When 10-year-old Tessa Rosenfield is having trouble with her homework, she might bring it to her uncle Dave, a stay-at-home dad who has a head for numbers and a knack for rewiring electrical outlets. That is, if she’s working on math. If she’s doing grammar exercises, she might wait for her uncle Simon, a spiky-haired Latin teacher at Classical Magnet School down the street.* If she wants some quiet time, she might head out to the garden with her aunt Maureen, a gentle, bespectacled mental-health counselor at a community clinic.
None of these people are related to her by blood or marriage. But they all live with her, together with her parents and her 5-year-old brother, Elijah, in a ten-bedroom Colonial brick mansion on Scarborough Street in Hartford, Connecticut. Last August, all of them — eight adults ranging in age from 31 to 40, comprising three couples and two single people, plus three kids under the age of 11 — moved into the house on the tree-lined boulevard in one of the city’s wealthiest neighborhoods. Less than two months later, they received a letter from the city saying they were in violation of the neighborhood’s single-family zoning and must move out. The housemates have since sued in federal court for the right to stay, sparking a months-long battle over, essentially, the definition of a family.
The group of people whose names are listed under the mailbox at 68 Scarborough began thinking of themselves as a family more than a decade ago. In the early 2000s, a few of them were living together at ArtSpace Hartford, an apartment complex where residents live in individual units but share interests, art supplies, and common space. They started talking about living together as a “family of choice.” Of course, they would be able to afford a much better place together than any of them could on their own, but it wasn’t about being grown-up roommates. They wanted to build a sense of community, avoid isolation in various difficult stages of life, and lighten their environmental footprint. A group of 20 initial participants whittled down to about a dozen, and they began meeting weekly; Laura Rozza, who now lives at 68 Scarborough, took the house minutes. Then, in 2008, a handful of them — including Julia Rosenblatt and Josh Blanchfield; their daughter, Tessa Rosenfield; and Maureen Welch — moved into a house on Warrenton Street, across Hartford’s West End. Others stayed nearby, saving up to join them there or at another site. “We’ve built this relationship up over ten years,” Blanchfield says. “It’s not like we put an ad on Craigslist and said, ‘Hey, who wants to live together?’ Which people do, and there are horror stories.”
It was also, and perhaps most important, their plan to live in a home where everyone would participate in child-rearing — even those who didn’t plan on having children themselves. “We’d always known that we wanted to raise kids among other people and other adults, adults who could provide things that we couldn’t,” says Blanchfield.
Rosenblatt sometimes used the phrase “intentional family” to describe what they’ve created. Laird Schaub, the executive director for an organization called the Fellowship for Intentional Communities, defines an intentional community as “a group of people living together on the basis of common values.” For their purposes, that includes religious organizations, co-operative farms, communes, and seniors who live together like the Golden Girls. Schaub says they estimate 100,000 people live together in this way, and they believe that number to be rising. “We have something of a perfect storm with the economic and the social conditions that’s going to drive more experimentation, more interest in intentional communities,” he says.
I’d heard people talk about living communally to raise children or because it is the only way they could afford real estate in Brooklyn. Usually, it was referred to as co-housing and often involved splitting houses that were already divided into multifamily units. But that doesn’t really describe the relationships between the people who live at 68 Scarborough.
Rosenfield, who spent most of her early childhood in the house on Warrenton Street, is close to all of her adult co-residents, but she grew especially close to the family’s oldest member, Greg Tate, an actor and director who co-founded HartBeat Ensemble with Rosenblatt and another director. To Tessa, Tate, who was in his late 50s when they moved in, was something like a grandparent. “From the time that Tessa was a newborn, on most days, Tate would take her from me, many times as early as 6 a.m., so that I, or both Josh and I if it wasn’t a workday, could go back to sleep,” Rosenblatt told me. “Early morning was his time with the kids.”
