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The pandemic hasn’t killed house sharing—it’s reinvented it

November 17, 2021, 9:05 PM UTC
Remote workers spending most of their day at home need to find roommates who share their hobbies, cleanliness standards, and desired balance between privacy and communal space.
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The young professionals who fled America’s big cities during last year’s lockdowns are flooding back. In New York, requests for help with move-ins on TaskRabbit, a gig-economy platform for odd jobs, now exceed move-out requests by 25%.

The quick reversal of the 2020 urban exodus might come as a surprise to some, but it shouldn’t. It’s long been true that millennials and Zoomers prefer urban living, so it was inevitable that they’d return as soon as most Covid-19 restrictions were lifted.

They’re not the same people they were before the pandemic, though. The past year and a half have dramatically changed their expectations and their needs, especially when it comes to finding roommates. That has big implications not just for urban rental markets, but society at large. 

It’s no secret that in recent decades, young professionals have been drawn to the prosperous hubs of our new information economy: places like New York, San Francisco, Boston, and Washington, D.C. Those regions’ growth drove up housing costs. 

To afford city life, young professionals threw themselves into their careers and delayed things like marriage and children. These changing social dynamics proved detrimental to our societal wellbeing. About 70% of millennials, and 80% of Generation Z, the “Zoomers,” reported feeling lonely in a 2019 Time survey.

A tide of loneliness

The pandemic only exacerbated that loneliness, as well as the depression, anxiety, and even physical illness it can cause. A CDC study found that 63% of young adults suffered serious anxiety or depression during the pandemic. A study conducted by researchers at Brigham Young University found that loneliness was as harmful to mortality rates as smoking 15 cigarettes a day or alcoholism.

Simply put, many city dwellers feel all alone, even though they’re physically surrounded by hundreds of thousands of people. And with many companies embracing permanent remote or hybrid work schedules, offices won’t fulfill young people’s social needs the way they have in the past.

Roommate living presents a solution to the challenges of 21st-century urban living: the desire to live in bustling cities, do creative, rewarding, and remote jobs, all while getting the human interaction that immunizes young people from the scourge of loneliness.

Of course, merely splitting a house or apartment with roommates is nothing new. But the way millennials and Zoomers are finding, communicating, and connecting to those roommates is.

Gone are the days of scouring Craigslist posts, holding brief coffee or FaceTime get-to-know-yous, and then moving in with near-total strangers who might–or might not–share the same interests and lifestyle preferences. 

Instead, renters are increasingly turning to roommate-living platforms, including my own company, Bungalow, to find other young professionals who share their hobbies, cleanliness standards, and desired balance between privacy and communal space.

That chemistry is especially important for remote workers who are spending much of their days at home. Pre-pandemic, folks could at least escape annoying roommates by venturing to the office. That’s no longer the case for remote workers.

Many observers expected young professionals to become more hesitant when it comes to sharing living spaces in the age of Covid. The opposite has happened. Renters’ desire for community has outweighed any concerns about the virus. At my roommate-living company, we’ve seen total website traffic increase 40% compared to 2019. The volume of correspondence on our roommate chat platform–which connects prospective tenants with current housemates already in single-family homes–more than doubled from March to June 2021. Lease renewal rates are up 15% compared to last year.

Thanks in part to new residential real estate platforms like these, the average size of American households just recently rose for the first time in more than a century. Almost one in three adults under 35 live with an unrelated roommate.

As consumer demand changes, so does the market. More landlords are transforming single-family homes–once primarily suited for tenants with kids–into roommate-living spaces for three, four, even five individual renters, each with their own leases for maximum flexibility.

What was once difficult to balance–multiple leases, maintenance requests, roommate search and approval processes, landlord-tenant communication–has now been streamlined for all parties with user-friendly, digital-first solutions. 

The global pandemic didn’t diminish young professionals’ attraction to the energy, opportunity, and excitement of city life. But it did change their needs and expectations. The rise of roommate living–and the platforms that enable it–has the potential to reshape America’s urban culture and finally push back the tide of loneliness.

Andrew Collins is CEO of Bungalow.

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