The creative and sometimes cramped ways people live together
California has some of the steepest housing prices in the country. From cities like San Francisco, where the average one-bedroom costs $3,600 — the highest of any city in the U.S. — to rural towns that are plagued by housing shortages, many people can no longer afford to live on their own. We talked to a few who have made the leap to co-living, including a pair of single moms who signed a lease on a house, a family with two kids who moved into a backyard unit, and an Uber driver who crashes in a bunk. They discuss how they learned to share their bathrooms, chores, child care, and lives.
As told to Meher Ahmad, Alessandra Bergamin, and Joy Shan
Photographs by Kovi Konowiecki
Illustrations by Grace Lee
Interviews have been edited for length and clarity.
April Troncoso, 37;
Marla Gould-Lopez (April’s mom), 59;
Sue Gould (April’s grandmother), 86
April My parents live in the front house, where I grew up, and my husband and two kids and I live in the back house. We used to have a pool in the backyard, but last year we filled it and built this ADU.
Before, the four of us were living in my grandma’s condo. I’d been there for ten years, and the homeowner dues kept going up, so my grandma decided to sell it. But housing is crazy out here, and rents had gotten so, so, so high. I don’t make a lot of money and was paying for my daughter’s UCLA tuition. If it weren’t for that condo, I probably wouldn’t have been able to live in Encino.
Living on the same property as your mom is either the dream or a nightmare, but it’s something we’ve always wanted. I’m really close with my mom, and even when I didn’t live in the backyard, I’d get off work and go to her house and hang out. This ADU is her way of helping us and making living here much more affordable. We still pay rent, but if my mom rented it out to somebody else, she’d get a ton more.
Marla We moved to our house in 1994, and over the years, we’ve added on and remodeled. The city is so backlogged with ADUs, we had to wait six months for the Department of Water and Power. Around the same time this was happening, my mom — April’s grandmother — had moved into my house.
Sue My daughter, Marla, had an extra bedroom, and she suggested I take it. I was basically living at Fred’s house. A lot of women my age live with their boyfriends — it’s so much easier than getting married. But I knew that if he knew I was living just with him and didn’t have another place, it might freak him out. So I thought I could rent a room from Marla, which would help her out. It would cost much less than rent for an apartment, and I would have an alternative place so Fred would know I wasn’t completely dependent on him. Marla’s house is probably about 6 miles from Fred’s. With L.A. traffic, it’s 20 to 25 minutes, but I’m a slow driver.
April We started construction last April and finished in October, and literally the day the paint was dry, we moved in. My mom and I aren’t together as much as I thought we’d be. We try to keep it very separate. Like, this is my mom’s house, this is my house. My son is 4, and he loves to go over to my mom’s every day. But the rule is, he has to go home first and then call Grandma and make sure it’s OK. We’re two separate households: We don’t eat from each other’s fridges. We don’t cook for each other. We visit, but when we leave her house at the end of the day, we take my son’s stuff.
Marla My grandson enjoys coming over, but when I say, “OK, around 7 o’clock I got to wind down,” April will come right at 7 to get him. If I want to go over and ask April something, usually I’ll call her. I always knock. I respect that that’s her family and her home, but we do share the backyard space, which is their front yard. And they welcome my dogs in their house.
Sue Marla has two dogs that she worries about, so Fred and I come over almost every day to let them out. I also pick up my mail, and we take all the leftovers, oftentimes spaghetti or matzo ball soup. Marla’s a wonderful cook, and I only cook leftovers.
Marla It’s nice to have them there. They pay rent, but their rent won’t go up exorbitantly — it’s not like an apartment where every year it increases.
April I’m going to die in this house. Moving is horrible, and everything I need is right here. We’ve talked about, at some point in the future, switching — where I take the front house, my mom gets the back house. But we may never really need to. Our 1,200 square feet is perfect.
Shirley Ross, 99;
Scott Kalin, 77
Shirley As I got older, I made the decision to stay in this house rather than go to a facility. My husband died about 15 years ago, so I was living by myself, but I was completely active, and my life was the same as it’s always been — I volunteered and attended concerts and visited with friends. When I was 95, I had to stop driving because of vision problems. I was pretty much stranded here, and friends were anxious about me being alone at night.
I realized I needed someone in the house with me, and somebody told me about a home-share program for seniors in Los Angeles. My first requirement was that I needed someone willing to take me to appointments. I’ve never felt quite secure with cabs — sometimes they’re late, and when you have doctors’ appointments, you’d like to get to them on time. But I was also looking for someone who could provide some companionship.
