Family Diversity
It's How  We Live


Room for More: Nontraditional
roommates become norm in Bay area

Alameda Times Star / June 13, 2004

by Monique Beeler

MAYBE it's the guy you roomed with in college who decorated with empty beer cans. Or the 20-something woman who thought you lived to wash her dishes and feed her perpetually shedding pooch.

What image does the term roommate conjure?

Given the high cost of living in the Bay Area, where a median-priced home costs $597,260, the demographic makeup of the roommate pool long ago expanded beyond the post-collegiate crowd only. Many renters and homeowners looking to cut costs continue sharing their homes with others well past their first youthful forays into living on their own. A recent survey of one Internet site revealed roommate ads from folks ranging from a middle-aged vintner to an 85-year-old grandmother.

For some, living with housemates has become an ongoing lifestyle.

As a younger man, John Harvey, 59, says he didn't think he'd be living with roommates at this stage in his life. But he's found advantages to opening his San Lorenzo home to housemates the past five years.

For one thing, it supports his anti-consumerism values.

"There's a certain economy of scale," says Harvey, who works for an environmental organization and prides himself on having used the same set of shopping bags for three years. In the home he shares with two men and a woman in their 40s and 50s, Harvey encourages everyone to recycle and compost.

He likes the idea, he says, of multiple individuals sharing kitchen facilities, appliances, gardening space or a swimming pool.

"I hate, from an environmental point of view, that everyone needs one of everything," Harvey says.

Oakland writer and editor Denise Mewbourne, 42, on the other hand, says she always assumed she'd be part of a communal household. Her college days at Vanderbilt University in Nashville exposed her to plenty of back-to-the-land, cooperative-style living arrangements, a lifestyle that she says she admired.

"I really grew up with a lot of'60s philosophies," Mewbourne says. "I knew all these people who lived in communes and always thought I'd live in one of those places."

For the past few years, she's been a member of what residents call the Tea Party House. The 1913 Craftsman style home takes its name from Tea Party magazine, a journal of literature and the arts that Mewbourne and her housemates help produce semi-annually.

"I can live here and be part of a community and be around lots of different people and do anti-racist work -- that's what we incorporate into the magazine," Mewbourne says.

Building a sense of community in the house ranks high on Mewbourne's list of priorities. Former roommates who merely hid out in their rooms without mingling with fellow housemates didn't meet Mewbourne's definition of a good roommate.

Personally, she says, she enjoys cooking dinner with housemates a few times each week and she looks forward to joint activities such as gardening or holding a recent magazine release party that drew about 100 friends and artists to the Tea Party House.

But when the crowds disperse and she needs a respite from socializing, Mewbourne retreats to her small but tranquil room at the heart of the home.

"My room is a sanctuary for me," says Mewbourne, who stands in the center of the whitewashed room with hardwood floors. Three star fish rest on a picture rail over her closet door. Clutter on a bookshelf hides behind a batik-style tapestry, a swath of mauve velvet covers up the computer and a framed print of a piper playing on a hill at twilight dominates one wall.

All about consideration

The serenity of her sanctuary, however, sometimes gets disrupted. Lodged between the kitchen and the bathroom, her room isn't insulated from outside noise.

"The walls are kind of thin in this house and there are all these wood floors; this house is kind of echoey," she says. "But everyone is so considerate here. We have an agreement: No loud noise in the kitchen after 11 p.m."

Issues of privacy, such as those Mewbourne tolerates amicably, contributed in part to a move away from non-family, group living situations in the mid-20th century, says Ron Goeken, a research associate at the Minnesota Population Center at the University of Minnesota.

An expert in the living arrangements of unmarried adults, Goeken has studied historical patterns in the United States. The concept of roommates is relatively new, he says.

In the first half of the 20th century, unmarried adults traditionally remained at home with their parents or became lodgers in a boarding house, where they paid for a room, meals and often laundry and other housekeeping services.

In addition to strict house rules, lodgers also were subject to a more hierarchical relationship with a landlord or landlady than most of today's roommates encounter. Following World War II, increased incomes and technological advances for the first time made it possible for many single adults to live on their own. Additionally, a rise in a personal sense of individualism made it desirable.

Don't need a cook

"The big thing going back 100 years was everyone needed someone to cook for them," Goeken says. "What really changed over the 20th century (was) TV dinners, microwaves. ... All of a sudden, young adults can take care of themselves. They don't need someone taking them in and providing these services."

