How America’s Most Expensive Cities Are Changing the Way Couples Live Together

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It was the perfect apartment. Well, as perfect as you could get as a trio of 19-year-olds who worked jobs that paid barely above minimum wage. The walls were freshly painted, windows double paned and plentiful, and the place that faint chemical scent of freshly replaced carpet. But it was the kitchen, the wonderful kitchen, with its quirky built-in pantry and marble countertops that made my heart soar. Did I mention it had a washer and dryer, you know, so we could wash our clothes for free, in our own home? The minute we walked into this pre-war duplex — located in a neighborhood that you could walk around in after dark — and saw the crown molding, I knew that we had to have it.

So did a dozen other perspective renters.

And so we did what you do when you want to find a place to live in the Bay Area: we begged (politely of course), borrowed (money for the security deposit that was three times the rent, to compensate for our age, of course) and bribed (only with baked goods) to convince the landlord we were the tenants he had been in search of for his entire life, or at least this year.

If you’re a Bay Area renter, there are few things more heart-wrenchingly frustrating than trying to find a place to live. We’ve all heard the old adage: Rent and utilities are only supposed to account for 30 percent of your monthly income. But if you live in the Bay Area, especially San Francisco, that adage can seem like a pipe dream, and the dream is only getting more expensive.

San Francisco has been crowned the “second least affordable city in the nation,” with residents shelling out at least 46 percent of their income for rent. According to a report by rental website Lovely, the median rent price in San Francisco for the first quarter of 2014 was $3,200, a marked increase from last year.

San Francisco’s rent situation has gotten so out of control that San Franciscans have taken to mocking themselves in darkly humorous ways. Local photographer Scott Hampton, who moved to SF in 2005 and found himself priced out when he tried to return in 2011 after a year in Los Angeles, took to the streets to place comical “for rent” signs on items such as a trash can (cozy studio, $4,100) a dumpster (waterfront condo, $5,000, 33 SQ. FT. Utilities not included, nor available) and a mailbox (studio loft, $3,000).

And although some people say this spike in rent prices means good things for our economy, it can really hurt the pocketbook. What’s more, to try to accommodate the sky-high rent, more and more people are shacking up — adding roommates or shrinking dating timelines. But just because you can’t afford not to, does that mean that you should?

When my ex (we’ll call him Tom) and I first moved in together the stakes weren’t nearly so high. We met in a small town in Northern California and our one-bedroom apartment went for $525 a month, and that was on the pricey side. My dad and sister currently live there and pay a whopping $650 for their two-bedroom. We could both work part-time and go to school and still make our rent.

Fast forward two years later, when we moved to the Bay Area, and the dream two-bedroom mentioned above came in at nearly $1,300, which was actually a steal. But for us, two small town kids, that price tag more than doubled what we had been paying before. We both got second jobs in addition to going to school full-time. We also got a roommate. We had jumped into our move so nonchalantly the first time, head in the clouds, blissfully ignorant, but quickly living together became less of a joy and more of a necessity. Two jobs each meant we barely saw one another and vacations were a rarity. One particularly dark moment, when we were visiting his sister in Southern California, we wandered out to get lunch and splurged on a $24 chicken bacon barbeque pizza. I glanced up at the specials board as we were getting ready to leave to see that the lunch special of the day had been a slice of said pizza for $2. Tom spent 25 minutes calming a now hysterical me down as I made a list on a grease-spotted napkin of all the expenses I was afraid we weren’t going to be able to cover that month. It’s hard to salvage a vacation post-pizza parlor tantrum. What would it be like to navigate this anxiety-inducing rent when and if we split?

“Moving in is a significant level of commitment past just dating,” says Gal Szekly, relationship counselor and founder of San-Francisco-based The Couples Center. “And it brings both positives and negatives. You might feel more open and safe, more bonded, feel more secure, but the negative is that at a certain point when you’re living with someone you just want to be yourself rather than just impress them all of the time.”

And, he says, the process of moving in isn’t one to be taken lightly even if the prospect of splitting rent seems tempting. In the last year or so, Szekly says he has heard more and more stories of couples being influenced by the housing crisis in San Francisco. On the one hand, he hears stories of couples that may not be ready to take that next step, but something happens (a roommate moves out or rent goes up) and they jump in because finding an apartment is hard and the rent in high. Szekly says another added complication he often sees is that in order to make rent, many couples are living with roommates and that adds another dimension to the relationship.

For Allison and Justin, a combination of the roommate issue, and having an apartment in a great location that is too good to give up, has impacted their decision not to cohabitate. It’s a decision that has meant Allison, who couldn’t find a full-time job in her field after she graduated from San Francisco State University, moved back to her hometown in Northern California, a two-and-a-half hour drive from the city.

“We had multiple conversations about moving in together,” she said. “I wanted him to move into a different place, so we could live together. I think getting him out of Lower Haight would take the jaws of life.”

Justin’s place, a three bedroom that sometimes houses four guys, is a steal at $2,100 a month. He enjoys finding his roommates on Craigslist, and so far hasn’t had too many problems. Allison says she has no illusions that even if the couple were to move in together, they would most likely have to live with a third wheel, and in fact, one of Justin’s stipulations before agreeing to look for a place together is that she must move back to the city and live with roommates. For now, the couple, who have been dating for almost three years, take turns commuting to visit one another on the weekends.

“We’re going to have to have a roommate,” she says. “ I know a couple who just got married, live in Lower Haight and they have a roommate,” she adds, “He’s one of those guys who is never home, so I guess it kind of works out.”

Though some certainly delay cohabitation, if a couple moves in together too soon because of external forces, there’s going to be friction, Szekly adds. And if there is trouble in paradise, getting out of that living situation gone sour isn’t always easy.

Four years in to Tom’s and my relationship, I knew things weren’t going to work. I was exhausted and had just found out I had gotten into grad school an hour away, which would mean either we would have to move amid an even more expensive market or I would have to commute. We had built a life together, playing house like we did, and the thought of destroying it actually kept me up at night for weeks. We shared Ikea furniture, two cats, bedding, pots, and cutlery that we had both pitched in money to call ours.

“This is really it?” he asked quietly after I finally got up the Hooksexup to say I wanted to move out. “But what about our life together?” he added gesturing to our perfect apartment.

Weeks were spent awkwardly sleeping on the couch while I frantically searched Craigslist for a short-term lease. I eventually settled for something, after paying an astronomical deposit to a shady landlord (which I never got back) and moved into a single room in what I now realize was probably a halfway house. I never removed myself from the lease from our shared aparment (which meant when my ex and former roommate were later evicted, I was also by default) and Tom was charged with finding another roommate to pay my share of the rent.

“A lot of people are in a situation where they’re unhappy, and it’s easy to say ‘why don’t you just move out?’ but it’s really just prohibitively expensive,” says Delene Wolf, executive director of the San Francisco Rent Board, a government agency that regulates rents and evictions and provides counseling for tenants. “People wind up living together because they don’t know how to do it (evict someone) or don’t have the money to do it.” The same is true of other areas with notoriously high rent like New York or Los Angeles.

For me, the heartache was bad enough, but having to find a new place to live on top of it, only added insult to injury. When I moved away to come to grad school, I refused to open old wounds and place either my heart or credit score in jeopardy. I took my student loans and splurged on a studio apartment. The walls weren’t freshly painted, the carpet a little worn, and I can’t walk around at night alone in my neighborhood, but it’s still home. But more importantly even though it can get a little lonely, when the first rolls around, it’s just me, myself, and I to worry about.

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