The D.C. Group House and the ‘Beanbag Circle of Judgement’

Shaw RowhomesThanks to a consistent high demand for rental housing and a large stock of spacious row houses, Washington, D.C., has a large number of group houses. Well known by locals, I’ll define the group house as a house or apartment with a revolving group of four or more unrelated roommates who share a common kitchen, living space, and usually bathroom. Occasionally the owner of the property is a tenant, other times they live nearby. In some instances each roommate signs a lease but in others one captain of the house — who has seized power by longevity, ingenuity, or by fiat — is the sole conduit to the landlord, setting rent and occasionally skimming off the top. The origin of the D.C. group house likely goes quite far back, perhaps as early as the early Capitol Hill lodging for congressmen (a tradition that itself continues to the present day.)

There are so many such houses with foggy legal and financial structures they warrant a special note in the guide to rental housing in the District, which warns that under the legal concept of “joint and several liability,” landlords can pursue original signers of a lease for remedy if they choose, even after the signer has moved out. Regardless of their precise arrangement these houses share a distinctive subculture of deferred maintenance, accumulated furniture, and dubious hygiene. The term itself seems to be evolving into a fused form — a Google search for “grouphouse” turns up 763 examples, and the first page containing several Washington-area usages.

Fire Escape
Thanks to the constant need to fill vacancies and the large pool of applicants, many group houses rely on public open houses to find roommates. The process begins with a carefully crafted advertisement containing subtle (or not-so-subtle) hints about the desired gender, sexual orientation, drug use, diet, and lifestyle of the desired tenants. This ad — and the selection process itself — was the subject of this satirical posting on Cragslist last year:

1000 – Pay $1000 to live in a hip house in the middle of a dangerous hood Reply to: anon-59523397 at
Date: 2005-02-12, 9:05PM EST

Room for rent in hip rowhouse in a very dangerous area of DC. But our place is hip, let me tell you. There’s even some exposed pipes, which we feel bring a certain bohemian charm. Also, the one toilet that we share has a manual flusher. What do I mean by that? Well, you’ll find out!

When you enter the house, you will find some whiteys (many of them gay) blasting Radiohead. When you venture OUT of the house, you will find yourself amidst an urban hell, the likes of which you’ve never seen.

The room for rent is $1000/month. It’s an airless little cell with one small window which allows a small percentage of pollution-filtered sunlight to enter. You’d be wise to bring a laptop, because your lap is basically the only space available for a computer. A twin bed might work, though.

The house itself is a throwback to the 1920s, when DC apparently was a magical place, we’ve been told. The carpeting has been urinated on several times by drunken strangers we’ve invited in for parties. In our living room, we have a chandelier! That’s right, this artist friend of ours made a chandelier out of twigs, glue, and pipe cleaners. We think you’ll adore it!

Oh and one thing: the kitchen is vegan-mandatory. We even think tofu is cruel, but we might be able to look past it. You can forget about eggs, though. Eggs are essentially unborn baby chicks who never got the chance to live. Oh, but we should mention: pro-lifers, scram!

So come by to our open house. We’ll sit around on some bean bag chairs in our living room (Well, not you. You, specifically, will sit in the center of our “bean bag circle of judgment”). We’ll drill you about your tastes and decide whether we want to keep you!

How about it?

This place is HIP!

Come join our hip, happy family!

In real life, open houses can take on the absurd atmosphere described above as the would-be roommates attempt to convey their “laid back” personalities and good musical taste to the existing roommates. At times, group house tenants will draft a questionnaire for prospective roommates to complete. Two forms I collected at an anonymous friend’s group house range from the mundane (“Are you looking to live somewhere short-term or the long-term?) to the more personal (“What type of music have you been listening to lately?,” “What, if anything, are you currently reading?”). Despite their quirks, group houses are generally affordable, and have become something of a rite of passage for newcomers searching for rental housing in a hurry. Have you faced a Beanbag Circle of Judgement? What is your favorite group house memory?

Author: Rob Goodspeed


  1. Yeah, I so got stuck in one of those circles…they didn’t take too well to my meat eating tenancies.

    The place I ended up in, on the other hand, was pretty much the Anti-Beanbag Circle house. Besides me, there were assorted members (and former members) of a vaguely militant punk band, a philandering street guitarist, assorted boozehounds, and of course Mr. and Mrs. Domestic Disturbance who lived downstairs.

    Grouphouse and hippie are not always connected!

  2. Except for some brief stints in apartments, I lived in unrelated-group settings (in East Lansing MI, Detroit MI, and Ithaca NY) from 1976 until 1990. A little over two years of that was in a student housing co-op with a constitution and bylaws, but all the rest were informal.

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