Adult roommates: Millennials ‘double-up’ to face changing economic and social environments

Emerging adults might be transforming the very meaning of adulthood

Caitye Davis, left, lives in a three-bedroom, 900-square-foot house with three other roommates, sharing a bedroom with one. (Hannah Metzger, special to Colorado Newsline)

After Caitye Davis graduated from the University of Colorado Denver, she didn’t care what she had to do: She was going to move out of her parents’ house.

She ended up moving into a three-bedroom, 900-square-foot house with three other roommates, sharing a bedroom with one. After a while, the four of them moved into a bigger house in downtown Denver.

Now a 26-year-old tech specialist for a startup company, Davis lives with her roommates Michael, Holly and Chelsie, their three chickens, two dogs and two cats. Their home is covered wall-to-wall with plants, which they will all admit are alive because of Michael alone. Their fridge is littered with home photos, including one comically large photo of Davis’ mom from the 1990s that takes up the entire left door. A printed screenshot of a Kanye West tweet is framed in the living room.

“I wouldn’t want to do it any other way,” Davis said. “It’s like a family. It’s better than coming home to my family.”

More or less, Davis’ housing arrangement reflects that of the average millennial adult today. While a generation ago those approaching 30 were expected to be married with a kid and mortgage, today’s emerging adults live with roommates while juggling a changing social and economic environment.

Graph by Hannah Metzger.

Between 2005 and 2015, the rates of 18 to 34-year-olds in Colorado living with roommates increased from 24.1% to 28.5%, an increase that was double the national average, according to U.S. Census data. During this time, Colorado had the seventh-highest adult-roommate increase in the country and the largest young adult population among the top states. National rates have also increased drastically. In 1975, only 11% of adults 18 to 34 lived with roommates.

Financial challenges

Stephanie Cook, 30, is a senior communications editor for the College of Media, Communication and Information at the University of Colorado Boulder, where she previously earned a master’s degree in journalism. A highly educated career professional, Cook lives with two roommates, both 32, just to get by in Boulder.

“I have a good job, but it would be a struggle financially for me to live by myself in Boulder,” Cook said. “I don’t even know if I could do it.”

Stephanie Cook and her roommate Travis pose on the porch of their townhouse holding a family photo of their third roommate, Mattie (bottom left), on April 14, 2020. All three roommates are in their early 30s, successful in their careers but relying on each other to afford to live in Boulder. (Hannah Metzger)

Many emerging adults today are just like Cook: educated, successful, hard-working, but simply not earning enough to support themselves alone. Of 25- to 34-year-olds living with roommates in 2015, 77.7% were employed and 60% had some level of college education, yet 63.3% made less than $30,000 per year, according to census data.

Millennials are financially worse off than the generations before them. The average millennial has a net worth of only $8,000, according to The Washington Post. This lack of financial success is a result of numerous factors.

Cook said credit card debt and student loans have significantly influenced her financial situation and the way she lives today.

Graph by Hannah Metzger.

In 2017, the average annual cost of a four-year college or university was $26,593, $20,000 more than the $5,504 cost in 1985, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. The cost of college has increased nearly eight times faster than wages during the same time frame. In fact, hourly wages for non-supervisory positions have remained relatively stagnant since the 1980s, according to data collected by Axios.

These economic conditions combine to the detriment of millennials. In 2019, the Federal Reserve System found that millennials had only 2.7% of the wealth in the U.S.

These financial difficulties have forced some adults into unwanted roommate situations.

Bilal Nadurath, 27, lives in Aurora with four roommates. A former first-generation college student, Nadurath said he’d prefer to live alone but relies on roommates while he pays off his student loans.

“Everyone looks forward to having a place of their own,” Nadurath said.

Nadurath said he’s focusing on paying off his debts “as quick as (he) can” before taking on housing investments. He expects to live with roommates until he’s around 30.

“It takes a little bit longer than our parents,” Nadurath said. “Things were a little bit cheaper in their time.”

Graph by Hannah Metzger.

In addition to national stagnant incomes and increased student debt, state housing prices have made Colorado millennials especially disadvantaged.

In 1990, the median home price in Denver was 2.59 times the median income. In 2019, it’s more than five times the median income, according to an analysis from Clever Real Estate. For context, financial experts generally advise not to spend more than 2.6 times your income on a home. The analysis also found that since 1960, the median income in Denver has grown by 56% while the median home price has grown by 239%.

