Winona House, a community of volunteers facing eviction, rallies city support
|courtesy Winona House|
|The residents of the Winona House, plus a friend, in their Christmas photo.|
Two months of fighting -- and one impassioned op-ed -- later, they're finally hopeful that they may not be the last community to live at the Winona House.
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The fighting didn't start right away. When the Winona House first got the eviction notice, they figured it must be a mistake: They pay their rent on time. They bring cookies to their neighbors. Their landlord is a church. And back in July, they had signed on as full-time volunteers with the LVC, and committed to living for one year in an intentional community -- think shared supplies, nightly dinners, and supportive roommates.
"When we got that eviction notice, it was more than just losing my house," explains Dan Perucco, who moved into the Winona House after graduating from St. Olaf this summer. "It was also having this support network kicked out from under me."
The Winona House, though, was technically over-occupied. Even though the house has six bedrooms, Perucco and his roommates were in violation of a zoning ordinance that says no more than three unrelated adults can live together.
The seven roommates thought it would be easy to tell that their home wasn't an over-stuffed boarding house, and that they would be fine. "We thought it was so ludicrous that at first we laughed it off," says Perucco. "We were joking, 'Oh, we'll just get married.'" They called the LVC, and kept living their lives in the house.
A month later, the roommates found out that the LVC was struggling to get the Winona House a variance, and they kicked into action. They called people in their congregation, the LVC network, and a few lawyers. But every step of the way, "we were told it was almost hopeless," says Perucco. The house won an eviction extension from December 1 to January 1, but that was it.
At a low point, last week, Perucco decided to pen an editorial, and sent it to the Star Tribune. "My hope is that our story might testify against a bureaucracy that inadvertently harms the people it aims to protect," Perucco wrote.
The paper published Perucco's piece on December 11. Instantly, it sparked a response. Perucco started getting phone calls from supportive strangers, some of whom lived in community houses themselves. "The ones I have heard from are really cautious about not even telling me where they live or what their house is, because they're just not wanting to be discovered," says Perucco.
The Winona House also got a response from the city. On Monday, City Council Member Elizabeth Glidden met with an LVC director and with Winnie Zwick, one of the house members, to talk about the house's options. While they don't yet have a solution on the table, they're looking into possibilities, including one model from St. Paul that involves an ordinance specific to faith-based community living.
"These issues with overcrowding are real issues and they can be safety issues," explains Glidden. "But we're looking at, A, our current rules and regulations and seeing if this fits or not, and B, is there something appropriate we can do that doesn't create challenges."
The Winona House's setup isn't far from other new ways of sharing resources. Glidden compares the regulatory challenges to those created by popular car-sharing services like Lyft and Uber, and in other cities, examples of people renting out their homes while they're out of town.
"There are a lot of new models for sharing that are challenging cities and other local government units with how our regulatory frameworks fit, and maybe should we tweak those frameworks," says Glidden. "We have to look at when the city has appropriate regulations and when we're standing in the way."
To Zwick and Perucco, the situation is no longer just about the Winona House: It's about social justice issues like affordable housing. "Somebody who is wealthy could easily afford to move into a house like ours with two other people," says Perucco. "But for people living below the poverty line, oftentimes communal ownership or renting of a house is the only possible way to find a home."
Even as they continue to seek a solution for their own house, Zwick and Perucco hope that their story can help create options for others like them.
"Legitimate intentional communities create a positive impact in their communities, and allow people who may be single or not in traditional families to have that kind of living situation," explains Zwick. "I would hope that there would be some way for that to be legal."
-- Tips or comments? Reach Olivia LaVecchia by email or on Twitter at @olavecchia