When they were first planning to live together, Laura Rozza recalled, they met with a lawyer who had advised them on all of the potential issues that could come up, including the illness or death of a family member. “I remember him mentioning this and thinking, No one’s going to die. Everything is going to be okay,” she said. “But not everything is always okay.”
In January of 2012, Tate came down with a terrible cough that wouldn’t go away. Then he suffered a small stroke. A series of scans revealed that he had inoperable metastatic lung cancer. At no point in their time together was the benefit of living communally as a family more obvious than when one of them needed around-the-clock care. “When it became clear what was happening and what was going to be needed, Maureen sent out an email saying he’s going to need rides to this, things like that, and we just started doing it,” Dave Rozza said. The Rozzas’ son, Milo, was then 5 and went with his father and Tate to the hospital for treatment. “A lot of this is for our children,” Dave Rozza said, “showing them different ways that we can interact in the world and with each other.”
Tate died five months later, just after his 60th birthday. The household struggled financially with the loss of Tate’s income, but they also supported each other in their grief. Eventually two other singles, Hannah Simms and then Kevin Lamkins, who had been a part of earlier discussions about living together, joined them. The house had always been too small — there was only one bathroom for five adults — and the family was growing. The following year, Welch began dating Simon DeSantis. “When it was serious, which was, like, date four,” DeSantis laughed, “she said, ‘This is how I live and if we’re going to be together, you have to be okay with that.’”
DeSantis told me that he and some friends had discussed living communally in college, but that vision seemed to be more about making craft beers and artisanal goat cheese together and less about raising someone else’s kids. But when he began dating Welch, he started to see the advantages. “I love privacy and having my own space,” he said, “but I don’t want to be isolated.” He started joining the house for weekly dinners. Getting to know them was more nerve-racking than meeting her parents. “I was on my best behavior,” he says. “I thought, I have to get in good with these people, because I want to live with them.”
With Simon, and his nine-year old greyhound, Sophia, joining them, the group had completely outgrown the Warrenton house. So they started looking for very large houses in the very weak Hartford housing market. “We decided that we wanted at least eight bedrooms, so that limited our options,” Laura Rozza said. They were surprised to find a ten-bedroom mansion on Scarborough in their price range. The house had been on the market for years (a study at Berkeley found that Hartford had the highest percentage of homes with underwater mortgages of any city in the country). With a room for crafts, a butler’s pantry, and a two-acre yard, it quickly became their first choice. They closed on the house at the end of July, paying $453,000 with a mortgage held by the two with the best credit, Laura Rozza and Simon DeSantis. With the help of a lawyer, they drew up a legal agreement distributing ownership among them in carefully calculated shares. Each month, everyone writes a check for their part; the evening I visited, checks were pinned haphazardly to the refrigerator door, the amounts visible to anyone who walked into the kitchen.
While they waited for their closing date, they negotiated the things most likely to strain their relationship: chores. “We got to laundry and I said, ‘I hate laundry,’” Laura Rozza told me. “And Maureen said, ‘Oh, I don’t mind laundry,’ so she does laundry and the rest of us do other things.” They take turns on the things no one likes to do, like cleaning bathrooms, and decided quickly that in a house with 11 people, it takes two to clean the kitchen. During their biweekly family meetings, people get to say what is bothering them and no one else can interrupt. “So you can say, ‘I’m really pissed off that you forgot to take out the trash,’” Blanchfield told me. Making it an item on the weekly agenda made potential conflicts more about the work of the house and less about interpersonal relationships, they say. The housemates talk openly about each other’s skills and drawbacks. Dave Rozza, for instance, was the neat freak, everyone agreed. “He used to joke about following me around the house with a broom,” said Laura with a laugh.