While housing prices have increased nationally, Colorado has been hit particularly hard. Out of U.S. cities, Denver had the 14th highest price-to-income ratio with a ratio of 5.05, according to Clever Real Estate.

A report from real estate brokerage Redfin found that Denver’s median home price in January 2010 was $202,896. By October 2019, it more than doubled to $424,051.

While some project that Denver housing prices are going to slow down, other Colorado cities are just beginning to rise. Both Fort Collins and Colorado Springs are on the National Association of Realtors’ top 10 list of housing markets expected to outperform other markets in the coming years.

Because of current housing markets, Davis can’t imagine a time when she’d be able to live on her own.

“I don’t think I’ll ever not have roommates,” Davis said. “I don’t know if I’ll ever have my own house. The markets are so bad anywhere that I’d ever want to live.”

Caitye Davis poses on her bed in her Denver home on Feb. 28, 2020. Davis said she doesn’t know if she’ll ever live alone because of expensive housing prices in cities she’s interested in. (Hannah Metzger)

However, housing markets are not just influencing rates of adult roommates; adult roommates are influencing the market as well.

Phyllis Resnick and Jennifer Newcomer authored a study with Shift Research Lab, exploring the phenomenon of “doubled-up” housing in Colorado. Doubled-up means households with multiple adults who are not married or in a relationship. This includes adults living with parents or other family members, as well as friends or roommates.

Resnick and Newcomer said increased rates of doubled-up housing hide the housing demand created during the 2008 recession. According to census data, 7.5 million more adults lived in doubled-up housing after the recession ended in 2011 than before it began in 2007.

Their research has found that people in involuntary doubled-up living situations have a need for housing, but that need is not seen because they can’t afford what is available.

“There’s more hidden demand out there than (is recognized),” Resnick said. “If there were more supply in a price point that would meet the feasibility of these households … we would find that the building we did didn’t create as much of a relief as the popular media thinks it has.

“If all the housing that’s available is at half a million dollars or more, and these doubled-up households when you split them up can’t afford that level of housing, then that demand will continue to be hidden.”

  The notion that there’s more capacity to pay for higher-priced housing is a bit of a false front.   -Jennifer Newcomer, co-author of a Shift Research Lab study on “doubled-up” housing in Colorado

Doubled-up housing also has negative consequences on affordable housing options. Newcomer said when multiple adults are living in one household, it inflates the median household income. This limits the affordable housing programs the household is eligible for.

“The notion that there’s more capacity to pay for higher-priced housing is a bit of a false front,” Newcomer said.

Newcomer and Resnick also point to negative consequences that this kind of unaffordable housing market has on the overall state economy.

Resnick said those who spend more than 30% of their income on housing are “housing cost stressed.” Because of their financial strain, these people sacrifice costs in other areas like clothing, food and entertainment. When high proportions of the population are housing cost stressed, that hurts state economies, particularly in Colorado.

“In the fiscal structure that we have in Colorado where our cities live and die by the performance of our sales tax, if you have a high concentration of people that are housing cost stressed … they’re not contributing to the tax base,” Resnick said. “It’s not as rosy a story as it seems.”

Emotional influences

Hunter Sutton, 27, moved to Aurora from Dallas, Texas after graduating college. He came with three friends and they quickly moved into a house as a group. Over the years, all three of his roommates gradually moved out and were replaced again and again. Today, Sutton lives in the same home with four new roommates: his twin brother, his younger brother and two friends — one of which is Bilal Nadurath.

Hunter Sutton (right) and his younger brother and roommate Austin hang out in Sutton’s bedroom on Feb. 28, 2020. Sutton enjoys living with roommates, saying he wouldn’t choose to live alone even if he could afford to. (Hannah Metzger)

“I love having my roommates,” Sutton said. “At this point in my life, it would be really weird to be living on my own. Just because I’ve always lived with someone.”

Sutton grew up in a house with four brothers. He even shared a bedroom with two of them up until he left for college. With his roommates, he said he enjoys having people to come home to and to have each other’s backs.

While rent prices are a factor in his living arrangement, Sutton said he wouldn’t live alone even if he could afford to.

“I don’t think people should live alone,” he said. “You can grow a lot more and learn a lot quicker if you have people by your side.”

Hunter Sutton and his four roommates appear in photos hung on the fridge in their kitchen, on Feb. 28, 2020. (Hannah Metzger)

However, finding people to live with who are compatible is not always easy.