The ability of each adult to take care of himself opened the way for a greater range of living situations to develop, including the communal households popularized in the 1960s and 1970s.

In Alameda and Contra Costa counties, 169,484 people lived in households with people who aren't relatives, according to the 2000 Census.

Compared with their historical counterparts, Bay Area residents can pick and choose their preferred arrangement. Granted, for many people, financial considerations play a significant role in that choice.

"As a matter of fact, my daughter moved to Minneapolis from San Francisco last week," Goeken says. "She was out there for 18 months. That was one of the reasons she left -- the rents were too damn expensive."

Mewbourne's housemate, photographer David T. Pang, bought the Tea Party House in June 2000. Located in the ethnically diverse San Antonio neighborhood of Oakland, it's surrounded by faded Victorian mansions and craftsman-era homes.

Pang sought to fill the house with roommates to help him pay the mortgage and to create a dynamic community centered around Tea Party magazine. Splitting costs with housemates would allow him to meet both his goals of homeownership and fostering a publication dedicated to the arts and diversity.

"There was just no way I could maintain the cost of the magazine and the house," Pang says. "It is sort of a live-work (space). ... We use the dining room for all our business-related magazine work and our potluck dinners."

One recent night, Pang, Mewbourne and three housemates weave in and out of the home's hive of rooms, alternately showing guests a makeshift art gallery in a back room, stirring pots of rice and curried vegetables on the stove and cooking a snack for two children being babysat by one roommate.

"We have a communal food system here," Pang says. "It's nice because you spend less money on food that way."

The housemate pool

Housemates not only pool their grocery budgets, they shop together and share whatever's in the cupboards and refrigerator. They also grow herbs, corn, beans, cucumbers and arugula together in the back yard garden.

"Sharing takes getting used to," says Tea Party housemate Anne Mitchell, a 28-year-old singer-songwriter. "(But) you feel a lot of abundance."

"I don't make a lot of money. Here, I live in this really nice house. I have a higher standard of living than I would not living collectively."

About 25 miles south of the Tea Party House, Penny Kennedy, 41, also prefers living with roommates in her three-bedroom, two-bath Newark home, which she also shares with her 8-year-old daughter for half the week.

It helps her out financially to have a roommate, but Kennedy's less motivated by money than by having someone else around the house.

"I pay a lot more of the rent than I rent the room out for," says Kennedy, who charges $500 for a sunny, 9-by-13 foot room and full house privileges.

Maybe it's because she grew up in a large family, Kennedy says, but she's not fond of an empty house.

"It's great. I'd rather have a roommate," she says. "There's always people in the house. When I'm by myself, it's too quiet. It's a big house."

In a recent roommate ad, Kennedy describes herself and her daughter: "We are both mature, clean, easy going, open minded, caring, respectful and fun loving people."

They sound like an inviting duo, but it often takes a couple months to fill a vacancy, Kennedy says.

For women only

Because she runs a day-care center out of her home during business hours and her daughter is often around, her home isn't ideal for someone who doesn't like children. And she only considers female roommates, which further narrows the applicants she'll consider.

Kennedy has lived with a rotating cast of roommates the past 12 years, since she first started renting a room following her first divorce.

"Sometimes it's been fine, sometimes not so fine," she says. "It's the younger people who seem to work out best. Maybe it's because they're used to a roommate."

This observation wouldn't surprise roommate expert Goeken.

Young people, especially those who bunked with a fellow student in college, are socialized to share living space with other people. And many people experienced at group living come to value that kind of arrangement, he says.

Since the 1970s, when the Census Bureau first added a category for non-family households, it's clear people increasingly have chosen roommate settings. In 1970, 1.7 percent of U.S. households were made up of nonfamily households compared with 5.7 percent in 2000.

Contributing factors likely include rising home prices and divorce rates and the increasing age at which Americans marry for the first time, but little research has been done to confirm these theories, Goeken says.

"All you can really speculate on is maybe there's a critical mass phenomenon once enough people have experienced a roommate," he says. "It's not just 20-somethings doing it. It's also 30-somethings, 40-somethings."

Regardless of the reasons, the trend toward living with roommates will remain a valid housing option for many in the Bay Area.

"In the short term, I really can't see it going away," Goeken says. "There's nothing wrong with it. It's a practical response confronting young adults and not-so-young adults. A lot of times it makes sense to take in a roommate."


Back to family diversity main page