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TITLE: Crisis Intimacies: The Dialectics of Shared Housing
AUTHOR: Dionne Co
DATE: Spring 2021
KEYWORDS: crisis, intimacy, roommates, shared households, urban ethnography
GEOGRAPHIC FOCUS: Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada
RESEARCH QUESTION/S: How does the housing crisis impact the organization of shared households among adult roommates in the City of Vancouver?
Like many North American cities today, Vancouver has been weathering an affordable housing crisis. In hard times like this, individuals who lack economic means are often left with no choice but to rearrange their lifestyles and social relationships, including household structure, in order to cope with the economic challenges of everyday life (Hall 2019). Sharing housing among people who are not family members is one response that has been growing in popularity in different national contexts since the 2008 financial crisis. The reality of these changes to household structures can be gleaned, for instance, from a November 2019 report from Metro Vancouver’s Regional Affordable Housing Strategy committee: between 2011 and 2016, shared households comprised of unrelated individuals skyrocketed by 41%. The report specified a concerning rise in the proportion of low-income renters in the region, and noted that low-income renters are “more likely to seek roommates to reduce costs.” In recent years, this increase in shared households has been observed in other contexts, too (in the UK, see Heath 2018; in Australia, see Maalsen 2020). The lack of available social housing and growing financialization of ownership and rental housing, the collapse of the sub-prime mortgage market, year-on-year house price increases, reduced mortgage availability, and the breaking of the link between average house prices and average earnings are just some of the factors affecting housing unaffordability for people living in cities with increasing land values.
Shared households are defined here as informal households in the private rented sector comprised of two or more unrelated adults. The demographic growth in roommate households is clear, but academic research has failed to keep pace with this growing phenomenon (Clark et al. 2017). This research project is my way of keeping pace, at least here in Vancouver, where the lives of roommates inhabiting shared households are further complicated due to three structural factors, discussed briefly below.
First, the combination of below average incomes with the high costs of housing and living have led some to call Vancouver a “consumption city” (Siemiatycki 2013), as the city’s urban development has facilitated significant job losses and the proliferation of low-wage jobs since the 1980s. In this city, many residents do not earn enough to pay for housing that is adequate to their household needs. As a result, those who do not opt to leave are forced to devise the means to cope. In the city, renting a shared house or apartment with others who are in the same financial boat is one such common housing coping mechanism.
Second, local tenant laws and guidelines have proven to provide little assistance to roommate renters to reduce their housing vulnerability. Roommates are often unrecognized within the British Columbia Residential Tenancy Act, leaving them to fend for themselves if disputes or complications arise in the shared household. As a result, signing the monthly “lease” puts roommates at risk. However, because co-signing a lease requires proof of a steady income, many roommates live “under the table” with no contracts. At the same time, changing the signors on a lease also poses a challenge: when a new tenancy agreement is drafted, it opens the door to rent increases above the allowable 2.5% annually. Roommates caught without a signed lease are left to find new shared housing within the private rented market, leaving landlords with a significant amount of control in allowing, cracking down, or turning a blind eye to these arrangements.
Third, the City of Vancouver, Zoning and Development Bylaw 3575 states “No private residential dwelling shall be used by more than one family.” Passed in 1956, the bylaw also officially defines a “family” as “one or more persons related by blood, marriage, or adoption.” This definition is also used as the basis for allowing only a maximum of three unrelated adults in a private household. Any number beyond that is deemed “overcrowding” and thus, illegal. City zoning bylaws limit the number of non-family members who can live together legally, marginalizing the legality and appropriateness of the daily life of non-family roommates in shared households. This growing share of households are also forced to find creative ways to make their lives together fit within housing that has been designed for the domestic life of nuclear family members.
RESEARCH PROJECT FINDINGS
Building on previous scholarship which emphasize how structural and contextual forces can shape housing choices and conditions, the study offers a glimpse into the lives of 15 roommates as they navigate and cope with life in households that are often formed out of necessity, posing interesting challenges to the experience of housing and being-at-home.
