood, finds its roots in the Quaker tradition of peace activism.
Credit Courtesy Jonathan Betz-Zall

Bright Morning Star

Location: Greenwood, North Seattle

Established: 1979

Number of Residents: Six, including the two owners of the house: Jonathan Betz-Zall and Rosy Betz-Zall, who sang in the chorus at the Seattle Opera for 18 years.

Know Before You Go: No children may live here; grace before meals

Bright Morning Star has its roots in the Quaker tradition. Notable here is the house meeting, for which one person facilitates and another takes notes. They ask what has gone right and what hasn’t. The house meetings include even the most minute details (where to dry a 40-year-old carbon steel knife so that it doesn’t rust, for example.) The founders and owners of the home, Jonathan Betz-Zall and Rosy Betz-Zall have spent nearly their entire marriage living in community.

Town houses at Jackson Place Cohousing. Cohousing comes out of a Scandinavian housing movement to bring people together but also afford them private space.
Town houses at Jackson Place Cohousing. Cohousing comes out of a Scandinavian housing movement to bring people together but also afford them private space.
Credit KUOW Photo/Bond Huberman
A communal living space at Jackson Place Cohousing in Seattle's South End.
A communal living space at Jackson Place Cohousing in Seattle's South End.
Credit KUOW Photo/Bond Huberman

Jackson Place

Location: Jackson Place neighborhood, South End 

Established: 2000-2001

Residents: 44 adults; 17 children

Condo dues: $509

The first day: It took 27 man hours to cook the group’s first meal. They have it down to a science now.

Jackson Place Cohousing is, to quote member Susan Stafford, “the most middle class, most mainstream and most vanilla.”

Built in 2000 and 2001, Jackson Place comes out of the Scandinavian cohousing movement, in which people live in community but have more privacy than a typical commune. There are two in West Seattle, one in Port Townsend and one on Vashon Island.

Units here vary in size, but a typical one is about 950 square feet with 1.5 bathrooms. Residents own their units – which run about $270,000 – but share utilities and food. There is a communal eating room, which looks like it could be a fancy mess hall and where they eat four to five times a week.

The chores notebook at Jackson Place Cohousing. There are 60 members and each must cook about two meals per month.
The chores notebook at Jackson Place Cohousing. There are 60 members and each must cook about two meals per month.
Credit KUOW Photo/Bond Huberman

Jackson Place was built on land leftover from the I-90 project. A group got together and paid about $6.5 million to design and build the place. The initial tenants stayed together for about seven years, but then turnover started.

“I thought we’d live together forever,” Stafford, a private investigator, said.

Stafford, 66, took us on a tour of Jackson Place, in Seattle’s South End, last winter. Alongside her was Wolf, her part Blue Heeler.

We ended our tour in the kids’ room, where Stafford told us that the children must tell the group of roughly 60 members about how their last year has gone. She said the kids are like cousins to one another.

The grown-ups are close, too, she said, recalling when she attended a conference for condo association board members.

“It often appeared the board was in conflict with the people who lived there,” Stafford said. “Not here. We’re all the same. Everyone here is legally a member of the board.” 

The outside of Sherwood Coop in the University District.
The outside of Sherwood Coop in the University District.
Credit KUOW Photo/Hannah Burn
"If a cop knocks..." A poster at Sherwood Cooperative in Seattle's University District.
"If a cop knocks..." A poster at Sherwood Cooperative in Seattle's University District.
Credit KUOW Photo/Hannah Burn

Sherwood Cooperative

Location: University District

Established: Sherwood was started in the 1930s by the Students Cooperative Association. It's the only remaining student cooperative.

Number of Residents: 15

Age Range: 20s and 30s

Cost: $400-600 monthly, includes rent, food and utilities

Joe Hiller, a dishwasher at Azteca restaurant, rents a room at Sherwood Cooperative, which is also owned by the Evergreen Land Trust. Most everything here – including half a dozen chickens in the front yard – is owned cooperatively.

As with many communities, Sherwood revolves around good food. They spend $108 a month for a food share, have a house dinner and a pantry filled to the brim with vegetables – many from the farmer’s market.

About a third of the residents are students, both undergraduates and graduates.

KUOW's Hannah Burn contributed to this report.