Scott’s an intelligent man, and we laugh together easily. Despite the fact that he’s much younger — he’s going to be 78 his next birthday — we find a lot to talk about. We have completely different schedules: Scott gets up very early and goes to bed between 9 and 9:30, and in the evenings, I’m ready to go out and do things. But we’re constantly talking as we pass each other — about politics, books we’ve both read, or whatever comes up in daily life.
At the beginning of the week, Scott and I get together, and I give him some idea of what I need to do that week: if I have a physical therapy appointment or am meeting a friend for lunch. I don’t plan anything on Tuesdays because he takes a friend of his sister’s to dialysis, and he goes to his bridge lessons on Saturday. If I’m going to an appointment for an hour, Scott will park somewhere and listen to audiobooks in his car. He also helps by shopping for me. When he goes to the store, I give him a list.
We’re a very contrasting-looking pair: I’m under 5 feet, and he’s over 6 feet and a very good-looking man. I come up a little above his waist. We’re the long and short of it.
Scott When you meet Shirley, if someone tells you she’s 99 years old, you wouldn’t ever believe them. We had something in common right away: My wife had died and been the sunshine of my life; her husband died and was the sunshine of hers. She’s lived in this house for 57 years, and her home is filled with memorabilia of her life. I respect and honor that.
My wife, Margaret, was diagnosed with lupus in 1978, and we met in 1980. We were living in San Diego, and we spent most of our money trying to figure out what to do about it. She died of complications in 2013, and I couldn’t live in our house anymore. My daughter said, “Come live here,” so I moved to Los Angeles. After five years, I told my daughter it was time for me to move on — I paid rent and everything, but I felt like I was taking up all their space. I rarely saw them — they had their own lives, and I felt that I had stayed a little too long.
I had my Social Security and started looking around, but everything was so expensive. I couldn’t afford more than $500 or $600 a month. I looked at quite a few places, but most rentals were nowhere near what I could even begin to afford. I tried Craigslist, and a guy told me he had a two-bedroom house in downtown Santa Monica for $1,200, but he was in New Jersey, and if I send him the money, they’d send the keys. It looked like a nice place, so I took a ride over to the address, but then I went to talk to the managers, and they were like, “Are you kidding? You can’t even begin to live here for less than $3,500 per month.” It was a scam, so I never used Craigslist again.
I applied for the home-share program and got a list of matches. I spoke to one guy, but, I don’t know, on the phone he seemed so apprehensive. Just a grumpy old man, so I never called him back. The program manager also gave me the number of somebody in the Valley, but I was never able to reach anyone. And then I called Shirley. She was the third person on that list. She invited me to stay for a week to see if I liked it. The first thing I enjoyed about her home is that it’s on a tree-lined street. Even in the winter, when the leaves are not on the trees, it’s quite beautiful.
Shirley has appointments that she goes to, but not a lot. She’s in a pretty remarkable state of health. She’s always gone — at a concert or a chamber music event, and she goes to three operas a year. If she needs to go somewhere, I’ll take her. I don’t like the idea of a cab coming to get her. Last night, I took her to the house of one of her dozens and dozens of friends for dinner. I dropped her off at 6 and didn’t think she’d be gone that long. Well, they must have dropped her back off after 10:30 because I was sound asleep.
Phil Levin, 35;
Kristen Berman, 35;
Misha Safyan, 32;
Lauren Hauser, 36;
Alex Animashaun, 34
Phil We’ve seen this pattern with our friends where they have a kid and move out to a place they can all afford, which is usually far away. The drive to find something affordable pushes everyone from a social life in a city to being very dispersed. We started this community to be an alternate option.
Kristen We have one food budget that everyone contributes to, and that includes our groceries and stuff like toilet paper and paper towels. We leave a little bit of room in the budget, so folks can buy the things that help a house function.
Misha We have a couple of different communication channels. For more-immediate communication, we use a WhatsApp thread, and then for nonurgent communication, we use Slack, which we subdivide into a bunch of different channels organized by topic.
Lauren This one Slack channel is the thing I tell everybody about when I talk about this house. It’s called “I did a thing,” and it’s basically a place where any time you do something to help the house, whether it’s taking out the garbage or cleaning a table, you post it on there. Before I moved in, I had a philosophy of “Well, you should just do things because you want to do them,” but what happens with other roommate situations is you start to build resentment. You don’t feel acknowledged for doing certain things. When I started posting on “I did a thing,” it felt really good.
Alex I’m married. We’ve been together for over four years. We’ve lived together before, but it’s our first time living in a community. We have our own separate apartment, so at the end of the day or whenever we want, we go home and shut the door, and it’s just the two of us. In a way, it’s the best of both worlds. It’s saved us from arguing, because you don’t get stressy with your partner. You’ve got someone else to chat to. The flip side is that sometimes you have so much fun hanging out with your friends that you don’t spend enough time alone with your partner.
