News & Politics

Will You Have Roommates for the Rest of Your Life?

Thought you'd leave your roommates behind after your career got going? Think again. Social mobility ain't what it used to be.

Kate Duyn spent her freshman year of college living with six roommates in a tumbledown house, with dishes in the sink and pot growing in the attic.

"It was totally new and totally crazy," she recalls. "Definitely a lot of fun."

After graduation, she moved to San Francisco, where she spent the next three years sharing various apartments, lofts and houses with her boyfriend and a collection of other roommates. She tended bar, waited tables and booked bands at a club, but never made quite enough to afford a place of her own.

In her mid-20s, after spending four months traveling through Europe, she landed in New York. For six months, she sublet an apartment from a friend, a cheap studio in Spanish Harlem.

"It was awesome," she recalls. "Of course, at that point I had no idea how good I had it. I only wish I could get those six months back again."

Then it was back to a tiny apartment, this time shared with her boyfriend and another roommate. When they broke up she moved out, heading downtown to hook up with yet another roomie, a friend of a friend, who was thankfully easygoing and out of the house a good portion of the time.

When Duyn's boyfriend moved from Chicago, the three of them lived together for a few months. Then it was something reasonably adult, just the couple together in their own apartment, until they broke up but continued living together until he arranged to move into his brother's place.

Now, 11 years after graduating college, Duyn is back in San Francisco with another roommate, another friend of friend who she met days before he moved in and who periodically doesn't come up with the rent.

"It's not so fun anymore," says Duyn, 33. "I'm ready to be an adult now. I'm at the age where I should be taking care of a partner or a child, not some stranger I just met a few months ago."

For young college graduates who go into lower-paying fields like education, nonprofits or the arts, an existence like Duyn's has become a fact of life. They finish school, move to big cities, hook up with roommates and eight, 10, 15 years later, nothing's changed.

For many urban professionals -- despite having a good job and a college education -- the American dream has been seriously downsized. Instead of hungering for the house with the white picket fence, they fantasize of one day renting an apartment with no one else's milk in their fridge.

"It's hard not to ask the question," says Duyn, who now works as a yoga teacher with hopes of one day opening her own studio, "will I have roommates for the rest of my life?"

For those in Duyn's position -- working in lower-paying fields and living in urban centers -- the answer is a qualified yes. Buying a home of one's own remains a distant dream. The housing market may have softened with the economic crisis, but so have paychecks and employment rates, never mind the fact that it's now as hard to get a mortgage as it was easy this time last year.

And although rents may no longer be skyrocketing, in many cities, the downward adjustment in rentals hasn't been nearly as dramatic as the housing side. As of the third quarter of 2008, though the nationwide trend was a 6.1 percent increase in apartment vacancies, the market remained tight in major cities, including New York, San Francisco, Denver, Minneapolis and San Diego.

Marketwide for Manhattan, the average rent for a studio was $1,814; a one-bedroom, $2,513; a two-bedroom, $3,531; and three-bedroom, $4,692. In San Francisco, experts predict that "effective" rents -- which take landlord concessions, such as a free month's rent, into consideration -- will rise 3.3 percent to $1,897 a month by year's end, with asking rents rising 3.5 percent to $2,002 a month.

Such steep prices coupled with stagnating salaries means roommate-dom is hardly confined to the fresh-out-of-college set. A quick scan of Craigslist in major cities reveals numerous roommate seekers -- homeowners hoping to ease the mortgage, or renters needing someone to split costs -- who are well into their 30s and 40s.

According to Ron Goeken, a historical demographer with the Minnesota Population Center, the rise of the roommate in America is a relatively new phenomenon. Look back 150 years, and people had far more limited choices when it came to living with anyone other than relatives.

You found boardinghouses and employees -- such as farm workers and domestic servants -- who resided with their employers. Cooking was a major impediment to living on one's own, since preparing meals in those days of wood-fired stoves tended to be an all-day affair. If you worked full time, you needed to pay someone to take care of you.

According to census data, roommates were almost nonexistent before the 1960s. But, with the post-World War II boom in apartment building, and the advent of the frozen dinner, that "other" census category that encompassed roommates began to swell.

By 1980, the Census Bureau had separate categories for roommates/housemates and unmarried partners. Such living situations brought added autonomy. No longer were single people subject to the house rules often attached to hotels and boardinghouses. And we can all appreciate the perks of not living with your boss.

In addition, in the past, the majority of people living independently were men with few possessions, busily saving toward marriage and a home. But in the past 20 to 30 years, with the surge of women entering the workplace, the rising age of marriage and the shortage of affordable housing, the advent of the roommate has filled an essential niche, not just for those right out of school, but for urban professionals of all ages.

So is a long life with roomie a positive or negative development? Goeken is reluctant to commit either way.

"I think that people preferred not to have the restrictions and privacy issues attached to living in others' houses," he offers. "Sure, it would be nice if we could all live according to our desires, but the fact is economics will never not be a concern."

Given the historical context, living with a roommate can begin to feel like a pretty decent option. It certainly beats being a domestic servant. Having a roommate can teach valuable lessons about sharing space. Plus a roommate can provide companionship for those of us who are still single in the lonely big city.

But at what point does having a roommate contribute to the fact that we're still single and lonely? It's all too easy to get stuck in that twentysomething, no plans, no worries, no furniture kind of lifestyle. The one where you go out for beers with your buddies every Friday night, crash on your futon and never get around to saving for retirement or contemplating a more permanent relationship.

It can be hard to cultivate intimacy with someone when there's a third party on the couch watching Jon Stewart. By our 30s and 40s, many of us are looking for either independence or intimacy instead of some limbo between the two. Our minds may be telling us it's time to move out of the dorm and contemplate taking on broader social and economic responsibilities, but our bank accounts have other ideas.

"There are certainly benefits to having roommates," says Joy Delp, 37, a New Yorker who has lived with roommates -- including friends, strangers, coworkers and an ex-boyfriend -- since graduating from college. "It's nice knowing you won't have to go home to an empty space. But at the same time, I find the prospect that I could be 40 and still living with roommates incredibly depressing. It feels like failure not to be in the kind of relationship that you can move forward and not to be able afford to live on my own."

Although living with roommates into adulthood may clash with our sense of financial entitlement, particularly for members of the educated, professional, middle class, it's become a reality of urban life that doesn't seem destined to disappear any time soon. We're living in a time of extremely strained resources, economic and otherwise.

The American dream is undergoing a seismic shift and our expectations about how we can and should occupy space will have to change right along with it.

Nan Mooney is the author of (Not) Keeping Up with Our Parents (Beacon, 2008). Read more about the book and her work at Nan Mooney.com.