As housing need and rates of adult roommates have risen in Colorado, several roommate-matching services have sprung up to address this difficulty. The roommate-finder app Roomi, launched in New York in 2015, came to the Denver metro area in 2017.

In 2018, Neighbor to Neighbor’s HomeShare also began operating in Colorado. HomeShare connects adults with 55-year-old or older homeowners seeking housemates. HomeShare Coordinator Heather Domko said matching roommates can be difficult.

The matching process for HomeShare involves an application, background check and interview conducted by Domko herself. Afterward, Domko refers two people who she thinks will make a good match. They will then have the first meeting and a week-long trial living situation to make sure they’re compatible as roommates.

HomeShare has served 125 applicants but has matched 10 pairs of roommates according to Domko. She said finding matches is hard, simply because she’s “dealing with human beings.”

“Living with another person is not easy,” Domko said. “It involves patience and flexibility.”

In the roommate interviews, Domko asks applicants numerous questions to evaluate compatibility. She asks about everything from hobbies, schedules and location preferences, to what TV shows they watch and how they discuss religion and politics.

“A real part of the goal of the program is to find a good match and affordable housing, but really to find a match that they’d work well with and develop a relationship with,” Domko said.

For many, the complex process of finding a compatible roommate is nearly impossible. But for Davis, she found great success in her roommate situation.

Caitye Davis (far left) poses on Feb. 28, 2020, with two of her three roommates, Chelsie and Holly, and her brother Justin who used to live in the house with them. Davis said she feels lucky to be in such a happy and stable household. (Hannah Metzger)

Davis said she enjoys the community and being able to spend time with the people she loves. However, there is one downside she has encountered.

“My roommates are my best friends,” Davis said. “I love it. I’m so lucky. But I’ve said before, there’s no way I could find a serious relationship while I’m living with three other people.”

Davis said the amount of time she spends with her roommates makes her unavailable for romantic endeavors. She constantly makes plans with her roommates rather than scheduling dates.

“Why would I spend my time on a potential romantic partner that it’s not going to work out with when I could just be hanging out with my roommates?” she said.

This is a sentiment seemingly shared by many millennials as adults are electing to marry later and later. According to census data, in 1960 the median age at first marriage was 20.3 for women and 22.8 for men. By 2019, it was 28.0 for women and 29.8 for men. Marriage rates among millennials are also intertwined with their economic hardships.

Graph by Hannah Metzger.

Young adults who have never been married are more likely to cite financial security as the main reason for not being currently married when compared to older singles. According to the Pew Research Center, 34% of 25 to 34-year-olds cite financial security as the main reason they’re not currently married while only 20% of those 35 and older say the same.

As emerging adults are less likely to live with spouses and romantic partners, they are turning to other housing arrangements. In 1975, 57% of 18 to 34-year-olds lived with a spouse, according to census data. By 2016, the number dropped to 27%.

Cook said her desire to be unmarried is one of the main contributing factors to living with roommates into her 30s.

“People my age have always had roommates, they just used to be called their husband or their wife,” Cook said. “I love coming home every night to my close friends. It’s in some ways less stressful than when I lived with someone I was dating because there’s not all that baggage and I can have my own room and my own space and my own boundaries.”

Cook said the prevalence of adult roommates in her generation has allowed her not to pursue marriage immediately.

Stephanie Cook poses on the front porch of her townhouse on April 14, 2020. As new generations are marrying and living with romantic partners later in life, Cook appreciates being able to live with friends instead of jumping into marriage. (Hannah Metzger)

“It feels kind of good to know that if I don’t want to marry and have kids right now, there’s a different way I can live,” Cook said.

However, while living with roommates has been empowering for Cook, many adults in these housing situations experience negative psychological effects.

Laura Houd is a licensed professional counselor in Wheat Ridge who specializes in working with millennials. She said that adults living with roommates often express feelings of incompetence or immaturity.

  A lot of people in their 30s would probably prefer to live by themselves. ... That serves as a negative factor and leads to questions of themselves not feeling successful.   -Laura Houd, counselor in Wheat Ridge who specializes in working with millennials

“A lot of people in their 30s would probably prefer to live by themselves, but that’s just simply not an option,” Houd said. “That serves as a negative factor and leads to questions of themselves not feeling successful, feeling like a failure because they’re not able to afford their own place and have to depend on a roommate to get by.”

