There was nothing romantic about it when Elizabeth Castoria moved in with Peter, her boyfriend of less than a year. They were already having problems and weren’t really ready to make such a commitment, but they let it slide, thinking of all the money they would save by shacking up. It was 2010, and although the recession had spared Castoria’s job in publishing, she was unwilling to pay the outrageous rents she was seeing on Craigslist. So the thirtysomethings moved into a two-bedroom apartment in the Mission that they would share with a friend. And soon after, the friend’s girlfriend. And the girlfriend’s son. And the son’s dogs (three of them). A love nest it was not.
It all sounds like fodder for prime time à la New Girl, where attractive, successful friends share square footage, neckties hang on doorknobs for privacy, and arguments go on for just a few minutes before someone in a Peter Pan collar and Warby Parker frames charms the gang into reconciliation. The Real World version? “Peter and I fought a lot. Not having enough personal space or time alone really hindered us as a couple,” says Castoria, a petite, laid-back brunette of the vegan persuasion. “We’re both pretty independent, and being at home together with all those people and animals accelerated the deterioration of our relationship.” After six months, they were done.
Nora Allen’s (not her real name) relationship never even made it past the starting line because of a similar home-as-dorm situation. Three years ago, the nurse practitioner moved into a three-bedroom in Cole Valley with two friends: both straight men whom she’d known for years. She loved the setup, but it caused some awkwardness on first dates. “One of the first questions a guy will ask is where I live. Do I have roommates, or do I live alone? Even if it’s just an innocent question, I feel like, ‘I’m 32. Shouldn’t I be more adult at this stage?’”
Then she met David (not his real name). Their relationship progressed nicely—until David became frustrated that he and Allen weren’t getting enough time alone. (He had roommates, too.) They would plan romantic dinners at home, but inevitably one of Allen’s roommates would walk in with two or three friends, and the evening would turn into a party. Eventually, David just refused to spend the night. “He said he never felt like my apartment was also his space,” Allen says. It was a tough burden to impose on a new relationship, and they broke up about six months in.
It’s a common story these days: relationships cramped and tested as couples navigate the city’s increasingly competitive rental market. The average San Francisco monthly rent has climbed 30 percent in the last two years, and national real estate investment firm Marcus & Millichap estimates that the average rent will rise to $2,011 this year—and won’t taper off before 2015. It’s no wonder that renters race to outbid each other, crowds line up at open houses with résumés and pay stubs in hand, and vacancies sometimes fill overnight.
People determined to stick it out in (or move to) the city are being forced to double, triple, and even quadruple up. According to Lovely, a website for would-be renters, a large majority of its users are looking for an apartment for more than one person. Even some of Lovely’s cofounders struggle to squeeze into the rental market: Doug Wormhoudt has been searching for a place with three to four roommates for two months; Blake Pierson has been crashing at the office while he looks at roommate options; and a company engineer left his family in Chicago to lease a place here with four other people.
The squeeze is tough on anyone who had hoped to leave dorm life behind, but especially so on romantic partners, says Potrero Hill couples’ counselor Cameron Yarbrough. “There’s just so much that can go wrong here, like a lack of boundaries and competition for resources,” he says. “If you can’t get away from your partner when you’re mad, the temptation to get in the last word, or just one more quick jab, is really high.”
In Castoria’s case, the only escape was taking a 35-minute run. Trouble was, when she ended up back at her front door, the tensions were still there to greet her. “We became two people who were unhappy, not speaking to each other, and living in the same room,” she says.
My own problem wasn’t lack of space, but another aspect of the rental market. Two summers ago, after years of unvoiced conflicts, my now ex-boyfriend and I very politely parted ways. The only thing I couldn’t bring myself to break up with was the apartment we’d leased together: an updated, sunny, 1,500-square-foot Victorian with a backyard, a washer and dryer, parking, and a working fireplace—for post–Lehman Brothers rent. In many ways, the thought of leaving my six-room sanctuary was worse than the thought of abandoning the relationship. What can I say? Blame me for being cold and unfeeling, but the Craigslist posts I’d been scanning had put me in survival mode.
That meant finding a roommate. I’m nearing 30, and the idea of living with someone other than a romantic partner felt like a huge step backward, very college-y. At this point in my life, wasn’t I supposed to be on my way to settling down, getting serious, and art-directing my very own grown-up home? Wearing earplugs to muffle the sounds of sex grunts in the next room wasn’t part of the plan.
Luckily, I got a great roommate (Beth’s the best!). But when I started dating again, the guys were less than enthused about having to schedule sleepovers around her comings and goings. (No one liked the idea of getting caught on the way to the bathroom, naked.) So I adjusted, learning to listen for doors opening and closing. Having the quietest sex possible, the quietest arguments, the quietest all-night talks. It was as if I were sneaking around in my parents’ house all over again. But when I began seeing Rudy, my current boyfriend, the silence proved too much for him, and soon he began spending fewer and fewer nights with me. (His bachelor pad wasn’t an option. Trust me.) More than once, he came over for dinner only to leave right after the dishes were washed, when Beth walked in the door. We continued along like that, living separately but “sleeping over,” for more than a year before we decided that we were ready to live together. A half dozen fruitless apartment showings later, however, we were forced to face a daunting reality: Rudy would have to move into my flat, and I would have to throw my perfectly lovely roommate into the hell of a fierce rental market that she probably couldn’t afford.
