I’m a 31-year-old female, and I live in what’s billed as a “hacker house”—a large home on the edge of Lake Union in Seattle, designed to accommodate up to 18 residents at once. Though the name implies a house full of young tech workers, those “disruptor” types really only flood in during the summer, when the local tech giants run internship programs. Right now, everyone on this floor is a graduate student, and all except myself are from elsewhere—some as far away as Argentina and Estonia.
Many of my roommates stick around for a year or more, and are exploring new ways to innovate—whether that's artistic, in the sciences, or like myself, in journalism.
The roommate routine is different at 31 than it is a decade earlier. Our setup isn’t quite like a college dorm. We only have a couple of rules: Do your own dishes, alert the "house manager" (essentially a peer version of a college resident advisor) if a toilet gets clogged. Our cohort of 30-somethings is typically in bed by 10 p.m. and out of the house by 7 a.m. We don’t throw ragers that annoy the neighbors. Around 8 p.m. on a Monday night, four of my five housemates were gathered around desks in what would likely be a living room of our sprawling, six-bedroom house. We were cracking away at homework or fellowship applications, blasting a playlist of ‘90s ballads.
I moved in near the end of 2016, soon after I split with my then-husband. I was trying to get back into the swing of freelancing, and I didn’t have much income. I needed something closer to the city—I had been living 2 hours south—and a space that allowed me to easily connect with others who were like-minded. My room is tiny—about 10 feet by 10 feet (I can touch the bed and wall at the same time!)—and outfitted with bunk beds. I was a little wary of sharing it with a stranger, but I have it to myself for now since demand lags in the winter.
The reasons for wanting to move into a setup like this are pretty obvious: Shared living situations are a good option for people in areas where cost of living is rising faster than salaries, says Shauna Causey, a local real estate investor.
This cuts across professions. Take teachers, for instance. They often “can’t afford to live near where they work,” Causey says. “They’re being priced out.” In general, Millennials aren’t buying houses, and we’re struggling to make rent in areas that are notoriously tough to afford. Then there’s the added burden of utilities and internet bills. With student loans and consumer debt, finances have been tight for me the past few years, and that pinch is a reason so many of my friends are opting to move back in with their parents.
Stuffing a bunch of 30-somethings into bunk beds is, of course, one solution to a much bigger problem: the missing middle in the housing market, or a gap in apartments accessible to young people without kids. Seattle is building in an effort to meet the demand fueled by out-of-towners flocking in for jobs. Writing in the Seattle Times last month, Mike Rosenberg noted that the housing market explosion is driving up rents—they’ve soared 43 percent over the last four years. And the new units coming on the market this year will be largely luxury apartments, he added, instead of the low-rise, mid-density units that aren’t quite profitable enough. The result, Rosenberg noted, “won’t help lower-income renters much, while some middle-class renters are turned off by the mundane similarity of many of the new buildings."
Our house is a way around that. It sits in the quaint Wallingford neighborhood, about 30 yards from the famous Burke-Gilman bike trail. The nearby houses are priced to sell for around $1 million, so my monthly rent of $800 feels like quite a steal. Across the city, the average rent for a 1-bedroom apartment would clock in at 170 percent above the cost of shared room like mine, estimates Causey. In my West Coast city, “when it comes to owning a home and paying a mortgage, you’ll pay 300 percent more than what you’d pay for shared housing," she adds.
I don’t pay for much other than food: My $800 covers all utilities and supplies, including laundry detergent, and housemates regularly share milk, cereal, or homemade snacks. That said, what I give up in costs I also give up in space: My tiny room features nothing but a bunk and bookshelf. To wrangle clutter, I ordered a clothing rack and plan to purchase some type of storage unit for other clothes and personal items. Still, the cramped quarters feel like a very small price to pay for how much living here saves me.
It’s no surprise, then, that similar setups are cropping up in areas that are also home to an influx of young workers looking for a place to crash while doing minimal damage to their savings. In NYC and San Francisco, some of the more trendy shared housing options are operated by WeLive and Common. (They’ve got different vibes: In Brooklyn, for instance, one communal living arrangement boasts group meditation.) Bunks in my house are available for rent via Airbnb, skirting a lease and meaning that I can stick around to keep saving for an apartment—maybe through September—or leave earlier if my income picks up. House managers have also been known to allow early cancellations of long-term rentals if, say, you fall in love with another resident and decide to move out together. (Hey, we're all adults here.)
Despite its perks, sharing space involves a pretty big shift in habits and assumptions. Sharing a room with someone boosts the chances of a naked run-in—but everyone’s schedules are so out-of-sync that it’s not really a problem. We have the usual roommate squabbles over dirty plates on the counter and piled in the sink, and sometimes a roommate’s snoring drives other people to the couch. Still, there’s an underlying sense of, well, neighborliness: roommates will bring leftovers home from a meet-up or make a communal pot of chili or pasta for dinner.
A decade after crashing in a college dorm, it’s fun to share a space with a group of other adults my age—also single, also focused on their careers, yet down to make chocolate fondue for dinner.