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Two L.A. families turned a McMansion into the ultimate pandemic pod. How’d they do it?

A grid of photos featuring the Levinson and Knight families
The Levinsons and Knights: two families, four parents, six kids, two dogs, one house.
(Photos by Dania Maxwell / Los Angeles Times; animated GIF by Calvin B. Alagot / Los Angeles Times)
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Last August, after four months of hunkering down in a two-bedroom, 800-square-foot apartment in Encino with their 7- and 9-year-old kids and dog, Joel Moss Levinson and his wife, Randi Hope Levinson, had a crazy idea.

“We met our friends Sari and Eric Knight and their four kids at the beach,” said Randi, 45, a marriage and family therapist and sex therapist. “I said, ‘Wouldn’t it be amazing if we took over an abandoned McMansion and built a commune with our kids?’”

Amid the isolation of distance learning, the couples’ six kids, who range in age from 4 to 13, loved the idea. “They missed their friends and told us, ‘You can’t say no!’” Randi said with a laugh. “The kids were the ones who convinced us to do it.”

Joel’s dream was to give his children the social connections they were missing. Most of all, he wanted every kid, including Morty Levinson, 10, who is nonbinary, and Sasha Knight, 11, who is transgender, to be able to navigate complex social situations in a safe and loving environment. (Sasha, who is an actor, stars in Anna Kerrigan’s modern western, “Cowboys,” about a father, played by Steve Zahn, grappling with how best to support his transgender child.)

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The Levinson and Knight families cook together in their shared home.
The Levinson and Knight families cook together in their shared home in Irvine.
(Dania Maxwell / Los Angeles Times)

Since both families were following strict COVID-19 protocols and had not even been to a grocery store since March 9, they felt comfortable seeing one another without risk of infection.

So after months of fear and tumult, the couples agreed to end their leases, pool their resources and move in together for a year.

Throughout the pandemic, plenty of parents across the country have formed pods — educational, social — many of which either failed spectacularly or didn’t work out as expected. Why would this be any different? A short list of the calculations and concerns: What would their connection to the outside world be? Could they coexist without driving one another crazy? Would it be harmony or would there be Post-it notes on milk cartons in the refrigerator?

First the Levinsons and the Knights had to figure out whether they could even afford it. Working together, they searched for homes in the San Fernando Valley, but the rental market was too expensive and competitive for their budget, even in a pandemic. “We’d show up to look at a house, and there would be more than 20 people applying,” Randi said.

Trying to create a social pod so her daughter could again play with her friends led this mom down a rabbit hole of awkwardness, rejection and frustration.

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Because the Levinsons couldn’t afford more rent than they were paying in Encino, the families expanded their search to include homes an hour outside Los Angeles, including Claremont and Orange County.

When they came across a 5,000-square-foot, five-bedroom, six-bathroom house in Orange County, they decided to leap at it, sight unseen, after doing a FaceTime tour with the owners. The big suburban house in a planned community was “not our vibe,” said Randi, who compared it to the fictional town in “The Truman Show,” adding: “We would have never chosen this house.” But it beat continued isolation. There was ample room for everyone to live and work from home, and the kids would have the freedom to explore the nearby Orange County Great Park, trails and tennis courts.

An outdoor ping-pong game
Joel Moss Levinson plays ping-pong with his son Hubie Levinson and Ethan Knight in their shared home in Irvine.
(Dania Maxwell / Los Angeles Times)

“It is four times the house we could afford on our own,” added Joel, 40, a content producer. “The kitchen is so big, one kid was making snickerdoodles the other day while another was making vanilla wafers.”

Rent is $6,200 a month. Joel said his family’s share is equal to what they were paying for their place in Encino. The Knights, who had been renting a four-bedroom house in Hermosa Beach, ended up saving a considerable amount under this arrangement.

Navigating Southern California’s rental market is one type of hectic. Living and working together under one roof is another. Not long after moving in together, Randi had to install a lock on her office door after one of the kids walked in during a teletherapy appointment. She also posted a sign on the door that reads “In Session,” but signs aren’t as effective as mute buttons on Zoom. “I’ll be in session and hear someone scream,” Randi said.

Hubie Levinson and Sasha Knight, left and right, cook together in their shared home.
Hubie Levinson, left, and Sasha Knight cook together.
(Dania Maxwell / Los Angeles Times)

Still, these were small prices to pay for human contact. Darby Saxbe, director of the USC Center for the Changing Family, said that parents are feeling an unprecedented amount of stress now. “We need community,” she said. “COVID has crystallized the cliché that it takes a village. We need the support networks to raise children and keep the house.”

