In tough times, the rented room is resurgent
Homeowners and renters team up, sacrificing some privacy for the chance to share expenses in tough times.
Midwest girl with Fiestaware seeks housemate for green living.
Writer with four turtles in tub, cats in basement, six dogs and 50-some fish seeks human roommate without pets.
Woman with three jobs, chest pains and unemployed husband seeks roommate.
Students and teachers. Animal rescuers. Clerks and construction workers. Singles and marrieds, and both the un- and the employed are doing it — sharing their housing with strangers for a fee.
What used to be regarded as an arrangement by college students, and given up when one gets a job, is now becoming a way of life for folks who either can't afford the high cost of rent or are seeking ways to pad their wallets and pay the mortgage by home-sharing.
Because most of the arrangements are informal, it's hard to assess just how many people now share their homes with strangers for money. But as the economy plummeted during the past year, mortgage foreclosures soared and layoffs became common, the ads for people seeking roommates increased by more than 70 percent nationwide on craigslist.com.
The few agencies who do referrals say shared housing is now common and gives struggling people more affordable-housing choices — providing that those who pair up can adapt to having less privacy. Some social scientists say by challenging our obsession with privacy, we tap an unused resource: those often cavernous homes built during the boom years.
Like your mother used to say about dating, when it comes to home-sharing, there is almost always someone for everyone. Most likely there's a perfect match somewhere for Fiestaware, Three Jobs and Four Turtles.
WHILE IN SOME cultures living close together has always been the norm, having the privacy of your "own" home has become part of the American dream. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, apartments became popular as an alternative to traditional boardinghouses because they offered privacy, says Wendy Gamber, an Indiana University professor who wrote a book about American boardinghouses.
Then after World War II, as demand for housing outstripped the supply, renting a room again became common. The shared-housing concept hasn't gone away since.
Perhaps that's why having strangers living upstairs in my grandmother's big Victorian house never seemed unusual to me. My grandparents were close to their Nordic roots, where it was common for several families to live in one large farmhouse.
Renters were always part of my postwar growing-up life in Kent. Many were women who worked in my grandmother's restaurant. Later came a hairstylist, a sky diver, a Scottish art student who stole my heart when I was 16. . .
Strangest of all was a man I recall only as "Mr. Wagner," who ran Saturday-night Old West-themed-séances in the once-elegant fireplace room. I was 4 dressed in feetie pajamas when I was trotted into the room to sing "Jesus Loves Me" as my grandmother played the piano. Then we all joined hands with my mother, aunt, grandmother and their friends who sat around the table in the dark as the trumpet — which looked like a cheerleader's megaphone — rose and pointed to the person whose turn it was to speak to the spirits.
After the thumping in the dark and the muffled voices of the "spirits," the lights came on and someone would find themselves wrapped in a lasso.
I don't know how long the séances went on, or how much money Wagner raised, but one day he vanished and a police officer came to the door looking for him. He was wanted, my grandmother told me, "for bunco in another state."
I, too, have shared my house since an unexpected divorce left me destitute. But I found renting had a learning curve. Most annoying was a woman who took my good china to church potlucks and didn't return with the pieces. Was the last straw the candle left burning in her room that set off the smoke detector? Or the overflowing toilet that seeped through the floor and dripped right onto my head?
These days, the best roommates are friends and pet sitters. They lend a hand with chores, fix meals and give rides to the airport. In one case, a friendship endures long after the boarder moved on.
LAST MARCH, Lauren Zimmermann, 24, put her Fiestaware in a box and moved from Madison, Wis., to Seattle for graduate school. An apartment of her own was out of the question with Seattle's high rents. She moved into a house in Wallingford that she shares with two night-clubbing, snowboarding roommates, Kara Gibson and Richenda Ghebrial, who interviewed almost 30 people before settling on Zimmermann. They say they've become as close as sisters.
Now with a good job, Zimmermann has her eye on a bigger Central District house, but a roommate is still a necessity. So Zimmermann advertised to share the house and the rent at $545 each, ideally with a socially conscious type. She's interviewing prospective candidates.
"It's a strange concept," she says. "You wouldn't strike up a conversation with a stranger on a bus, but in the same amount of time you let someone move into your house."
So many people are advertising "it's almost a capitalist market for roommates."
And what's been said about Seattle's cool dating climate is true with the roommate search, she says. After being interviewed, there's the anxiety of "what if they don't call back?"
ONCE SETTLED into a house or an apartment, well-selected roommates usually are a compatible group, say those who do the referrals.
In Haller Lake, north of Northgate, Tim Nguyen's house tucked among trees off a busy road is home to four people who share two bathrooms, a kitchen and sparsely furnished living room. Each pays $450, including utilities, affordable housing for Nguyen's tenants, including David Hull, a North Seattle Community College student, one of several students who live there.
Nguyen, 33, selects roommates about the same age, saying it keeps them compatible.
