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Thomas Burnett

Married, with roommates: why my wife and I choose to live in a group house

When I got married four years ago, many people said to me, "Finally you can escape the nuisance of living with roommates and enjoy some peace, quiet, and privacy with your wife!"

I don't blame them for assuming Alyson and I would live alone. This is the pattern in America today, as David Roberts laid out in a recent Vox piece: "When we marry and start a family, we are pushed, by custom, policy, and expectation, to move into our own houses." Roommates are for college kids and single people on a budget; married people live by themselves.

But we didn't want to take that path. As single people, both of us enjoyed living with others, and while it wasn't always easy it led to many enduring friendships. So we decided to move into the basement of a group house after we got married. It worked out splendidly. We ate meals with our housemates on a regular basis, hosted parties together, and shared the chores. The only real downside was a lack of sunlight in our subterranean dwelling. We deemed the social experiment a success.

Living in a group house wasn't a phase to grow out of but a lifestyle choice that valued people over privacy

Once we saved up enough money to buy a house of our own in Washington, DC's Petworth neighborhood, we deliberately chose a place in which we would always have room for housemates, even if we had kids in the future. As soon as we closed on our house, our first purchase was a long dining room table that could accommodate our group dinners.

For us, living in a group house was not a phase to grow out of but a lifestyle choice that valued people over privacy. Sure, we lose certain freedoms — we can't walk around the kitchen naked, for instance — but what we get in return is many lighthearted conversations, laughter, and an opportunity to get to know people on a deep level. As Roberts wrote in his essay, "The key ingredient for the formation of friendships is repeated spontaneous contact." In a city where we have to plan coffee dates with people two weeks in advance, a group house can readily foster spontaneity.

In addition, I think these living arrangements enhance rather than detract from our marriage. Living with others, we don't put pressure on each other to be our only conversation partner. Without that burden, we are free to enjoy each other's company rather than depending on it to satisfy all of our social needs.

How living abroad taught me to love having roommates

When I was growing up, I never would have guessed that as a married man, I'd be living with housemates. Raised in Chicago and Memphis, I was accustomed to people living with their nuclear families and, when they grew up, moving out and moving on.

Then I spent the summer after my junior year of high school living with a host family in Madrid, where everything was different. Many young adults still lived with their parents (and seemed to enjoy it), single people lived with friends in shared apartments, and all of them ate meals together at home. It blew my mind, and I returned to the United States as a different person. I realized that people were the greatest treasure in the world. I became more outgoing, more adventurous, and more willing to put myself in unusual situations.

After leaving my parents' home to start college, my first experience of shared housing in America came in the form of residential housing on the campus of Rice University in Houston. While it was not bad, sharing a bedroom wasn't ideal — my roommate's motorcycle alarm would go off early every Tuesday and Thursday morning for his 8 am class — "Vroom, vroom, vroom, hit the road! Vroom, vroom..."

Moving into a three-bedroom house off-campus for my last two years of college was a breath of fresh air. Having a room to myself was delightful, of course, but it was surprising how much I also came to love our kitchen and dining room. Once my mom bought me the cookbook Help! My Apartment Has a Kitchen, I was off to the races.

Being off campus was a great escape from the gossip-infested dorms, but instead of isolating me from people, I found that our house greatly enhanced my social life. In my experience, cute girls rarely turned down an opportunity for a home-cooked meal, and my roommates and I loved exploring the city of Houston. Best of all was joining the Urban Animals, a rollerblading group that skated on weeknights from bar to bar all over the city (this was the 1990s after all). My roommates and I were half the age of all the other Animals, but we were fully embraced by this motley crew of doctors, dentists, and potheads.

Cruising through the perfectly smooth concrete cityscape after all the suburbanites had gone to bed, I became a part of a cohesive community of nonconformists, and it made me realize that being a happy, fulfilled adult did not require me to adhere to what my peers considered "normal."

Moving to Innsbruck, Austria, after graduation gave me another opportunity to see how housing works in other countries. Upon arriving, I searched the university classified ads for rooms and found that a popular alternative to campus housing was a Wohngemeinschaft (German for "living community"). I moved into an apartment with three Austrians and a young French woman.

