topanga

The ‘Kidbutz’ of Topanga

In a four-bedroom, 3,400-square-foot house with three and a half baths and a two-car garage in this hilly Los Angeles County enclave, Aleksandra Evanguelidi, 41, sleeps in the master bedroom; in the room next door is her daughter, Juno, 6, who shares it with Claire, also 6. Across the hall is an under-the-sea-theme loft. Eli, age 4, sleeps there. His mother, Ashley Welch, 24, has the room across the hall, which doesn’t have a bathroom of its own but does have a private balcony. And in the room next door, is Justin Balthrop, 37, Claire’s father.

Abby Lewis, 63, comes to visit for a month each summer. Everyone calls her Grandma. She is Mr. Balthrop’s mother, and lives in Albuquerque. “She fits in well here,” Mr. Balthrop said one afternoon this past spring as he whipped up a banana-kale-peanut-butter smoothie. “She used to live on a real hippie commune.”

Meet the Topanga Family, as their neighbors call them. They are the vanguard of communal living and child rearing, contemporary-style, where a dusty, off-the-grid farm in the middle of nowhere gives way to a sprawling $2 million house with endless views and vaulted ceilings, a Viking kitchen and multiple terraces, 20 minutes from Santa Monica.

While “co-living” is on the rise in cities like San Francisco and New York — a result of astronomical rents and a craving for community — so-called “hacker houses” and new cohabiting businesses like Common and WeLive are geared toward the young and childless. This is a different situation. The Topanga Family was created to befit single parents. And, in turn, their kids. Everyone involved agrees that the greatest perk is the siblinglike relationships that have developed among the children.

“What we’re doing isn’t new,” said Ms. Evanguelidi, a midwife. “People have been doing this forever. We’re just pimping it out.” She is the one who initially found the listing for the house, which is why, she said, she has claim to the large master suite with its two-sink marble counters, deep soaking tub and enormous walk-in closet.

On this spring evening, Dallas Garcia, the children’s 19-year-old nanny, was barefoot in the kitchen making lentil soup and chopping carrots and celery against a backdrop of the Santa Monica Mountains. Three blond children bolted through the front door, past a small wooden sign hanging in the foyer that read, “Remember, as Far as Anyone Knows We Are a Normal Family,” and into the kitchen. They scrambled to get to the countertop. “I want to sit next to my sister-roommates!” demanded Eli, clambering onto a stool between Claire and Juno.

Typically, everyone eats dinner together around 7 p.m., but tonight, Juno’s and Eli’s mothers were still driving home after spending a day off at the hot springs in the desert. So Ms. Garcia was in charge. She just finished her first year of community college; she works part time at a pizza place and part time for the Topanga Family. She found the job through her boyfriend, who is the son of Ms. Evanguelidi’s boyfriend, whose name is Troy Mitchell. “I tell my friends where I work, and they don’t get it,” Ms. Garcia said. “It’s totally opened my mind. It makes me feel like I don’t need to grow up and do things the traditional way.”

Before Mr. Balthrop came along, the Topanga Family used to be all female — except, of course, for Eli. It was known around town as the Hen House, and it originally started out of necessity. Ms. Evanguelidi is a single mother, and her career in helping to deliver babies means that she works odd hours, often at night. In 2012, she was scanning Craigslist, looking for a new place for her and Juno to live when she spotted her dream house: a Topanga single-family modern manse with a landlord asking for a rent of $5,500 per month. (The rent is now $7,500 per month.)

But then something very Los Angeles happened. She ran into a single mother of two she knew at the Whole Foods in Venice who was also looking for a new home and support. “It was fate,” Ms. Evanguelidi said.

By word of mouth, they soon added more single moms, and more children. At peak, there were four women and five kids under age 5. Once, a woman who was not a parent moved in, briefly. “She just didn’t get it,” Ms. Welch said. “She tried to label her food in the fridge, and we knew it wouldn’t work.” (This is not a kibbutz, it’s a “kidbutz.”)

The current configuration of residents took shape in 2013, when Ms. Welch arrived with Eli, who was then 1. During her pregnancy, she had been working as a sales manager at Bloomingdale’s and sleeping on a friend’s couch while taking nutrition courses through an online school. At a party, Ms. Welch met a friend of Ms. Evanguelidi’s who told her about the Topanga house. The women met, and it was an immediate fit.