Kristen Alex makes eggs most mornings. He will post in WhatsApp, “Who wants eggs?” And you just go down to the kitchen. Alex is hilarious. It’s like a standup comedy show while he’s making you eggs.
Alex Even though we have a personal kitchen, we barely use it — we always eat in the communal kitchen. We use our personal kitchen to store alcohol and emergency cheese.
Phil I think people see co-living as a bunch of people living in bad housing for less money, but we live in luxury housing for the cost of normal housing. We have a 7-foot cedar hot tub, a custom gas fire pit, and a stand-alone industrial kitchen. None of us could afford to live in a space like this alone or even as a couple.
Alex I don’t call it a commune. I call it a community. When you say “commune,” people are like, “Oh right, you’ve joined a cult.” And I say, “We share food.” And they’re like, “Do you share income?” I’m like, “No, no, no.” But when people visit, they’re won over — once they sit in the hot tub for a bit.
Genildo Viana, 51
I’ve been driving for Lyft for four years and Uber for three. I live in Anaheim, in Southern California, and a friend of mine told me that it was much better to work in the Bay Area because you make more money with each ride. Basically, the price per mile up here is 20, 25 percent higher than in Orange County and Los Angeles, plus it’s busier. Though there’s no point in moving my family because renting in San Francisco is still 100 percent more expensive than where I live.
I started driving in the Bay Area in 2017. I used to stay in a Travelodge with eight other Brazilians. We were sharing one room, and everyone would come from Anaheim to drive for Uber and Lyft. But some of them lost their driver accounts because they did not file their tax returns, and some took other jobs. So eight months ago, I was looking for another place to stay. The hotel was cheap for the eight of us, but expensive for one person.
I found this crash pad on Airbnb. It’s like a hostel. In the last two weeks of every month, I come up from Anaheim and work for 15 days, 12 hours a day. Then I go back home. When I come, I bring everything: shirts, underwear, socks. It’s cold here, so I always bring sweatpants and a lot of sweaters.
This place is very close to the airport, close to the freeway and expressway, which takes me downtown. In San Francisco, it is very difficult to park a car, and here it is very easy: I have a parking space in front of the house every day. The accommodations are clean and comfortable, and there’s breakfast — bread, eggs, sausage, coffee and milk, cereal.
There are bunk beds in each room, but usually only four or five people every night. I prefer the bottom bunk because it’s easier to get into without disturbing the other people sleeping. When I come back from working around 2 a.m., I go into the bedroom very quietly, and I use the light from my cellphone screen to find the things I use to brush my teeth.
Once, there was an Arab guy in the same room as me, and he was snoring very, very loudly, and nobody could sleep. Last week, there was a guy who apparently had some psychological problems. He kept looking at me like he wanted to fight. I’m from Brazil. I’m from Rio de Janeiro, man. So I told him: “My brother, what is the matter? Do you have a problem with me?” And he kept looking at me. I talked to the staff. They know me. I’ve been a customer for almost a year. They told him he couldn’t stay here anymore — turns out, he had also had a problem with another Brazilian guest that morning. He was looking for a fight. You know, there are crazy people everywhere.
Meridel Tobias, 41;
Audree Halasz, 48;
Daniel Jubelirer, 27
Meridel It’s like a love story in which we’re not romantically involved. Last spring, after my divorce, I was looking for an apartment for me and my kids that would be close to the house I own with my ex. We bought our house in 2013, and since we’ve been living there, rents have gone up really, really high, and I was looking at small two-bedrooms for amounts that would’ve been financially uncomfortable. I thought, Maybe there’s another mom somewhere who could potentially move in.
Audree I was living in an arrangement similar to this one, but I was the only one with a child. I wanted to live with another parent. I wanted to let my kid have a sibling-like experience and just support one another in the day to day. It took about ten months to find the right people and the place. One of the people who moved with us was Ian, a friend from my last house. Then I got introduced to Meridel through a friend.
Meridel Audree and I met up at a taqueria. We brought our kids — we wanted to get to know each other’s parenting styles and make sure our kids were getting along. Audree saw my daughter, Becky, and said, “I recognize her from somewhere!” She realized she’d done a visit to my daughter’s preschool. So Audree had actually met my daughter before she met me.
There was another mom there with her kid. We were thinking we could all talk and see if there’s room for her, too. But one of the kids — I’m pretty sure it was my son — spilled water everywhere. Her kid got upset, and the mom seemed really anxious. She just took her kid and left.
