Share housing – a hippy alternative or the housing solution for the future?

This year marks my tenth anniversary of share housing. That’s a decade! A decade is longer than most of my adult friendships, longer than I’ve ever held down a job, longer than my longest relationship. A decade of anything is big for someone who hasn’t even hit 30 yet. I know that a lot of people hitting my age would prefer to live in more intimate houses than mine (a five bedder with seven people) and that my choice is not something everyone wants – however, given the amount of time it has been in my life, house sharing now has a very special place in my heart. It has always been an affordable and more social option which has given me comfort and companionship through pretty scary times in my life (like starting work and moving to new cities) and the more I think about it in different contexts, the more I am convinced more people should be doing it. As more and more young people move to big cities far away from home and as housing prices continue to soar, living with other people continues to be convenient and fun and to deal with some bigger issues like isolation and financial security. With all this in mind, I started to think about the stark contrast of how much living arrangements (and conceptions about them) have changed over the past 30 or 40 years – in other words, from when my mom was my age, to now. How much of this is influenced by societal changes and in response to modern dilemmas? What are the benefits of the living alone or with family vs with friends? Why do some people, and couples, put off ‘grown up’ living while others still prefer to pay through the roof for the luxury of living by themselves? The more I consider it, the more I think of share housing as being an excellent solution to all of modern society’s biggest issues. From isolation to cheaper housing all the way to community inclusion and the ageing crisis, I believe that share housing is the modern answer to many of society’s currently unanswered questions.

Back in the 70s, living with other people was so radical it was considered a political statement or social experiment. These days it’s so normalised that it has made its way into popular culture, from the beloved Friends to the 2002 film L’auberge Espanol. It is generally assumed that young people in a new or big city will live with others. Unlike our parents’ generation, circumstances in the workforce (as well far, far cheaper travel) mean that we are now much more likely to leave the town or even country we grew up in to go off to study abroad, or in search of work. A shift in priorities means that we value travel, as well as focusing on gaining more education and experience before settling into a career and starting a family. This gives us a lot more time in between leaving the parental nest and starting our own family in our 30s or 40s – a stark contrast to the days people were expected to find a job, settle down and start a family right out of school. This is fantastic for our liberty, our education and our culture. I also expect it’s fantastic for our parenting – it stands to reason that, having collected more lived experiences and waiting til you really want children, you will be a more patient and wise parent.

More often that not, moving out of home to find a job or study involves moving to big cities with lots of opportunities. When you’re navigating a new city, dealing with the harsh reality that is your work life for the first time and learning to budget, it can be a godsend to have a warm home full of people your own age to go home to each evening. In my early 20s I moved to Sydney. I knew absolutely no one but was lucky enough to move into a share house with a very varied and awesome group of people. There was always someone to have wine with after work, always someone going out that I could join if I didn’t have plans and importantly, we got to throw epic parties. The house was HUGE and because it was shared by five people, I was still paying just a quarter of my salary on rent (the general recommendation is that you pay no more than a third). It was a huge part of finding my feet in a new city and I know that without it, the whole process of feeling at home and comfortable could have taken a lot longer, if not evaded me completely.

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Living in a big city for the first time can be tough… and lonely.

So share housing is good for a few years in your early 20s or to navigate a new city… then what? Well, I am 29 and in a long term committed relationship with my partner. We live in a house with five other people, ranging in age from 27 – 36 and including another couple. We’re not students, just seven professional adults who share a home and, if we feel like it, get to enjoy each other’s company.
For us, and many others like us, the most obvious reason for continuing to live in share houses is money. Populations in desirable cities are growing at a faster rate than we can build infrastructure and accommodation, which results in exorbitant housing prices. It’s harder than ever to buy your own home and as people come to this realisation they focus their income on experiences and lifestyle (the whole smashed avo debate tends to rear its ugly head around this point of the conversation). Whether you agree with it or not, the modern 20 and 30 something isn’t saving all their expendable income to buy a house – they are getting used to renting and to sharing the space they live in. Even if you do manage to somehow get onto the property ladder, it’s much easier to make your monthly mortgage repayments if you are able to generate extra income, for example by renting out the spare room.