They moved in stages, to avoid the chaos of eight adults and their stuff showing up at the same time. After everyone was in, they hung art and arranged furniture by committee. There was only one functioning shower, so they went to work on the home’s five bathrooms. “It was the week before school started, and Simon and I were like, ‘Uh, guys, we need a shower,’” says Blanchfield, who teaches seventh- and eighth-grade social studies at Annie Fisher STEM Magnet School. Dave Rozza did much of the carpentry and updated nearly 40 outlets from two-prong to three. A label-maker became the home’s most popular gadget: There are labels on each of the kitchen drawers, so all of the 11 residents know where the utensils are. Simms, a director with HartBeat Ensemble and one of the two single residents, planned a garden of tomatoes, kale, and zucchini in raised beds.
Over beers and a cheese plate served on the patio, Laura Rozza said the city’s cease-and-desist letter took everyone in the house by surprise. They had checked the zoning laws before they moved in, of course. “But they were so vague that we thought we were okay,” she says. Besides, it seemed unlikely that anyone would complain about a group of young professionals and their children taking up residence in a house that had sat vacant for so long. “These folks had lived communally on another street in the West End for many, many years, and nobody cared,” said John Q. Gale, the longtime planning and zoning chair of the West End Civic Association. “But here’s what happened: They moved to Scarborough, which is a beautiful boulevard, and no one parks their car on the street. These guys move over there and immediately it looks to the world as though the University of Hartford has a fraternity house on Scarborough.” (They downsized shortly after they moved, from eight cars to five, Julia Rosenblatt told me. “But if they were all Mercedes,” she wondered, “maybe it wouldn’t have been a problem?”)
“We thought, Oh my God, the neighbors think we’re weird!” says Rozza. “We’re not a cult.” Rumors circulated that they were using the house as a residence for Rosenblatt’s theater company. So they sent a letter to neighbors introducing themselves, “to show that we’re just normal folks who have known each other for a long time,” Laura Rozza told me.
They then responded to the city’s cease-and-desist letter explaining that they lived together as a family of choice. Some communities define a family as a single housekeeping unit, a qualification that the Scarborough house meets because they share things like a bank account, cook meals together in a single kitchen, and are not transient — meaning, unlike a group of college students, no one is planning to move out. But in this neighborhood, a single family is defined much more narrowly: as two unrelated persons plus those who are related by blood, marriage, or legal ties like adoption.
Neighbors argue that they are simply asking the city to enforce the current code, put in place to control density and maintain the character of neighborhoods. In an op-ed in the Hartford Courant, Michael O’Connell, a longtime resident of Scarborough Street, argued that without single-family neighborhoods, Hartford runs the risk of even greater decline. “I have seen the city lose its wonderful residential demographics to the suburbs,” he wrote.
But the house at 68 Scarborough, built in 1921, was designed to have unrelated people living in it — it’s just that those people were servants. There is an entire servants’ wing (rooms are noticeably less grand), a bell system for calling help, and separate entries and staircases for employees. All of that is part of what makes the space work for eight adults and three children now. The floor plan also reflects a living arrangement that the city of Hartford would find acceptable under current zoning regulations — an unlimited number of unrelated people may reside in a home on Scarborough Street, provided they are live-in employees. In other words, if the 11 residents were a couple, their children, and employees, it wouldn’t be a problem.
The West End Civic Association set up a hearing where all parties were encouraged to voice their concerns. When it was 68 Scarborough’s turn to speak, Julia Rosenblatt stood up. “We’re just asking for the definition of ‘family’ to be updated from 1964,” she said. Neighbors were opposed to them, she said, because of fear of the unknown. “Not so many years ago, a gay couple would have been the unknown,” she said. “I would bet that when the first African-American family moved in, they were seen as the unknown.”
In the end, the West End Civic Association took no formal action, finding too many “legal complexities and ambiguities in the zoning regulations.” In February, the city’s zoning board of appeals upheld the cease-and-desist order, which allows the city to impose daily fines on the two people who hold the mortgage. Those fines are currently halted by court proceedings, explained Peter Goselin, who is representing the residents at 68 Scarborough. “At some point in time, the city would have the ability to order that people move out of the house,” he says. “But they know they can crush my clients financially without creating the picture of marshals dragging them out of their homes.” (A spokesperson in the Hartford mayor’s office said they have no intention of taking any action until the case had been decided.)