During a flight to Kauai, I told Rudy that I needed to give Beth a few months’ notice. Unfortunately for the passenger next to us, we spent the next five hours arguing in terse whispers about why we couldn’t move in together sooner. We must have looked ridiculous, sitting there in seats A and B with teeth grinding and arms occasionally flailing in exasperation. If there had been a parachute under my seat, I would have gladly jumped.
In the end, Beth took the news like a champ. Rudy and I, however, discovered another housing-related dilemma: the fact that we would be starting our life together in a home haunted by the ghost of a relationship past. To remove any reminders that I had once deeply loved someone else, Rudy made demands that provoked my sometimes type A personality. First, he wanted to rearrange all the furniture. “But darling,” I would point out, “the TV can’t go there.” “Why not?” he would ask. The answer was that we (as in the ex-boyfriend and I) had tried moving it there before, but it simply hadn’t worked. “And can we paint the living room another color?” God, no. The ex and I had spent more than a week layering coats of paint onto those textured walls.
Sensing Rudy’s growing discomfort in his new home, I conceded wherever I could. At times it was tense and uneasy, but as we found our groove (and adopted a cat), the apartment began to feel like ours. Just for good measure, though, I burned several sticks of sage to clear any leftover bad mojo.
For photographer Alexandra Farias, however, no amount of sage was going to cut it. She and her 31-year-old boyfriend, Brent, were itching to get her out of the Nob Hill apartment she shared with a roommate and into a place that the two could call home. Brent had an affordable one-bedroom near Dolores Park, but for Farias, the fact that he had lived there with a previous girlfriend was a deal breaker. So they spent nearly two months looking for a new place. The competition was stiff; the people, desperate. “And all for really awful places,” says Farias. “Stained old carpeting, bad mildew smells, no light. But I just wanted to sign a lease, and he kept saying no, that we’d eventually find something we both liked. I thought he was being too picky.”
It didn’t help that Brent, feeling overwhelmed, was mentally checking out. “I was spending all my days visiting places, but he wasn’t involved at all,” says Farias. It wasn’t until she suggested bringing her mother into the process that Brent finally snapped to. “My mom offered to come from Mexico to help me look around, and he was like, ‘No, no, no, no, no!’ We made an offer on the next place we saw.”
The two-bedroom Edwardian they ended up with was well over their initial budget, but they were so happy to be past the apartment-hunting stage that they raided their savings for the nearly $10,000 (first, last, and a deposit) that the landlord required. Everything seemed settled until two weeks before their move-in date, when the landlord asked for even more money to cover their rental application and utilities for the days preceding their move. The couple felt that they were being taken advantage of, so they backed out and began their search again. Although Brent is more into it this time, he and Farias are getting really frustrated, wondering if they’ll ever be able to take that important next step in their relationship.
But at least they’re still looking forward. The sad situations, couples’ counselor Yarbrough says, are those, like Castoria’s, in which the living situation pushes a relationship over the edge. “I work with a 41-year-old massage therapist who was making a good enough living for herself—but when her partner became unemployed, the two were forced to move in with the woman’s parents. It put so much pressure on them that they broke up.” Even worse, Yarbrough adds, is when couples can’t afford to part ways. “I’ve had cases where there’s been an affair or some kind of abuse going on, but because of finances, people are forced to continue in toxic circumstances.”
Even when the two people in a relationship have resigned themselves to less-than-optimal living conditions, the situation can still take a toll. In 2009, Annie Nyborg needed help paying the mortgage on her Precita Park home. Her former Stanford classmate Kirsten took the second bedroom, and soon after that, Nyborg’s boyfriend, Matt, joined the household. Nyborg and Matt are actually quite happy. They love Kirsten and would be hard-pressed to keep the house without her financial contribution. “But there’s definitely less intimacy between us,” Nyborg says. “Sometimes it’s like Matt and I are more like roommates than like boyfriend and girlfriend.” It’s a price she’s willing to pay—for now. But she and Matt are starting to think about the next steps, she says. “And there’s no way we’re going to have a baby and a roommate.”
Of course, the lesson of all these stories is not that it’s impossible to keep love alive in an overcrowded apartment—only that it’s difficult, especially in relationships that are too fragile or too young to withstand the pressure. I mean, why devote yourself to “working things out” when you’re not even sure that he or she is the one?
“It all comes down to how successful a couple is at problem solving as a team,” says Yarbrough. “When faced with stress, a conflict-dependent couple tends to escalate and fight more, while a conflict-avoidant couple will flatten and become bored.” Yarbrough’s advice for romantic roommates feeling the squeeze? “Take a time-out. Agree on how long it’ll be, and go into another room to cool down, read a book, meditate, or call a friend.” And if you’re lucky, maybe that beautiful rent-controlled condo down the street will open up. ❒
Originally published in the February 2013 issue of San Francisco.
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