Rethinking single-family living: Roommates pay bills, create community
Leanne Do’s family has a saying: “Single family homes don’t need to be for single families.”
Do, 38, has shared her Seattle home with a rotating cast of 11 roommates since she and her husband, Nathan Friend, 37, bought it in 2012. During that time, they’ve had three children, now 7, 4 and 1. Having renters provides a meaningful source of income for Do and Friend — both of whom hold two part-time jobs in the education and nonprofit sectors — allowing them to work fewer paid hours and devote more time to caregiving.
Do says the decision is about more than just savings, though; it enhances their family life. “My children love it,” she said.
Many families’ budgets are squeezed amid ongoing inflation. Meanwhile, an affordability crisis in the U.S. housing market has put buying a home out of reach for many. According to a recent report from real estate brokerage Redfin, only about one in five U.S. homes for sale in 2022 was affordable for the typical household — down significantly from 2021. Bringing in roommates can help everyone involved navigate these challenges.
Joyce Serido, an associate professor in the Department of Family Social Science at the University of Minnesota, says that while families with children taking on roommates is fairly rare, it may be part of a broader trend toward more multigenerational living.
“Young people can’t afford homes,” says Serido. “So it’s a way to get yourself into the housing market with additional income coming in.”
Living with others is much more common in other parts of the world, such as Western Europe, where there is less of a cultural emphasis on privacy, says Serido. Still, American culture is adapting. “The realities of our labor market and our economy are such that people have got to be open to alternative solutions. The shift that we’re seeing is really in response to the circumstances and people making the most of it.”
One of the bedrooms in Do’s household is occupied by 19-year-old Duy Do, who is her cousin (though, per Vietnamese custom, she considers him her nephew). He is the first of their housemates to be related to her, though Leanne says they barely knew each other before they lived together. In 2021, she heard that he had enrolled at a nearby university, so she offered him a room. The arrangement has worked out wonderfully.
“He’s like a big college-age brother to the kids,” says Do. “He has his own life, but he’s around, and we’re present for him as much as he wants and chooses to engage.”
And while it can be a challenge to constantly negotiate space and schedules, those who share their homes say it fosters meaningful relationships and can ease friction within families, who might be less inclined to argue in front of others.
“If Nathan and I have a conflict, and somebody else walks into the room, we’ll stop,” says Do. “Then, when that person leaves, it’s like, ‘What was I upset about? I don’t even remember.’ Constantly having to confront the discomfort of somebody seeing me at my worst moments is actually a really good thing.”
Do and Friend also like being able to provide opportunities for renters in an area that Do says is mainly occupied by professionals with high incomes. She says they used to walk around the neighborhood thinking, “What would it be like if we could house more people in our existing housing stock?”
Five roommates. One fridge. Much drama.
Christiana Rice, 43, and her husband Derek, 42, also say their household is richer because it includes inhabitants outside their nuclear family. On a recent morning, while celebrating their daughter Naomi’s 15th birthday over breakfast, 22-year-old Cassidy Edwords wandered into the room, still in pajamas. She wished Naomi a happy birthday and took a seat next to Rice’s other daughter, 13-year-old Anika. Meanwhile Molly Jenson, a 44-year-old singer-songwriter, played music down the hall. The family has shared their San Diego house with various housemates for the entirety of their daughters’ lives.
The house where the Rices live — a 1908 craftsman they affectionately nicknamed “The Green House” because of its color and because they say “good things grow inside” — officially contains three bedrooms, but the family fashioned a fourth one in what was formerly a living room. They sleep upstairs, while their two housemates each have their own bedroom on the main floor. They share all common spaces.
Christiana is a director at a neighborhood development organization, and Derek is a musician who works with several organizations, including a church, theater and elderly memory care facilities. Christiana says taking in housemates is the only way they can afford to live in their house and, for that matter, their neighborhood. Even so, if savings were the only benefit, they say it wouldn’t be worth the challenges. “There are definitely conflicts,” she says. “You’re kind of on top of each other; it’s hard to get a breath by yourself. So you have to see it more holistically, and it has to come from a place of thinking that this has the potential to be a beautiful, formative thing for everyone.”
Both Christiana and Do say they expect housemates to clean up after themselves, but that they voluntarily take on the bulk of household chores.
“We’re very clear and explicit in our agreements and expectations,” says Do. “We like to say that we are the big rocks in the river, and the water flows around us and our family life.”
Rice makes sure to be transparent about how children fit into the picture. She tells new tenants that their house is as open to the neighborhood’s kids as it is to their own and makes sure that potential renters are okay with that.
“I tell them right off the bat, ‘I will not expect you to babysit,’” she says.
Naomi Rice echoes her mother’s outlook: “I’ve learned that ‘family’ means more than just those you’re blood related to — it’s those you share a life with. I wouldn’t want it any other way.”
Do says some of her renters have formed deeply meaningful connections with her children, continuing to visit for play dates long after moving out. “It’s been a really beautiful thing, just more people to love and more people to play with them,” she says. “It helps so much to be like, ‘Can you just keep an eye? I’m going to sneak away and try to cook.’”
Both families view cohabitating as an ideological choice. In addition to paying housemates, the Rices are preparing to host asylum seekers from Afghanistan. They are also okay with someone who lacks permanent housing temporarily sleeping on their porch. Do and Friend also once shared their home with an individual who had been previously living in her car.
“The trajectory tends to be, get married, have your kids, go isolate yourself more and more, because somehow that is the path to happiness, which I adamantly disagree with,” says Rice. “We have found so much happiness in broadening our sense of family and community and home.”
Annie Midori Atherton is a writer in Seattle who covers culture, lifestyle, business and parenting.