Some living with roommates struggle to transition into adulthood because of this emotional distress, postponing responsibilities or becoming disheartened at their current state.

While Sutton is very happy living with roommates, he does admit that it may have stunted his journey into adulthood, saying it has “slowed down (his) progress.”

“Having your friends there, I feel like I would rather have some fun and not focus so much on constantly working or saving money,” Sutton said. “I’d rather spend the night out and have fun with my friends than do something a little more responsible.”

Redefining adulthood

As today’s adults navigate evolving social and economic environments, they’re changing what it means to be an adult.

When Cook was in her 20s, she thought of turning 30 as passing some kind of adult threshold. She imagined herself wearing black turtlenecks and having a nice house, being a completely grounded, settled career woman. Now at 30, Cook’s definitions have changed.

Stephanie Cook and her roommate Travis recall their daily routine of reading together in their living room, on April 14, 2020. Cook said coming home to people she loves is one of the best parts of living with roommates as an adult. (Hannah Metzger)

“In some ways, I feel like, ‘Oh my God, that is so far from my life,’” Cook said. “But in some ways, I feel like I have to look back to how far I’ve come and in a lot of ways I am very settled.”

Cook does sometimes struggle to feel like an adult. She said she is still paying debts and student loans that she doesn’t know if she will ever pay off. She drives the same Jeep she did in high school, because she can’t afford a new car. She often looks at peers who are homeowners with families and wonders, “How are they doing that?”

“I still feel the pressure of what does it mean to be 30? Where should I be at?” Cook said. “I’ve had to make my own definitions.”

Houd said the redefinition of adulthood comes from millennials pushing off traditional responsibilities into later years.

In her counseling, Houd has seen young adults delaying serious relationships, jumping from job to job and moving between states more frequently. This has led to millennials not planting roots or meeting adult goals established by previous generations.

“The in-between adolescence and adulthood has definitely extended pretty wide,” Houd said. “People are taking a lot more time to grow up and pushing back these adult responsibilities of career, settling down, family, kids.”

Along with prolonging the period before “true” adulthood, millennials are also suffering from emotional crises much earlier. Houd calls this the quarter-life crisis, an identity crisis regarding anxiety about life and one’s purpose or direction. Houd said the frequency of these crises has been increasing drastically in recent years.

Houd said overall, the delay of entering adulthood and meeting these goals can be good and bad.

Millennials are taking more time to focus on themselves and figure out their wants and needs as individuals; however, not reaching the markers of adulthood set by society causes many to question their competence and maturity.

“I wonder personally whether that’s going to set people up for success,” Houd said.

“Maybe later on in life, they’re not going to struggle with a midlife crisis. Maybe that means divorce rates will go down. But it also has this interesting factor of a lot of people not feeling like they’re totally secure and ready to take on adulthood, even when they’re in their 30s.”

As millennials verge further into their 30s, the question of when or if they will meet society’s expectations of adulthood remains. It is possible that millennials are not only pushing off adulthood but transforming it all together.

Projections from the Pew Research Center estimate that if current trends continue, 25% of young adults will still not have married by 2030 when they’re in their mid-40s to mid-50s. Click To Tweet

Projections from the Pew Research Center estimate that if current trends continue, 25% of young adults (age 25 to 34 in 2010) will still not have married by 2030 when they’re in their mid-40s to mid-50s. That would be the largest percentage of never-married adults in modern history.

And with services like HomeShare connecting adult roommates with senior citizens, today’s emerging adults may be settling into what will become the new standard for adult living well past their 30s.

For Davis, her adulthood is far from the one her parents knew.

“When my mom was 26, she was pregnant with my brother,” Davis said. “I am nowhere near that, so in those terms, I definitely don’t feel like an adult. But I have a career and I’m happy. I make my own dentist appointments.”

A framed Kanye West tweet decorates Caitye Davis’ Denver home, on Feb. 28, 2020. (Hannah Metzger)

Davis said she thinks society’s definitions of adulthood and success, once characterized by financial success, have become less narrow with time.

“I have a career, I have friends I really love and care about, I have a good relationship with my family,” Davis said. “For me, that feels successful.”

Despite periodic insecurities, Davis’ definition of being an adult is having goals, looking towards the future and choosing how to live her life. And for her, that’s living with roommates.

Editor’s note: A version of this story was originally produced as part of a University of Colorado Boulder class project.