After Audree found the place, we had space for another roommate, so we went to Craigslist. That’s how we met Daniel.
Daniel I’m not in a place in my life where I can buy a house. I like community housing. For most of my time in the Bay Area, I lived in a co-op that was formed six years ago by a group of people who were all training to be life coaches.
I decided to move out of there last year because it was near the highway, and I have sensitivity to noise when I sleep. I visited 25 different houses, and they were all out of my budget or had 20 other people looking at them. I had coffee with Meridel and Audree and really liked them. One thing that stood out to me was when I asked Audree about how she’d like for me and her son, Xaivi, to interact, she said, “I’d love for you to relate how you want to relate.” Some parents are fearful of other adults interacting with their kids, but Audree seemed open to us having a real relationship.
Audree Meridel and I are the only names on the lease. Co-housing discrimination is a thing: I have a group of friends who looked in Oakland for a year and kept getting turned down. It’s a competitive market, and you have to pick your battles, so we chose to have fewer people on the lease.
I didn’t have any concerns about Xaivi living with new adults. He doesn’t have a dad, so having other male figures is important for me. Daniel plays guitar, so I love that he’s here, and Xaivi gets to see that. On some Wednesday nights, Ian will watch him, and he’s put him to sleep before. He’s like our godsend uncle.
Meridel I’ll have had some power struggle with my kid in the living room, and I can go into the kitchen and roll my eyes, and Audree’s like, “Totally.” Audree does that with me, too. She’ll say, “What do I do with this thing with Xaivi?” And I’m like, “I know, girl.”
Daniel As far as my interactions with the kids go, sometimes it looks like me having my earbuds in, being annoyed, and tuning them out. Sometimes it’s me playing with the kids so their moms can talk. One morning, all three kids were home, and I was telling them stories that I was making up in that moment. They got really into it, but I had to leave an hour later. They were like, “No, stay!”
Meridel Becky really took to him. She always asks, “Where’s Daniel?”
Maria Salazar, 58;
Isaac, 7 (Maria’s grandchildren)
Maria My daughter Mayra is deaf and mute, and her husband passed away five years ago, so I moved in with her and her children — she has four now. She doesn’t work because of her disability, and I don’t make much working as a housecleaner, about $1,400 a month. We’d been looking for a place to live for over a year when our previous landlord sold the house we were living in. I can’t afford a place that’s more than $700 or $800. With utilities, I’ll be spending close to $1,000, and we need money for food and household expenses. I tried to find a place in our budget, but the houses are too expensive in this area right now. Anything we can afford is small, which is fine, but when I ask if they’d accept four kids, the landlords hung up on me.
We moved in with my other daughter, her husband, and their two kids about a year ago after we couldn’t find anything. In one big room, we have four beds: a queen bed where me, my daughter, and her two toddler-aged boys sleep, a twin where one teenager sleeps, and two more in a corner where two of the boys sleep. The oldest boy sleeps in the living room, and my daughter and her husband sleep in one room. We have only one bathroom.
Jesse I have an alarm clock, but I always turn it off and sleep more, so my cousin Diego wakes me up. Sometimes he throws stuff on me to wake me up.
Diego Before everyone moved in, our house was more peaceful. Now it’s loud and messy, lots of crying because of the babies. When they cry at night, I just stay asleep — I’m used to it. I like to wake up early in the mornings to use the bathroom and get ready. I like when it’s quiet, and I can watch my favorite anime show.
Sammy My bed is right in front of the PlayStation and the TV. I even play when I wake up in the morning sometimes.
Isaac I do my homework on the dining table or on my bed because I can’t hear the PlayStation from there. Me and my brothers and cousins play Minecraft together — we each play on our own phones, and sometimes Sammy bursts into the room where we sleep if we kill him in the game. When we first moved into this house, I didn’t know how long we would stay. My grandma says we’ll leave soon.
Maria On the weekends, I cook breakfast for the kids. I always make pancakes. Even though there are a lot of us, I insist we eat together. Sometimes we don’t all fit at the table, so we pull up chairs.
The bathroom is busy in the morning, but I think it’s worse at night because we’re all here. Two of the kids take a long time, so I have to keep knocking on the door to hurry them up. By 10 p.m., the kids are usually in bed. Once everyone is asleep, I like to watch telenovelas on my iPad with my headphones on.
I have been looking for a place for over a year. I applied for low-income housing, and they put me on a waiting list. I still haven’t heard back. Every time I check, they say they don’t have anything available. I’m hoping we can find something soon. Even though we’ve been pushed together, I am happy I can be with my family. They never make me tired. I like to hug them before we fall asleep.