Jake Bronstein and his girlfriend, Kristina Hoge, were lounging around on a flowery retro love seat in the living room of their South Williamsburg apartment on a recent Thursday evening, drinking Miller High Life out of frothy beer mugs and enjoying a cool breeze that was blowing in from their backyard. Their dog, a young Collie–German Shepherd mix named Cash, was lying on the floor next to their wide-screen TV, chewing on a bone.
It’s an impressive space they live in, and one that is decidedly “grown-up” for a neighborhood teeming with party-loving youths who share messy apartments four or five to a lease. They have two floors. High ceilings. Terrace off the master bedroom. Brand-new everything, including granite countertops in the kitchen. By any measure, their domestic life is one that any young couple living in New York City would envy, with the exception, perhaps, of one small detail: They have a roommate.
His name is Juan Carlos “J. C.” Villars, and he was sitting on an adjacent couch with his legs kicked up on an oak-colored coffee table, a stubbly faced fellow in a dark blue dress shirt and jeans fiddling alternately with a set of hex head wrenches and a controller for the Nintendo Wii.
Mr. Bronstein, 31, a marketing consultant in dark-rimmed glasses (you might also remember him as a former editor-at-large at FHM magazine, or from Road Rules season four), and Ms. Hoge, 27, a pretty event manager for Lincoln Center who wore her brown hair clipped up, said that they couldn’t imagine ever not living with Mr. Villars, 32, an engineering project manager—even if, one day in the not-so-immediate future, marriage and kids entered the picture.
“We talk about not moving, and we talk about not imagining J. C. leaving,” said Mr. Bronstein, who’s been close friends with Mr. Villars for more than three years, longer than he and Ms. Hoge have been dating. “So I think, by transitive property, that all adds up to getting married and still staying with J. C.”
“We’ve joked about it, and none of those things seem like a reason why we’d wanna get rid of him,” Ms. Hoge said with a laugh.
“I can’t even imagine how I’ll ever get there, quite honestly,” Mr. Bronstein said. “How I’ll ever get beyond … this.”
Mr. Bronstein and Ms. Hoge said they wouldn’t be able to afford as nice a place without Mr. Villars, and he—call him an Artful Lodger—agreed that he wouldn’t be able to do so without them, either.
Brooke Craft, 25, who’s currently studying massage therapy at the Swedish Institute in Manhattan, has found herself in a similar situation.
After graduating from SUNY Oswego in 2005, Ms. Craft and a friend moved into an “uncomfortably small” Upper East Side apartment—both bedrooms of which, she said, could barely accommodate a full-size mattress and a dresser.
So this past spring, when Ms. Craft and her boyfriend, Izzy, 27, who works for a financial firm in midtown, signed a lease on a spacious two-bedroom in Long Island City, she had no problem with his best friend, Dre, moving in to help split the roughly $2,400 rent. Likewise, Dre, a 27-year-old grad student, jumped at the chance to get out of his cramped quarters in Stuy Town, where, Ms. Craft said, he’d been sharing a single bedroom apartment with not one but two other people.
“It’s kind of like a little family situation,” Ms. Craft said. “It’s not like I’m married or have kids. We’re just having fun being in New York and having a great time living with each other.”
Then there’s Dan Lopez, 26, a production coordinator for Time Out New York who spent three years sharing a two-bedroom in a Crown Heights elevator building with his friend Evan and Evan’s girlfriend, Amy, who both work with him at the magazine.
“It was kind of a prolonged college thing, but it felt more like living with family,” Mr. Lopez said.
Evan, 30, and Amy, 25, ended up getting married a little more than two years into living with Mr. Lopez, but they enjoyed his company so much that they didn’t mind sharing their first 10 months of marital bliss with him. Likewise, Mr. Lopez wasn’t fazed by the awkwardness one might expect would come with having married roommates: the uncomfortable feeling of being the third wheel; witnessing the inevitable bickering; and the awkward reality of having to hear your housemates, well, doing it.
In the fall of 2008, Mr. Lopez parted ways with Evan and Amy, sensing it was “just the right time to move on,” and got an apartment in Williamsburg with some people he knew through work. But when his boyfriend moved into town last month, they wanted to live together, so they found a place back in Crown Heights, which the two of them are now sharing with another couple for the summer. It’s downright sitcom-worthy!
“We’re a close group of friends, so you can always make light of it,” Mr. Lopez said of the current arrangement. “I think it works well having two couples. You can relate to each other.”
THE JAPANESE SCREEN
But surely there are downsides to living with someone in addition to the person you are sleeping with?
“I can only think of the downsides,” said a Harlem-based writer The Observer agreed not to name so he wouldn’t have to diss his former roommates on the record. “They do indeed gang up on you. They got a dog; what could we say? They shared a room, the largest, but seemed to think of each other as one person and not two people who should split things equally.
“Not a good idea to live with a couple,” he concluded.
Another Artful Lodger survivor told her tale: One day on the Upper West Side, she and three college classmates set up house in a three-bedroom that had been converted to a four-bedroom with a cheap Japanese folding screen, purchased at Better Your Home (“Better your home than mine,” remarked one inhabitant’s father tartly), that was set up across the vestibule of the open living room.