During the summer Nguyen, a computer programmer, and his roommates have barbecues. At Thanksgiving he cooked dinner. Their company makes him feel safe and less lonely.
It also helped him finance a mortgage he otherwise couldn't, he says, and was a way for him to get ahead after graduating with a master's in business administration from Gonzaga University in 2002.
Then, he worked for several years, saved his money and put it down on a small house in Spokane, taking in a few roommates to make the mortgage affordable. Soon after he was able to rent out his Spokane house, buy a house in Tacoma and again share it with roommates. Now that one is rented by a family, and Nguyen, who came here as an exchange student from Vietnam, theorizes that someday if he marries, he'll buy again and his Haller Lake home will be rented to one family.
Newer to the shared-housing game are a number of middle-class, middle-aged workers who once had lucrative incomes but — either because of the economic downturn or sometimes a divorce — find themselves at risk of losing their homes.
One Bellevue real-estate salesman rents rooms in his comfortable house with a pool because the housing market has been slow and he's in need of extra cash. A married man who sells real estate in the Kitsap Peninsula rents out rooms in his house to help meet his mortgage.
In Lake Stevens Jenell Gehrke, 40, also once in real-estate sales but now at Boeing, rents out the basement of her five-bedroom home so she can hang onto it.
Gehrke is also going through a divorce and has three children. A few years ago, when she and her husband were both selling real estate and making a combined $100,000, she could not have imagined there would be a day when she'd have to rent out part of it to strangers to make the mortgage payments.
"But then," she says, "I also couldn't imagine being a single parent."
FAI MATHEWS, 56, is in the doctor's office, suffering from chest pains, but she's still talking on the cellphone, her voice weary, although she breaks into hearty laughter often.
Mathews works three jobs. Her husband, David, a journeyman carpenter for 22 years who's recently been laid off, does odd jobs, trying to pay their bills and the mortgages on their primary residence in Rainier Valley and two rental houses, where renters have fallen behind on their payments.
Each day, Mathews cooks for Meals on Wheels, then goes to a second and third job at the Center for Kinship Care, a place for relatives raising other relatives' children, where she does referrals and then manages a Web site.
Mathews hopes to rent one of the rooms in their large house to bring in more money. She began her three jobs a year ago, after helping her daughter out financially. The family was just getting caught up when David lost his job. "I'm not whining. A lot of people have it worse than we do," Fai Mathews says as she waits for the doctor. No matter what he advises, she says, "it's not going to stop me from working."
Today, most shared-housing programs focus on matching the elderly, for whom the arrangement has both emotional and economic advantages, the experts say. Almost five years ago the Whidbey Island Soroptimist Club gave a grant to start a program that helps people with spare rooms find folks who need housing.
The homeless people on the island "are not under the bridge or the woman with the grocery cart and 12 coats," says executive director Doris Newkirk. "They are working people living below the poverty line."
Whidbey Island Share-a-Home (WISH) acts only as a referral agency, but the number of those referred has increased by 40 percent during the past year. In the nearly five years the program has been in existence, 800 people have been referred to housing.
"An 86-year-old minister came to us homeless because he outlived his money . . . I have a 73-year-old woman who does gardening for a living. She can't make ends meet in the winter. These folks are hardworking people," Newkirk says. "A lot of people ask why these homeless people are coming to Island County. They aren't coming here. They were born here and lived here all their lives. They've just fallen on hard times."
WISH requires a detailed application for both homeowner and home seeker. Then if one sees the other's profile and is interested, Newkirk puts them in touch.
"I'm like the eHarmony or Match.com of housing," she says.
DESPITE BACKGROUND and reference checks and pre-move-in interviews, sometimes things do go wrong.
Vivi Brown, a middle-aged woman who plays the saxophone, knows that her house full of multiple dogs and cats, four turtles and all kinds of fish makes finding roommates challenging. Dogs dart around the legs of visitors in the pretty gray Craftsman north of Seattle. Turtles claim the upstairs bathtub. Two roommates live downstairs. They're music students, and Brown says she seldom sees them.
Once, she says, a roommate relationship went sour. "She just pretended to like cats," Brown explains. The decelerating relationship was "like watching a nature show. She was trying to eradicate me from my own house."
Still, Brown hopes to find one more roommate to rent out her master bedroom. She plans to sleep on the living-room couch. The income allows her to write instead of having a full-time job, and to travel to warmer climates.
Each day she looks for that just-right roommate, a new batch of ads will appear as one person after another seeks that certain someone.
"Do any of these apply to you?" asks one: "Sartre, Camus, lawn bowling, Little Miss Sunshine, the Big Lebowski, macaroni art, snowboarding, softball . . .
Then inquire within."
Nancy Bartley is a Seattle Times staff writer. She can be reached at 206-464-8522 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Alan Berner is a Times staff photographer.
Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company
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