Shortly after moving in together, the adults interacted with the outside world in a limited fashion. Sari went on masked and socially distanced hikes with friends. Randi visited with her siblings in the backyard. Joel worked on video shoots that followed Screen Actors Guild safety protocols. But when coronavirus cases surged after Thanksgiving, the families went on lockdown. Most of them have not seen anyone outside the household in person in months.

Adjustments abound: Sari, 46, a family therapist, set up a blue screen backdrop in the master bedroom, where she conducts therapy sessions, acting lessons and Sasha’s auditions. Eric, 49, a former chief operating officer who is seeking his next opportunity after stints in engineering, renewable energy and the cannabis industry, often works late at night when everyone else is asleep. Joel, the only one in the house with a 9-to-5 job, created a work-from-home setup that was a vast improvement over his bathroom office in Encino, where his desk was the width of his laptop. Now he splits his time between a sitting office desk that he and Randi share in the bedroom and a standing desk on the patio. “It is in every way amazing,” he said.

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Coexistence requires a kind of radical acceptance of the other. Living under one roof with another family, even close friends, means dealing with uniquely different human beings with various circadian rhythms. The Knights are night owls; the Levinsons are early risers. Joel gets up at 6 a.m. and would prefer his kids were in bed at 8 p.m., but it didn’t take long for him to push their bedtime back to 10 p.m. “It’s never going to happen in this house,” he realized.

For Heidi Hansing, the last three years felt as if she were moving backward.

Scarlet and Lilah Knight make art with Play-Doh outdoors.
Scarlet, left, and Lilah Knight play outdoors.
(Dania Maxwell / Los Angeles Times)

All families must compromise and choose their battles. But not all must do it with another family present 24 hours a day, seven days a week. School schedules, food issues, screen time, decisions about what movies and television shows are appropriate — those conversations, for the Levinsons and the Knights, play out in front of one another and, in some cases, together. Remarkably, no conflicts about bills or money, or household chores, which the two families split, have arisen.

Some outside forces are unavoidable. In October, they had to evacuate during the fast-moving Silverado fire. Joel and Randi and the kids and their dog, Gloria, moved in with friends who were home-schooling their children in Encino, while the Knights and their dog, Jedi, sheltered with Sari’s mom, Lynn Segal, in Los Angeles.

Joel described their home dynamics as “90% amazing and 10% trying,” which he attributed to the fact that they are living in a matriarchy.

Sasha and Sari Knight wash dishes in the shared home.
Sasha and Sari Knight wash dishes.
(Dania Maxwell / Los Angeles Times)

“Our home is dominated by Randi and Sari, who, instead of saying, ‘This is the rule’ — which everyone would object to — offer an emotionally accessible conversation about what is happening in the house. There’s never a big explosion because there is a steady stream of communication in our house. In baseball, you call it chatter.”

Living together made Joel realize that some of his rules — he is a rule follower — needed to be sacrificed, or at the very least made less rigid. He credited Sari, who made use of her professional counseling experience.

“When we are navigating conflict — there’s only one TV, for instance — we use our clinical skills to sit down with the kids and talk about what happened and come up with solutions,” Sari said. “We feel like this experience has been a lifesaver in terms of our social, emotional and financial health. It’s a good alternative for people, and it gives the kids a sense of normalcy. The kids aren’t going to school. They are not going to playgrounds. They need to play.”

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Fun and games include an outdoor trampoline, which is the centerpiece of recess, group bike rides and pingpong.

“Game nights are more fun with 10 people,” Eric said of board games Catan and Splendor and the electronic Jackbox Games and Brawlhalla that multiple people can play at once. When the recurring movie nights descended into arguments over whose turn it was to choose the movie, the parents implemented the equitable process of pulling a name out of a hat.

The parents used Zoom, phone calls, the Marco Polo video app and FaceTime to keep in contact with friends who had been feeling lonely and on edge in isolation. Some friends sent their kids back to preschool and school. Others created pods so their kids could play with other children and the parents could socialize. It was “a lifesaver for them,” Randi said.

Kids play on a backyard trampoline.
The kids enjoy the trampoline at recess.
(Dania Maxwell / Los Angeles Times)

Indeed, a pod has the potential to stave off alienation. “Even though we’ve become like a giant single-family unit, it doesn’t feel isolated, because there are others to interact with,” Joel said. “I do not feel lonely, and I don’t think my kids do either.”

But for some older kids, like Morty, not having access to friends in social settings like school or extracurricular activities takes a toll. Morty is often alone playing Minecraft, and Joel says he’s grateful for video games played online with friends. “It’s fulfilling an important need for connection,” Joel said. “I hear them joking around and laughing with friends, and I realize that it’s so important. As the parent of a nonbinary kid, there is a whole new language I’ve had to learn. To do it with another family has been very helpful. I’m learning to normalize a lot of things that are complicated.”