Soon after the lease was signed, the inhabitant of that room, whom we’ll call Rebecca, announced to her roommates that her German boyfriend, a documentary filmmaker whom we’ll call Werner, would be staying with them for a while.
Werner seemed nice enough at first. But then came the arguments, the uncomfortable references to neighborhood “schvartzes” and the loud sounds of international lovemaking (at the crucial moment, apparently, a booming “Ja … Ja!” would resound over the screen—shades of Brüno!). One night, at a bar, Rebecca proudly announced that she and Werner had married that afternoon at City Hall, flashing a ring. Suddenly he had a legal claim to the apartment, recollected our narrator with a palpable shudder (the entire ménage has since dispersed).
‘We both enjoy cooking, do so fairly regularly and don’t mind sharing.’—Couple’s ad for a lodger on Craigslist
Melissa, a 29-year-old bartender, and her husband have likewise been unlucky in their search for a roommate. They’ve been having trouble covering the full $2,400 rent of their East Village apartment ever since Melissa, who asked that we use only her first name since the roommate search is ongoing, was laid off from a full-time job and had to downgrade to a less lucrative two-nights-per-week gig. (They’re asking $1,100 a month for their “sunny” spare bedroom.)
The first guy they found was a recent divorcé who ended up bailing after two months because of a custody battle. Then they got a female roommate who neither unpacked nor spent a single night in the apartment during the five months that she “lived” there.
They still haven’t found the right match. But though a fair share of “drunk party kids” have answered their most recent Craigslist ad, Melissa said there’s no shame in being a married woman looking for a random housemate on the Internet.
“Most of my friends are in the same economic situation as I am,” she said. “I think enough people are having this struggle right now that it’s not a stigma at all. It’s almost expected.”
Indeed, despite the obvious difficulties, the Artful Lodger continues to poke his head into the New York domicile; and the New York domicile continues to welcome him.
Troll Craigslist (carefully), and you’ll find no shortage of couples soliciting strangers to split the rent with them. Like the “married couple (early 30s) with two cats looking to share our home” in Clinton Hill. Bonus for the potential roommate: “We both enjoy cooking, do so fairly regularly and don’t mind sharing.” Over in Park Slope, there’s a “professional couple and small, sweet dog” looking to rent out a “spacious and bright” bedroom on the ground floor of their duplex with a large patio and backyard. Why not?
And sometimes it all works out just beautifully.
Zahid Zaman, a 24-year-old software engineer, has already forged a friendship with the 28-year-old newlyweds whose Williamsburg apartment he moved into back in June for $1,050 a month, an enviable amount in that neighborhood, he said, given the location, the size of the apartment and the amenities, which include a large backyard.
Mr. Zaman’s room and board does come with rules: having to be quiet at night; not being able to bring guests over whenever he pleases. But, “the overall situation outweighs the downsides,” he said.
“We live in a time when patterns of behavior are much more up in the air, and therefore people fall into different communal ways of living,” said Ethan Watters, the author of Urban Tribes, a sociological account of the growing population of 25-to-39-year-olds who substitute close-knit social networks for family life. This usually involves having roommates until an embarrassing age. (Mr. Watters lived happily in “a house full of roommates” until just before getting married at 38, he said. He’s now 45 with two kids.)
When it comes to couples, married or otherwise, who live with roommates, Mr. Watters argued that for those who will likely spend a “huge portion” of their lives outside the traditional family structure, there’s something comforting about cohabiting with a third person.
“It reflects a fundamental desire for family,” he said.
And that can be powerful, especially considering how many young New Yorkers are far from their kin.
Allison Hemler, a 25-year-old Pratt grad student and intern at WNYC, had been living with her close friend, Emily, 28, a West Village–based HR consultant, and Emily’s boyfriend, Rory, 26, who works in N.Y.U.’s IT department, for about two years when they, and she, both started looking around for sweeter, albeit separate, apartment deals.
“But then I realized how much I loved my living situation, and I just asked them, ‘Hey, would you guys have any interest in moving somewhere else all together?’ And they were like, ‘We’ve been talking about it, and we want to keep living with you, too!’” said Ms. Hemler, in between sips of a Blue Moon at a bar a few blocks from the trio’s new two-bedroom duplex just across the river in downtown Jersey City. “Sometimes it almost feels like I’m in a relationship with their relationship.”
Meanwhile, back at the Bronstein-Hoge-Villars household, it seemed like things couldn’t get any more perfect.
The three cohabitants sat around speaking fondly of recent good times, like their weekly Saturday morning brunch ritual, and an impromptu gathering the previous weekend that got a little crazy when some tops came off in the 16-foot inflatable swimming pool they added to their backyard last month. Mr. Villars even talked about how much he enjoys spending time with Mr. Bronstein’s and Ms. Hoge’s parents whenever they come to town. (Awww!)
“We’ve spent a lot of quality time together,” he said, adding, with a touch of emotion, “I feel like I’m just very lucky to have them.”