“I genuinely enjoy living with other people,” Schelldorf says. “It sounds weird to say this, but just [having] another warm body in the house is sometimes good.”
One possible explanation is that many young adults and recent graduates who flock to expensive coastal cities for job opportunities find themselves shacking up with friends, or sometimes complete strangers, to cut costs. Zillow found that Los Angeles, Miami, and San Francisco were among the top cities for adults living in doubled-up households; nearly half of adults in Los Angeles lived with a non-partner. “You think of people moving to booming job centers and they don’t have a family network to rely on in these areas,” Terrazas says.
The United States has seen this phenomenon before. As people moved to cities seeking work in the 19th century, boarding houses became hubs where diverse residents—immigrants, single men and women, workers of all kinds—could live affordably and mingle with others in shared spaces. Now, as housing becomes increasingly scarce and rents continue to rise (cities like Orlando, Salt Lake City, and Knoxville are experiencing the fastest rent growth in the country), the boarding-house experience is back, just at a smaller scale. Along with it comes the proliferation of a unique sort of relationship—sharing your home life, and all its little intimacies, with someone, or multiple someones, who you aren’t related to, and who you may not even be friends with.
Alex Schelldorf, the nonprofit worker in Chicago, thought he took the necessary screening precautions with his current roommate. But he ultimately ended up feeling like they weren’t on the same page about chores, which Schelldorf says he did the bulk of. These housekeeping items were routine chores growing up in a southern household, he says, and there was an expectation for each family member to do their fair share. If disagreements arose, “in family situations, people yell, you argue, but you still love each other.”
Schelldorf translates the lack of cleaning cooperation as a lack of respect. The fact that the two housemates aren’t relatives—or even friends, for that matter—has led him to wonder what emotional responses, if any, are appropriate when tensions are running high. “That sucks a lot, to know that someone doesn’t care about you enough to take out the trash or to put something in the dishwasher,” he says. “How is that supposed to make me feel as somebody who has to breathe the same air as you?”
“In relationships in general, we tend to blame a lot of what happens on other people,” says Amy Canevello, a psychology professor at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. “The data suggests that really we have a whole lot of control over how we feel about things” based on how we perceive certain actions. “It’s objectively not [about] what the roommate is doing, but how I’m orienting myself in that situation.”
Part of the problem, they both say now, was that they had differing expectations for their relationship: Lockhart had an established social life in Philadelphia, one that Caroline, who works in education in the Philadelphia suburbs, probably wasn’t going to grow into. “I really didn’t want to put in an emotional effort to get to know her,” Lockhart, 31, says. “I got the sense that we weren’t going to be super tight friends.”
“The ideal situation in my mind was this person and I are going to end up being really close and wanting to spend time with each other and will be interested in going out to dinner together,” Caroline, 31, who asked not to share her last name since she works in education, says now, “but at the end of the day, you never know.”
Living with nonfamily may make people feel like they have to police their actions and emotions more carefully. “You have these relationships that are close relationships—you’re living with somebody—but the problem is you don’t have this relationship where you can say whatever you want to that person necessarily, kind of like mother-in-law relationships,” says Claire Kamp Dush, a professor of human sciences and sociology at Ohio State University. “I can’t say whatever I want to my mother-in-law, but I can say more to my mom. They’re not in your family, you’re not related to them, there’s not this expectation that you’re going to be there for each other no matter what.”
While this gray area may be socially tricky for some, it’s where Hafeez Baoku thrives. Inspired by compelling conversations with his various housemates over the course of a decade, Baoku, 27, founded the podcast The Roommates, and co-hosts it with his roommate, Chris Below. The two discuss topics like dating, pop culture, and politics.
Baoku took a chance on his housemates when first moving to Houston in 2016. A friend recommended Baoku stay with mutual acquaintances, including Below, now 24, in the city while visiting from Dallas for a job interview. He never left. The five men in Baoku’s house have varying backgrounds and personalities, and Baoku says the dynamic forced him to become a more empathetic person. He considers his roommates close confidantes, and not just people to help split the cable bill: “They’re actual human beings that I’m invested in and I care about their lives.”
Over the past two years of living together, Baoku and Below say they have made many of these minor adjustments to course correct their relationship and to grow together both in service of the podcast and the household. Though there was never a time the pair was so badly hurt by each other they considered moving out, they say it was the culture of open communication that cemented their bond. “It brought us closer together instead of driving us apart, ” Baoku says.
And then there are those for whom living with a roommate feels like living with family. In households where longtime friends, or even respectful strangers, are living harmoniously—what Canevello refers to as an “ecosystem”—the effect can be uplifting. “We see less anxiety and depression,” she says. “I’m in my ecosystem and I’m getting all my [emotional support] that I need from other people and that’s making me happier. I’m in my ecosystem and I’m contributing to other people’s happiness and making sure that other people are doing well and that leads me to be less anxious and depressed.”
Kyle Petty, a TD Bank employee from Bay Shore, New York, says his relationship with his roommate Steve is one of the most important in his life.
Petty lost touch with his family after coming out as gay about 12 years ago and turned to his inner circle of friends for the support typically provided by relatives. Though the 33-year-old and his roommate have been friends for a decade, they’ve only been living together for a year. He takes solace in their companionship and their routines, from carpooling to events to a bathroom schedule. It’s a dynamic Petty says is akin to family, not without its challenges, but intimate, loving, and supportive.
“Obviously our bond is not at all romantic but I do look forward to coming home,” Petty says. “Oh Steve’s home? I can’t wait to tell him about my day and I can’t wait to hear about his day.”