In 2014, Mr. Balthrop, a programmer, was going through a divorce. His former wife had heard about this nearby house “with a bunch of parents,” as he said she described it to him, and urged him to check it out. Ms. Evanguelidi and Ms. Welch invited him to dinner. The lease was awkwardly lying on the table, like the rose on the silver tray on “The Bachelorette.” At the end of the evening, he signed it — and he and Claire moved in soon thereafter.

Mr. Balthrop was the first man to live in the house with the Topanga Family. Eli and Juno, whose biological fathers live in other states, initially started calling him “Daddy.” Then the children’s fathers came to visit, and “Daddy” reverted “Justin.”

Ms. Evanguelidi and Ms. Welch were initially worried about adding a man to the family. “I didn’t want to ruin what we’d created,” Ms. Evanguelidi said. It was a rocky start. “Our first week, Juno busted in yelling, ‘This isn’t your room!’” Mr. Balthrop said. Then Ms. Evanguelidi threw out all his food that wasn’t organic. “I was like, uh, this might not work,” he said. But two years later, Claire and Juno are best friends, and Mr. Balthrop keeps a stash of Jif and YoCrunch with M&M’s in a minifridge in his room.

Last year, a second man moved in with his two daughters. “That totally changed the energy,” Ms. Evanguelidi said, especially because both she and Ms. Welch initially found him attractive. Within weeks, he and Ms. Welch hooked up. “We were just so connected musically,” she said.

Other rules of the house: In addition to no nonorganic food and no TV (Mr. Balthrop surreptitiously binge-watches “House of Cards” on his laptop), there is overnight guest etiquette. “Sometimes,” Ms. Welch said, “I’ll wake up to check on Eli and I’ll hear Aleks and Troy, and I’m like, ‘Aleks! You have to shut your door!’”

Everyone shares the rent, the car-pooling duties and the expensive Los Angeles County water bill. They also freely discipline one another’s children. “Every kid is fair game,” Ms. Welch said. For example, when her son, Eli, dumped all of Juno’s dresses off their hangers, Mr. Balthrop (the parent of neither child) took charge.

Household duties are split. Ms. Evanguelidi does the grocery shopping; Ms. Welch does the cooking (wild Alaskan salmon with quinoa one night, beef tacos with sautéed kale the next). “I eat way better than I did when I was married,” Mr. Balthrop said. He fixes the overworked washer-dryer and marches around with a fly swatter, stamping out the insects that hover around the compost bin and countertop bowls overflowing with yams, oranges and avocados.

On occasion, they try to take advantage of their unique living arrangement. Ms. Evanguelidi and Ms. Welch recently registered as domestic partners on Eli’s kindergarten application to increase his chances at getting into Juno’s Waldorf-inspired school. “It’s not a lie!” Ms. Welch said. “We are domestic partners. We have been for the last four years.”

As in all serious relationships, though, there can be complications. There have been arguments over money, and issues of jealousy and secrecy. When Ms. Welch became involved with the man who had moved in for just a short time last year, she didn’t tell anyone for months. “One night, Aleks said to me, ‘I’m so happy neither of us would ever hook up with our housemates,’” Ms. Welch said. “And I was like, uh. …”

It was ultimately Grandma Abby who realized there was an entanglement. She mentioned this to Mr. Balthrop, who was unaware. Then the man revealed his and Ms. Welch’s indiscretion to Ms. Evanguelidi, and she and Ms. Welch talked it out. Everything went back to normal sometime after the man and his daughters, for a variety of reasons, moved out.

When the Topanga parents meet people, and share the details of their living arrangements, there are, inevitably, two questions, Ms. Evanguelidi said. One is whether there are any openings, and the second is whether the single adults date one another. The first answer is not currently. The second answer is not really. (Ms. Welch and Mr. Balthrop made out, but only once, they say. Now they are working together on a dating app they have created.)

The members of the Topanga Family aren’t looking for free love, but for friendship, support and freedom from parental convention. “The mundane pattern of work and dinner and putting the kids to bed,” Ms. Evanguelidi said, “it’s not my existence. The traditional family setup is just so passé.”

Photos by Emily Berl