In December, the pandemic found another way inside the house. Joel was laid off from his job. He allowed himself 48 hours to mope and then “hit the ground running” and picked up freelance writing and editing work. Morty hoped Joel would find a job he enjoys more. Hubie noticed only when he realized his dad was helping out more with school.

When the three generations of the Haven clan — eight members in all — gather for a family get-together, no one has to travel very far.

If anything, losing his job strengthened Joel’s belief in what they were doing. The house became a space of healing. Sure, he had lost the social interaction with his colleagues, but he was grateful to have other adults around at home. Eric and Sari were understanding, which was a relief, Joel said. Losing your job when it’s only your surname on a lease is stressful enough. But four adults under one rental agreement can quickly devolve into pettiness or exacerbate existing tensions.

“When you talk to your spouse about something like losing your job, you’re talking about your finances and sharing self-doubts like, ‘Will I be able to find a job in this market?’” Joel said. “It’s important to talk to your spouse, but other adults have less judgment. Eric and Sari were supportive and sympathetic.”

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The families found ways to keep the energy positive. For the most part, it is a social house. Screaming is common, as is emergent curriculum like a recent color war where the kids and parents divided into teams of red, blue and green, dressed up like summer camp, and competed in a variety of games.

During the holidays, the families exchanged gifts and shared their Christmas and Hanukkah traditions.

“My Jewish kids had never seen Christmas up close,” Joel said. “The lights, the tree, all the crazy energy and presents — it was fascinating.”

A mother watches a child open an oven.
Randi Hope Levinson, Joel Moss Levinson and Morty Levinson cook at home.
(Dania Maxwell / Los Angeles Times)

As COVID cases continued to crescendo in January, the families decided not to relax their self-imposed restrictions. The children still could not see or play with anyone outside of their home. Sari could still see Segal, her mom, who lives alone, in Los Angeles occasionally.

With schools still not holding in-person instruction, Joel initially worried the kids were falling behind academically. But, Sari pointed out, there are benefits to learning how to learn and adjust to challenging times. The children seemed to be happy. Lilah, 7, described living in a house with two dogs and five other kids as “the greatest thing that has ever happened to me.”

Even the dogs seemed to benefit from communal living. “It’s like the golden ticket,” Joel said. “Eric trained Jedi, and now Gloria is learning from Jedi.”

The families started experimenting with home-schooling using online educational programs like MobyMax and Outschool, podcasts, educational videos, and their own lesson plans for arts and crafts projects.

Understanding the fluidity of the times eased the pressure of parenting. “It has done wonders for our marriage,” said Randi, who once lived in a Victorian co-op with 12 people in San Francisco. “We can dedicate time to our relationship and intimacy by going into our bedroom without the worry of where our children are.”

Sari Knight holds her young daughter.
Sari Knight holds her daughter Scarlet.
(Dania Maxwell / Los Angeles Times)

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There’s a chemical reason for this effect, said Saxbe, the changing-families expert at USC, who has studied the effects of the stress hormone cortisol in a laboratory.

“Our everyday household environment can get under our skins and affect our brains,” she said. “Having high-quality relationships, getting support and creating community is health-protective.”

Communication is key — even more so now that the pandemic has taken away our ability to live spontaneously and safely. There are lessons to be learned from the experience of the Levinsons and the Knights.

Saxbe advised families who are considering communal living to create a thoughtful agreement long before moving in together. “Set parameters, expectations and be as detail-oriented as possible,” she said. “Who is going to cook? Who is going to help with cleaning? Where are you going and who are you seeing? Are you going to use the gas station bathroom? Their risk becomes your risk. You don’t want to negotiate on the fly when stressful situations come up.”

Levinsons and Knights
Randi Hope Levinson, left, Morty Levinson, Joel Moss Levinson holding Gloria, Hubie Levinson, Sari Knight, Scarlet Knight with Jedi, Eric Knight, Ethan Knight, Sasha Knight and Lilah Knight.
(Dania Maxwell / Los Angeles Times)

Looking ahead to the end of their lease this summer, the families hope to return to Los Angeles for school and work. “I think we probably won’t do it again next year because no one knows where we’ll end up, especially with our job hunts,” Joel said.

For now, though, Randi and Joel think they may be communal people. “It’s not perfect, but the positives outweigh the negatives,” Joel said. “In a year when our exposure to the outside world has become limited, it is possible to grow inward. For us, this has been like a foot on the gas for learning about ourselves. It’s really exciting.”

Updates

11:03 a.m. Feb. 4, 2021: An earlier version of this story misstated the size of the Levinsons’ home in Encino as a 400-square-foot apartment. It was an 800-square-foot apartment. This story has also been updated to include the rent that the two families pay for their pandemic pod.

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