The Emerging Multi-Family Household

In times when money is tight, the biggest expense is shelter.  One reason why this particular Depression has hit us so hard is that it all seems to revolve around housing and an unprecedented wave of foreclosures.  Short of a war, only a true famine could cause a greater psychic shock and trauma to our country.

So, those of us who live at the bottom of the food chain do what we always do, we adjust and adapt.  One of these adjustments is the return of the multi-family household.  More and more people are moving in with relatives as jobs succumb to layoffs or homes fall to foreclosure.  Friends are doubling up as well.  As a recent piece in the New York Times reports:

Census Bureau data released in September showed that the number of multifamily households jumped 11.7 percent from 2008 to 2010, reaching 15.5 million, or 13.2 percent of all households. It is the highest proportion since at least 1968, accounting for 54 million people.

These number almost certainly undercounts the extent of the phenomenon. The article goes on to discuss how many multi-family households are struggling financially even with the reduced cost to the constituent families, and how even this act of desperation can end in homelessness.  There is also the stress of too many people living too close to each other, of parents and siblings who will regularly snap at each other because of the accumulated stressors of poverty and dire necessity.

But in this midst of this trend is an opportunity to rediscover and recultivate the skills and pleasures of community.  Immigrant families have been doing this successfully for a long time.  Culturally they seem to be better at knowing how to live this way. No doubt have much to teach the rest of us.

I strongly suspect that in the coming years, we may well see the return of small scale “intentional communities” not unlike the communal experiments of the 1960′s and 70′s.  The conventional wisdom holds that these communes all faded and went bust, and many of them did.  But there are a surprising number of them that are still around, quietly thriving. Most of them are home to several businesses or entrepreneurs who bring their businesses with them when they join the community. The community itself is also run rather like a business.

The big difference is that many nouveau multi-family households are adapting as a temporary measure until “things get better” and are still likely to be living as individual families under a single roof.  But I believe such households should consider thinking longer term.  This Depression is going to last awhile; even the most starry-eyed optimistic projections are that we’ll be years getting out from under it.  Members of new plural households will have to  look out for each other, sharing responsibilities from earning a living to domestic chores. For instance, food will be purchased in bulk or from a farmers’ market or grown in a household garden and prepared for common meals. Under these circumstances, the very definition of “family” will change.

I don’t see this as a bad thing, necessarily.  When my wife and I were in graduate school we shared a townhouse with a friend and had a great time learning, living and preparing meals together. It was a rich experience.  If everything went to hell, I can think of much worse alternatives to returning to that scenario.  If it comes to where you are considering moving in with someone else to save money, study on this.  Choose your housemates carefully. Work on those relationship skills and learn how to Do It Yourself so you have that much more to bring to the table.

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One Response to The Emerging Multi-Family Household

  1. Susan says:

    Hi Sheldon -

    First of all, you are doing a great job with this site! What a great resource for many people.

    Having been part of a multi-family household at a couple of points in my life. the most recent time out of necessity, I think the idea of choosing the housemates carefully should really be emphasized. It’s surprising to me how hard it can be to live day-to-day with people whose company you enjoy… but suddenly you realize the everyday habits are very different.

    There is much that should be discussed first that often isn’t. Will meals be shared or independent? How should any conflicts be handled? If children are involved, what can/should the children share and what should they not be expected to share? I’ve discovered it’s easy to think multi-family situations might the solution to everything, and then reality sets in. For us, we found it easier to compromise our individual living space. In our case, when I was unemployed, we eventually found a family who wanted a house sitter for their vacation home they only use a few weeks a year. Opportunities like that are out there – it just takes some digging. Now that I’m working again, but making less money than I have in the past, we’ve sacrificed a bedroom and I’ve discovered that turning the living room into my little studio apartment and giving my daughter the one and only bedroom is a very viable option for us – down from our previous three-bedroom home!

    I think that, with the right combination of people, a multi-family situation can work well, but I would suggest going into it with the understanding that there will be a trial period and then an opportunity for everyone to reconsider and discuss changes in household habits or rules, and whether or not it seems workable.

    Thanks again for the informative site!

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