Why Not Live With Friends?

Affordable rent in New York City’s last Quaker boarding house.

Image: TC Davis

In 1897, the Religious Society of Friends — more commonly known as the Quakers — purchased a stately brownstone on Manhattan’s East 15th street, and formed the Penington Friends House. Under the guidance of a local Friend named John L. Griffin, the house was established to provide housing for elderly Quakers, and to offer supervision for Quaker women traveling through New York City. Griffin’s portrait still hangs in the parlor at the Penington Friends House. And his motto, “To share a meal, at reasonable cost, with Friends and friendly people” still guides the residence. The house now shelters twenty-four long-term residents, of varying ages, faiths and creeds, and has two spare guest bedrooms, which are rented out on a short-term basis.

Around 9 a.m. on a Sunday in February, Lem Schaefer was making Sunday brunch for a few of the house’s residents. He brought out large, billowy batches of scrambled eggs and loaves of fresh wheat bread. Lem is in his early seventies and is a retired seminary administrator; five years ago, he moved to New York from Denver, Colorado, to help take care of his grandchildren. Residents describe him alternately as the grandfather or the mayor of the Penington Friends House.

Penington is a boarding house, a bygone housing option for single city dwellers on a budget. More adult than a dorm, more permanent than a hotel, and more affordable than a single apartment, boarding houses have largely been eclipsed by the tradition of roommates. Penington remains one of the last boarding houses in New York City, and the only Quaker boarding house in the five boroughs. Quakerism first hit America in the seventeenth century, when its believers fled religious prosecution in England.

A commitment to fairness, teetotaling, pacifism, and austerity continue to be the bedrock of Quaker values. The main tenant of Quakerism is the belief that every human has an inner light, a flicker of God living inside him. But their numbers are declining, no doubt in part because of the Quaker resistance to evangelizing.

The rooms at Penington, for both guests and residents, are affordable, modest, and private. “The Phebe Room” is three creaky flights above the ground level and rents for $120 a night. The room is open to singles or couples and includes a double bed, a nightstand, a wood chair, and a half bathroom. Lem’s room is about 8 feet by 13 feet wide, which is typical. Each resident’s room includes a twin-sized bed, a desk, and a closet; large pieces of furniture are discouraged. Residents are allowed to live in the house for up to five years, although exceptions have been made in the past. The monthly rent ranges from $1068 to $1700, and includes the room, utilities, cable, WiFi, a New York Times subscription, help-yourself breakfasts seven days a week, and a home-cooked dinner Sunday through Thursday nights at 6 p.m. Each guest room has a toilet ensuite, but everyone shares the communal showers, which are clean and well maintained. There are ample common spaces, including a large parlor, a dining room, a nook for watching television, a large backyard, and a roof deck.

Next door to the Penington Friends House is the Quarterly Meeting, a Quaker church where all are welcome at the two weekly services. Quaker services eschew scheduled programming. There is no preacher or sermon or singing — Friends may stand and speak when they feel compelled by their inner light. Over breakfast, AJ Parillo, a physical trainer and voice-actor who has lived at Penington for about twenty years, recalled Paul Myers, a resident who was in his eighties when AJ moved to the house in 1996. Paul would regularly attend the Quarterly Meeting’s Sunday services, and preferred the 9:30 a.m. devotional, as the 11 a.m. service has a raucous reputation. One Sunday morning, AJ asked Paul how things were at the Quarterly Meeting. “Noisy,” Paul replied. AJ asked him how many people had spoken during the service. And with great annoyance, Paul retorted, “One.”

Paul Myers would have enjoyed the service that I attended, as nobody felt compelled to speak in the service’s duration. In Quaker churches, the pews face the center of the building, and the interior resembles a theater in the round. There was no announcement that the service had commenced, and it was difficult to tell when, if ever, the service actually began. At the first, the Friends stared straight ahead, silent in devotion. But as the service wore on, everyone began to slouch, like passengers settling in for a long flight. A few minutes after noon, a young man, sitting just off center, rose and said, “Good morning!” as if he were seeing us for the first time. Everyone shook hands with their neighbor, thus concluding the service.

Although the Quarterly Meeting is attached to the Friends Seminary elementary school, the two institutions parted ways several years ago. Some Friends of the church thought that the school was neglecting the Quaker community, and instead catering to Manhattan’s elite. The yearly tuition now exceeds $40,000. There were questions of austerity, homeliness, and modesty — principles that are central to the faith. A 2011 New York Times article summarized the division by saying, “In the meetinghouse, worshipers sit on benches with horsehair cushions. In the office of the school headmaster is a velvety Jonathan Adler sofa.”

Penington represents a kind of middle ground between the Quarterly meeting and the Friends Seminary, and the house has an adherence to Quaker values without necessarily subscribing to the Quaker religion.