The Hartford Courant published an editorial in support of the residents. “At least a half-dozen states have found traditional definitions of family such as Hartford’s unconstitutional,” it said. The press coverage garnered them a nickname and a hashtag, #Scarborough11. On March 25, the Scarborough 11 filed suit in federal court on two constitutional claims: that the city denied them equal protection under the law by treating them differently from other families in the neighborhood, and that the city violated their due-process rights. “The right to make decisions about your personal life, including your right to consider yourself a family, to make decisions about parenting and intimate matters in your life, those are rights that are protected by the Constitution,” Goselin argues. “The Supreme Court essentially said that it’s best left to the people in the relationship to determine what that relationship is going to look like. What we’re saying in this case is that the government can’t tell people what their families can look like.” If the court maintains that a legal union is not about race or gender but love, why wouldn’t that extend to the legal definition of a family?
Tuesday night is Tessa Rosenfield’s favorite night of the week, because it is when Kevin Lamkins and Hannah Simms make pasta. The week that I visited, Simms was out of town, so Julia Rosenblatt picked kale and tomatoes while Lamkins brought the water to a boil in separate pots, one for adult pasta, the other for kids (with butter). “We have two rules about cooking dinner,” Josh Blanchfield said. “One is that no couples do it together, so someone can be with the kids. The other is, there is no complaining about the food.”
Maureen Welch and Laura Rozza set a long table outside underneath a string of lights, near the terraced patio garden that Welch had planted. It’s where she and DeSantis plan to get married next June. Lamkins’s girlfriend, Carolyn, and her son, John, joined the group for dinner. The kids — John joining Milo, Tessa, and Elijah — sat at the end of the table. The boys scarfed in silence, while Tessa chatted with the adults about choir practice. The press scrutiny has been hardest on Tessa, Laura Rozza told me. The way they lived hadn’t been an issue on Warrenton Street, but all of a sudden it was something her classmates knew and talked about. “No one has said anything negative,” she said, “but it has been an adjustment.” When the kids were finished, they jumped up to play soccer, and Lamkins stood up to join them, followed quickly by Carolyn, who coached Milo’s soccer team last year. In quiet moments, the kids had naturally drifted toward their biological parents, but provided with an invitation to play or an offer to help with homework they eagerly went to whoever would spend time with them.
While the kids played, the parents gossiped and ate chocolate-chip cookies and plums. Julia Rosenblatt said they’d received support from some of their neighbors as well as their peers. “Look at this,” she said, laughing and passing around her phone, which showed a friend’s Facebook post. Above a local news story about the dispute, the friend had written, “LET THEM LIVE!” But they’d also heard from people they didn’t know, especially older people. “So many people who are of the baby-boomer generation or a little older who have said to us, ‘Oh my God, it makes so much sense, the Golden Girls!’ And they should do it. You’re getting older, who is looking out for you? You need more community even if you have a partner,” Rosenblatt said.
Sitting there with the Scarborough 11, I found myself thinking about how much the lines of family have expanded. We love some friends “like a brother”; we “adopt” our friends as family, host “friendsgivings,” list our best friends as our emergency contacts. People have multiple marriages, have children with different spouses, and in each case, the individuals involved decide what those relationships mean to them. In some ways, this household seems like an extension of that. They celebrated their anniversary on July 24. “Exactly one year ago today, I bought a house with 7 longtime friends…and we lived happily ever after,” Dave Rozza tweeted.
A debate rose from the yard about who was winning the soccer game, the adults or the kids. They continued playing until it was impossible to see the makeshift goalposts anymore, then scrambled back inside, where everyone assembled in the kitchen to clean up, only to find that Blanchfield had already done all of the dishes.
*This posted has been corrected to show that the name of the school Simon DeSantis teaches at is Classical Magnet School, not Charter Magnet School.