By sitting with them and their friends at the dinner table every night, I quickly became enmeshed in the social life of a lively European town. It was particularly helpful in learning Austrian alpine dialect, Tirolerisch, and I learned an essential rule: Never pronounce Austrian words like a German.

What makes group living truly special

Upon returning to the United States for graduate school in California, I discovered that Berkeley was full of "group houses" that felt similar to the Wohngemeinschaften of German-speaking Europe. I settled into a North Berkeley bungalow with three other PhD students, including an economist, a political scientist, and a bioengineer. We shared our meals, our chores, and our magazines — the economist got the Economist, the bioengineer got Science, and I got Sports Illustrated.

My housemates and I unconsciously trained one another to be better partners for our future spouses

Just like in Houston and Innsbruck, cooking for housemates and friends was a central feature of our group house identity. In each city, of course, one had to make adjustments to the local culture, and in Berkeley it meant buying a new cookbook, Recipes for a Small Planet: The Art and Science of High Protein Vegetarian Cookery.

Though shared housing was becoming the norm for me, one conversation made me realize that it was a truly special lifestyle. After three semesters of living with me, my bioengineering housemate got married and moved a few blocks away. His wife later confided to me, "Tom, thanks for training my husband." We both laughed, but after further reflection, I realized that it was true. By creating a regular cooking rotation, developing a chore schedule, and having plenty of opportunities for conflict resolution, my housemates and I unconsciously trained one another to be better partners for our future spouses. It was many years before I got married myself, but this conversation stuck with me.

There's a difference between splitting rent and enjoying life together

After moving to Washington, DC, to start my professional career, I found plenty of people who lived in shared housing, but with one major difference — hardly anyone in DC cooked! My first three years I lived in a large row house in a neighborhood called Mount Pleasant with six other people, and five of us shared one refrigerator and a narrow galley kitchen. Though we had more people in our house than burners on our stove, we rarely bumped into each other in the kitchen.  Though I still cooked meals regularly and invited friends and housemates to join me, rarely did anyone reciprocate. Instead, most socializing took place outside our home at happy hours, restaurants, and bars. It was still fun, but it had a more frenetic feel to it. Conversations were animated but less sustained as we divided our attention between finding seats, placing our orders, and splitting the bill.

Comparing this situation to what I had experienced in Houston, Berlin, Innsbruck, and Berkeley, I observed a wide spectrum of shared housing arrangements. It's one thing to split the rent and another thing to enjoy life together. Sharing utility bills is different from sharing meals. Am I cooking at home just to stay within my food budget or to deepen my relationships? Is my primary motivation for living with housemates just to save money or to foster community? Would I be willing to sacrifice some individual privacy in exchange for developing a shared social identity? People answer these questions quite differently, and it doesn't take much time of living with others in order to learn what they value most.

The author serving dinner for his roommates (Thomas Burnett)

What it's like to be a roommate and a landlord

Of all my group living experiences, buying a house and inviting people to live in it with us has been the most ambitious. The configuration of the house we bought was ideal for group living. There were three upstairs bedrooms with two full bathrooms, so Alyson and I had one to ourselves, and two upstairs housemates could share the other bathroom. The first floor had a large kitchen, living room, and guest bathroom, which made it ideal for hosting dinner parties. The finished basement had a bedroom, a sizable living area, and a full bathroom, so it could easily accommodate another couple. Now that we had our dream house just a block away from the Metro, we invited four people to move in with us — two singles and a couple.

How did it turn out? We approached the situation with high-minded ideals, but we quickly discovered the challenges of day-to-day reality. During our first year there wasn't a kitchen in the basement, so all six of us used the first-floor kitchen. Though the space was large enough to accommodate us, the sheer volume of cooking overwhelmed our cleaning schedule.

Almost every night before going to bed, I cleaned all the crumbs off the counters and wiped off the stove, regardless of whether I was the one who'd cooked. Alyson emptied the dishwasher and cleaned the floors far more than anyone else, and after a few months, we were both exhausted — it felt like we were running a bed and breakfast. To compound the difficulties, one housemate wanted to sublet her room each time she traveled for work, and I felt like our house was becoming a hostel rather than a home.

