Apr 22, 2020 - Health

Shelter orders place unique strain on roommate living

Illustration of torn and split sofa with highlighter texture.

Illustration: Eniola Odetunde/Axios

Most of America has been ordered to shelter at home to help curb the spread of the coronavirus, but that can be tricky for people who live with roommates.

Why it matters: Roommates may have a harder time mingling their separate lives under one roof and seeing eye to eye on how to stay safe than people who live with families or significant others.

The big picture: Many of today’s young adults are sharing apartments as they delay marriage, manage college debt and face high rents, especially in major cities.

  • As of 2015, about a quarter of Americans aged 18 to 34 lived with roommates, according to U.S. Census Bureau data cited by The Atlantic.
  • They now face a unique challenge in navigating the rules of sheltering given the nature of their living situations — a single household from a public health standpoint, but a grouping of individuals with sometimes vastly different lifestyles, needs and wants.

What they’re saying: “Before this, there were house rules about how people act in the house, but now the house rules extend out — what I do outside the house affects my roommates,” Jeremy Conrad, a tech entrepreneur who lives with three friends in a large San Francisco house, told Axios.

  • Now, Conrad and his roommates not only limit their trips outside, but also notify each other when they run essential errands, and have shifted all socializing — including dating — to virtual alternatives to limit interactions with others.
  • Nick Hardy, a medical researcher who lives in a house with nine other people in San Francisco, says the group has likewise established standards for sharing a living space during a pandemic. (Three housemates chose to temporarily stay with loved ones elsewhere, but Hardy's girlfriend has moved in.)
  • In the interest of safety, Hardy and his housemates agreed to visit significant others only if those partners live alone and don’t interact with other people.
  • They also got a trial run at what they would do if one of them became ill with COVID-19 when one housemate got strep throat last month. They temporarily gave him his own bathroom and brought him food and supplies so he wouldn't contaminate common areas.

Between the lines: “It’s definitely tested a lot of the theories around communal living and co-living,” says Starcity CEO Jon Dishotsky, whose company operates co-living buildings in San Francisco and Los Angeles that mostly house young professionals.

  • Unlike arrangements between a small number of friends to live together, co-living housing like Starcity’s units usually brings together strangers to share one roof.
  • The company has not only brought stations with cleaning supplies into its buildings, but also rolled out rules for its residents in line with guidelines from health authorities.

Yes, but: Not everyone is necessarily on the same page as their roommates.

  • “What we were hearing from the community is that there’s a small subset of people [who] aren’t taking this seriously,” says Dishotsky.
  • It prompted the company to require that residents get written permission from their community manager to bring guests over, and only in limited circumstances.
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