Even renting, I could never have afforded to live alone – think double or even triple the rent for the benefit of living alone in a matchbox marauding as a ‘studio apartment’ – and I have never wanted to. When it does work, I love the social aspect of share housing. That’s not to say that it’s always an easy ride. I’ve had loud housemates, dirty housemates, obsessively clean housemates, housemates who pick fights over tiny little things. But the positives have always far outweighed the negatives and I have never once wished I lived by myself.

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Some share house experiences can leave you feeling a bit out of sorts.

All of these changes to the way we live our lives (and where) have much larger impacts than I think we’re currently aware of. In days gone by, grown up children would probably still be living in the same city or not too far away from their parents. Today, old people are increasingly isolated and are suffering financially and with their health. New studies show that loneliness can increase your chance of an earlier death by 26%The 2018 budget in Australia has set out $1.6 billion specifically for aged care facilities and a further $82.5 million to look after people in aged care facilities over the next four years. Apart from the economic ramifications, it’s pretty unpleasant to think that we are abandoning people in their old age. A recent report showed that 40% of aged Australians living in residential facilities receive no visitors , another study conducted in February 2017 showed that ‘one in four women and one in three men report that they did not have someone to help them out if in need’. Numerous charities promote initiatives like inviting an isolated old age person for Sunday dinner or Christmas dinner so that they don’t eat alone, as well as programmes encouraging volunteers to spend time with old people and where possible, to get younger people cohabiting with isolated older people. Research shows that isolation can only be cured by long term and meaningful relationships – simply being around other people doesn’t stop you from being lonely. So could share housing for the aged be the solution? The current generation of pensioners are unlikely to want to open up their homes, due mostly to the fact that it isn’t seen as normal or the done thing. As someone currently living in a happy share home, continuing this way of life into my 80s is far preferable to getting old and lonely, feeling more and more isolated as my friends die and after my children have moved away and forgotten about me (I’m sure there are some old people who don’t live like this – we just never hear about them). Financially it also seems preferable to trying to pay for a spot in an expensive old people’s home. For those who are able to get past the ‘image problem’ and for future generations, sharing a home (and potentially a live in nurse or carer) could be a great way to encourage and prolong more independent living while staving off isolation and boredom.

Ultimately, everyone wants to feel happy and comfortable at home. While there are advantages and disadvantages to both living alone and share housing, it is still a very personal decision to make and there are no right or wrong answers. However, population growth and migration may mean that the structure of cities and living arrangements change so much that this is no longer in our control. Share housing in a much more economic way of living in modern urban areas as well as dealing with many modern issues like isolation and lack of community cohesion. As the current rate of urban growth shows little chance of slowing down, cities continue to grow at an alarming rate and housing continues to be a problem worldwide. Share housing is becoming less of an ‘alternative’ option and more of a necessity or pragmatic answer. Share housing and options like co-housing are billed as being the greener, more sustainable options for cities of the future.

2 Comments

  1. I’d never thought about share housing as a long-term lifestyle solution, but actually, it makes so much sense. I observe with envy the family home structures here in Pakistan, where typically three but up to four generations co-habit in a large family home, often on separate floors to allow space alongside proximity and cohesion. Old-age homes are not a thing here: the elderly are not just tolerated by their families, but loved and revered. It seems to me that western society is too far gone from this convivial, family-centric approach to try to return to it, but share housing does seem to offer a possible alternative for our generation. That’s comforting to think about.

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    1. I remember you mentioned that when you came to Sydney and I think about it often in terms of cohabitation and society in large. My current model isn’t perfect but it definitely feels more integrated than many couples I know who live by themselves (often in much smaller apartments with no garden or balcony as a result) and feel lonely or isolated.
      My friend Theresa brought this up again the other night at bookclub – that the perfect way to live would be for us each to have a micro-flat (bedroom, bathroom, kitchen) with a huge fire pit with chairs and tables in the middle for eating, socialising and parties. It’s so much harder to not notice when someone’s withdrawn and not feeling themselves if you ordinarily see them every day or week and know what their patterns are. So many of us just see each other briefly at social events and pretend that that’s enough interaction to foster meaningful relationships!

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