The first year was a humbling, exhausting experience. Though we were perfectly accustomed to being a married couple living with other housemates, we were still first-time homeowners and first-time landlords.

We learned that there is a power dynamic between landlords and tenants that can't be ignored even if you are friends. When there were disputes, we couldn't settle them with a purely democratic process because we had unequal investments in the house and different short-term/long-term perspectives.

As homeowners, we were also more protective of our house in general. With six of us, there was more wear and tear, more accidents, and more frustrating moments. If something broke, I had to fix it or replace it. The housemates' rent more than offset monetary costs, but I also invested a lot of time that I could not get back.

Some problems were relatively easy to fix. To accommodate everyone's bicycles, I built a large bike rack on the wall and installed rubber flooring near the back door. To decrease the volume of kitchen traffic and crumb proliferation, we installed a kitchen in the basement so that only four people used the main kitchen, not six. And to resolve the carousel of people living with us, we stipulated in future leases that subletting was not permitted.

Nevertheless, some challenges will always remain. We have experimented with several different chore schedules in order to spread responsibilities equitably. We've had some housemate turnover, partly due to the transience of DC residents and partly due to incompatible personalities. Over the past three years, Alyson and I have devised a highly specific Craigslist housing post in order to fully convey our group house identity so that no one is caught by surprise when they move in. Here's an excerpt from our post:

Alyson and I are intellectually curious, environmentally conscious, bicycle-riding professionals. We enjoy cooking with our housemates, sitting on the front porch, participating in our neighborhood church, and exploring DC's many cultural activities, especially theater performances. We are looking for a housemate with the following characteristics:

1. Enthusiastic about eating meals together regularly and hosting brunches for our neighbors
2. Environmentally conscious and committed to energy and water conservation
3. Eager to keep the kitchen clean and tidy

Shared housing makes us feel more fulfilled

Though there are some ongoing frustrations, the joys of group house living certainly outweigh the sorrows. With our current housemates, we have dinner together once a week and rotate the cooking duties. Regardless of who prepares the food or what's on the menu, it's one of the highlights of my week. Eating home-cooked meals with friends has a powerful effect that I've never experienced in any other context.

It is no surprise to me that religious communities have traditionally lived together and eaten their meals together. Judeo-Christian scripture describes the inception of the kingdom of God as a huge feast or wedding banquet. Jewish and Muslim communities practice regular cycles of fasting and feasting together. Many Christians commemorate the legacy of Jesus by sharing wine and bread every week.

Whether or not one is spiritually inclined, everyone can enjoy the magic of communal meals in group houses, which extend across every culture and era of history. Living together in a community can be rewarding, but it may not satisfy everyone — in my experience, it requires us to dispense with an unhealthy obsession with privacy, personal space, and hyper-individualism.

There are other ways, too, of fostering and maintaining adult friendships even if you're not ready to move into a group house. David Roberts's article described how people are moving to walkable communities, which foster regular contact with neighbors, and other people, particularly in Germany, are building multi-unit housing that includes shared space for kids to play and adults to hang out together.

Living together requires us to dispense with an unhealthy obsession with privacy, personal space, and hyper-individualism

While I applaud these new developments and hope they become more common, I also think there are plenty of low-tech solutions that don't require changing existing infrastructure. One friend of mine recruited other couples to move into her rent-controlled apartment building, and another friend has encouraged four different families to buy homes within one block of her. Another family was feeling socially isolated as new parents, so they started a weekly front porch cocktail party at their house. On Friday nights after their infant went to sleep, their friends would come over to sip drinks and enjoy grown-up conversations.

In a fragmented society with little social intimacy after people leave college, shared housing is a viable alternative that shapes us in positive ways that we might not expect. Group houses challenge my wife and me to engage in conflict resolution rather than avoidance. They encourage us to be respectful and considerate of each other rather than belittle and marginalize. Though we aren't always best friends with the people we live with, it provides us with the spontaneous social contact that we need to thrive. In light of this, it's worth rethinking whether shared housing is just a stepping stone or a personally fulfilling destination.

Thomas Burnett works in communications at the National Academy of Sciences. He has degrees in history of science and philosophy from University of California Berkeley and Rice University.


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