Most of Holly Harper’s life seemed pretty traditional. She married at 24, had a baby girl and lived what she called “the perfect picket-fence life.” But even then, she never considered her approach to life to be conventional.
“My personal life story is one of experimentation, travel, dabbling in everything, connecting people and dreaming,” Harper shared. “For as long as I can remember, I’ve brainstormed ways to get my beloved community [and] chosen family to physically be in the same space — whether living in the same town or vacationing together or retiring to the same cul de sac or assisted care community when we are ‘Golden Girls.'”
As a military spouse, she lived in seven states and Europe. During that time, she cultivated an eclectic group of friends and leaned into her “unconventional side.”
After 17 years together, Harper and her husband separated and sold their house. After living in an apartment for a year that never felt like home, she decided it was time to look for a place of her own.
A Serendipitous Conversation
Harper had owned several homes throughout her marriage and was well aware of the expenses and demands of owning a home. Although she had contacted a realtor and started the search for her own home, she knew it would be a challenge to find one that worked with her budget as a self-employed single mom, especially in the Washington, D.C., area where she lived.
Then, in April 2020, she caught up with her friend Herrin Hopper during the lockdown. During their conversation, the women realized they were both newly single and shopping for homes.
“In D.C., it’s common to have a duplex or condo, so we thought: What if we bought neighboring units?” Harper explained.
They agreed to find a multifamily property with (at least) two units of similar size in a kid-friendly neighborhood close to public transportation. Another must was that neither family would sleep in a basement.
They found a four-unit building and closed on it in late June 2020. Soon after moving in, they sought renters for the remaining units. Single mom of two Leandra Nichola replied and came in on a rent-to-own plan.
In December 2020, Jen Jacobs rented the top-floor studio unit. The single, childless friend of Hopper and Harper was looking for a change from the loneliness she experienced at the height of the pandemic.
The women named the home “Siren House” as a symbol of female empowerment.
Life at the Siren House
Harper says that her co-housing partners are also unconventional.
“We are free spirits, free thinkers, and open to building relationships with one another and others in general with transparency and compassion,” she shared. “Things are always ‘going’ faster than we can keep up with, but it is much more like sisterhood than a ‘Real World D.C.’ situation.”
Self-awareness, self-care and building firm boundaries are top priorities for the women.
“We support one another in a number of ways, from one-on-one conversations, meetings, festive occasions and catching each other when we stumble,” Harper said.
As with any family or community, issues arise. The group is mindful of handling practicalities, such as home repairs, as a team. They tackle emotional matters that come up head-on, making it a point to meet and talk things out.
“The best part about it is we can’t run away and hide from our own demons, our own triggers, our own bad behavior,” said Harper. “We hold each other with trust and empathy, but also hold each other accountable to being mature and healthy humans.”
And it doesn’t stop with their cozy living quarters. They also help one another achieve their pursuits and goals. Together, the women opened the Takoma Park, Md. cafe Main Street Pearl in March 2021. Nichola, whose longstanding dream has been to open an eatery, manages the cafe.
The women said they all live as an extended family that genuinely cares for one another. The kids live like cousins, reaping the rewards of being surrounded and influenced by multiple unique, devoted adults.
Harper hopes that Siren House will encourage others to consider unconventional living arrangements no matter what the housing market looks like, citing the continuing decline of the “traditional family,” longer lifespans and environmental concerns as catalysts for change. In addition, she believes that smart co-housing communities can enable smaller living, less commuting and the advantages of creating your own family support network.
“For all of us, the greatest benefit is having your biggest cheerleaders pushing you forward through imposter syndrome, hesitations, self-confidence dips, aging, dating, mom-shame, child-rearing, career growth — to truly live a joyous life,” Harper shared. “We know it’s possible and we want to help one another so when we need help, we have someone to help us in turn.”