The house manager, Rie Ma, presides over the resident application process — which includes personal essays about the importance of community, and reference checks. Most applicants are young adults getting their footing in the world, and the two live-in managers make a conscious attempt to cultivate a diverse group of residents. Being a confirmed Quaker is not a requisite for living in the house, but having a respect for Quaker values is. Kathy Jaeger, the facilities manager, told me, “The younger people can give some energy to the older people, and the older people can give some wisdom and experience to the younger people. You’re living as extended families used to, but don’t anymore.” While only three of the house’s current residents are practicing Quakers, Penington would like to host more of them. “Our mission is to serve Quakers,” Jaeger said. “It’s the only group that’s getting a preferential showing. All things being equal among a group of applicants, we would take the Quaker, regardless of race, or age, or what have you.”

Life at the house is not without its responsibilities and residents are expected to be actively engaged in fostering community. “You do give up some personal freedoms by living here. You can’t give your keys to your friends while you’re away, you can’t have have people over willy-nilly. When it’s your turn to clean up after dinner, you can’t skip the meal. You can’t clean the bathrooms when you feel like it; you’re on a schedule. We expect that you would share dinner with your housemates, and we expect that you would be in attendance at house meetings” Jaeger said.

These monthly meetings are a space for addressing any issues that arise within the house. But in accordance with Quaker tradition, residents are not allowed to simply vote on a matter. An issue is discussed until everyone comes to an amiable solution — what Quakers call, “finding the sense of a meeting.” “Even if everyone doesn’t 100% agree with a solution,” Rie said, “the goal is that everyone has an understanding of everyone else’s point of view.” Ideally, this encourages empathy among the residents. But at its worst, this system brings decisions to a standstill. “Everybody gets to have their say. And until we can all agree on it, it’s not going to move forward.” said Kathy Jaeger.

Kathy Mitchell, Penington’s oldest resident, is fed up with the consensus charter. “I can’t stand that part of the house,” said told me in a hushed voice. “Sometimes I just wish we could put it to a vote!” Speaking in the parlor, Kathy Jaeger told me, “It took us two years to get that sofa reupholstered!” One of the most contentious issues is the house’s 6pm dinner time. And over the years, attendance has dwindled, as the younger residents, many of whom are students, can’t always make it home in time. The dining room is on the house’s garden level, and has a long, clear-lacquered wood table, where residents sit and eat. Although attendance is not required, residents are expected to attend dinner when they can, as it is where most of the house’s socializing takes place.

“One of my major complaints is that the managers don’t sit down to have dinner with us. I tell them, ‘Community starts with dinner,” Lem said. “That table downstairs used to be full all the time, but now, sometimes we just have four people.” But that Sunday night the dinner table at the Penington Friends House was in rare form, and full. The food was laid out in an L-shaped buffet on the island dividing the kitchen and dining room, and a mass of residents culminated just after 6pm.

Penington was in the process of hiring a new chef, who would cook a few dinners per week. On the night I stayed for dinner, the house was auditioning a potential candidate. She served baked chicken with tomato and saffron — the meat fell off the bone, and the tomato sauce was sweet and oily. The whole concoction was baked and served in a cast-iron pot. We also had tabouleh salad, okra topped with tomato and yogurt, and a vegan quinoa soup. Dessert was rice and pistachio pudding with bits of cinnamon.

I had heard grumblings that the current chef never joined the residents for dinner — she always seemed to be in a rush out the door. But that evening’s candidate won the house over with her willingness to linger and chat. (Her food was a hit too.) I later discovered why the 6 p.m. dinner time was such a contentious issue, because by 11 p.m., I was hungry again. I made my way down to the kitchen, hoping to find some leftovers or a piece of fruit, and I was not the only one. About half a dozen of the residents had a similar idea and were scrounging together leftovers and peanut butter sandwiches.

In the past few years, there has been a rise in companies offering “co-living” situations—Greek life for grownups and an alternative to finding roommates on Craigslist. They offer shared housing with high-speed wifi, flexible move-in dates, and a West Elm catalog’s worth of particleboard mid-century furniture. But more than just a fully-stocked kitchen, these companies sell the opportunity to meet like-minded individuals. Common, a co-living company based in New York, advertises, “Co-living, co-eating, co-playing, co-creating. This is what it means to live life in common.” The implication is that you aren’t just paying for a room — you’re also paying for a community.

When I arrived at Penington, I expected to find a variation of these co-living situations: WeLive of the 19th century. Common’s cheapest rooms rent for around $2,000 a month, and the whole co-living fad seems to be an excuse to network with people your own age. In its own Quaker way, Penington is appealing to that same desire for community.

The real difference between these co-living companies and the Penington Friends House is the type of community that is being fostered. Penington’s managers have made a conscientious effort to cultivate an assorted mix of young, old, newcomers, longstanding residents, atheists and believers. AJ Parillo described the ideal resident makeup as a healthy forest: old, sturdy trees work symbiotically with newer, younger shrubs.

This type of environment, one where you can choose to live with people whose walk in life greatly differs from your own, seems to be Penington’s real attraction besides the affordable rent. Politically, the residents skew to the left, but no more so than the average New Yorker. Penington’s most remarkable feature isn’t its longevity. Rather, it’s that students, grandparents, voice actors, non-profit administrators, atheists and devout Catholics can all be cordial at the same dinner table.

Jack Lowery is a retired dog walker.