Using urban ethnographic methods and interdisciplinary theoretical frameworks, shared households are revealed as spaces of both crisis and intimacy, containing within them contradictory encounters and tensions, while at the same time laying bare the moments of skill, creativity, and care as roommates engage in a constant process of learning how to live together. During the period January 2020 to May 2020, a total of 15 participants were recruited and interviewed in order to guide and provide the bulk of materials for this project. In conversations with the researcher, roommates frequently compared their shared housing experiences to certain normative models regarding housing and home. For instance, in the event where roommates failed to clean or contribute to chores, a number of participants expressed their unwillingness to pick up their roommate’s slack, reasoning that they weren’t their “roommate’s mother,” both adopting and protesting against a gendered discourse in which mothers in nuclear households have been made responsible for cleaning, chores, and other forms of unpaid domestic work.
Beyond cleaning, another significant issue revealed in this study of shared households was the negotiation of privacy and “alone time.” Roommates frequently expressed frustration at the lack of privacy, at always having to be ‘on,’ with some reporting how their mental health has suffered as a result of being unable to afford housing were it not shared. Those who did not possess their own bedrooms experienced greater challenges. Sleeping in the living room without a sense of enclosure, some participants expressed an inability to inhabit their own space freely. Many expressed being unable to invite friends, romantic partners or guests over. Some evinced discomfort at having to spend time with their guests in exposed communal areas, which felt like “public” places within their private spaces. Some feared repercussions from the “lead tenant,” who was often the sole leaseholder, exerting more control in household matters over the rest of the roommate residents.
Differences in legal status between members of the household, with some roommates listed on the lease and others not, can sometimes translate into power differentials within roommate relationships. Sole leaseholders often assume roles and functions that landlords typically fulfill – recruiting and interviewing new roommates, evicting unwanted ones, arranging for maintenance and repairs, collecting monthly rent – in effect turning them into “quasi-landlords” of the shared household. Some quasi-landlords would routinely bar their roommates from decorating or putting up personal furnishings in common living spaces, calling the shared dwelling space “mine” despite paying equal amounts of rent with fellow residents. But this was not always the case. Instead, some quasi-landlords have used their control to create households where roommates provide social support for each other, instigating house rules that centre values like collectivism and care, and purposefully recruiting roommates who are willing to share in these ideals.
In social scientific research we are often trained to see the connections and over-arching themes, but to focus solely on these is to risk overlooking stories that do not fit neatly with the rest of the accounts. Hence, this project also presents two case studies that proved anomalous in relation to the rest of the data, in effect representing a wider and more fulsome range of roommate experiences in Vancouver. In particular, the experience of older roommates who are receiving social assistance are outlined, describing how the nature of shared housing transforms as it intersects with social factors related to class, gender, age and ability.
At the same time that shared households among roommates might create housing situations that are fraught, complicated and conflict-ridden, living in these households also entails much experimentation and skill as roommates engage in a process of learning how to live together. At the end of each participant interview, as a way to triangulate diverse perspectives expressed and summarize conversations, I asked each participant a standard question before parting ways: “What would you say are the best and worst parts about your experiences in shared housing?” In searching for themes across the answers received to this question, most striking to me was that the “best” parts were often discussed along pedagogical lines: teaching and learning, trial and error, gaining new insight about themselves, other people and the world as they encountered differences within their own intimate spaces. Yet there are some for whom living with roommates has taken a toll. Failures in policy were more viscerally felt by participants who experienced fewer social advantages. In these cases, it is worth considering how policy shifts in residential tenancy laws and municipal bylaws may lessen the precarity of living in these households. As time moves forward, so will the number of roommates in shared housing, and so will the need to acknowledge and legitimize roommate renters through appropriate legal protections and resources. Furthermore, in times of crisis, relationships become crucial sources of support. In cities today and tomorrow, roommate relationships are uniquely positioned in cultivating a sense of intimacy, safety and care. That roommates often find themselves together out of economic necessity illustrates a practical imperative in cities of the 21st century: the need to learn how to live with others, even when they are not of our choosing, and to see this as a skill towards co-creating more resilient urban futures.
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