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Colorado’s “doubled-up” households have surged since the recession. That could prolong the housing crunch.

While the search for housing adopts creative collaboration, eventually many of those households will break apart. Then what?

Denver resident Eva Bray, 24, poses for a portrait in her three-bedroom/two-bathroom condo in Denver's Capitol Hill neighborhood. With the addition of the French doors, the wall and a freestanding wardrobe, she transformed what was a "flex space" into the nonconforming third bedroom so she could benefit from the rental income of a second roommate. (Andy Colwell, Special to The Colorado Sun)
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Tim Merrick arrived in Fort Collins with the intention of starting over, of regenerating the work life that had gone bust in Arizona while also living close to his daughter as she attended college nearby. 

Then he faced the Colorado conundrum: Where could he find affordable housing?

Living off his Social Security while he searched for a place to stay, he found every avenue a dead end — until a social worker mentioned a nonprofit organization that pairs adults in search of housing with seniors 55 and older who have room in their homes.

Merrick became the first person to sign up at Neighbor to Neighbor’s HomeShare program, and soon was matched with an 83-year-old widow, who rented him a second-floor bedroom in her house, with parking and kitchen privileges, for just $400 a month. In return for the low rent, he helps her with yard work and other household tasks.

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“After we talked, it just fell into place,” he says. “She reminded me of an aunt or cousin from my family. It felt like the closest thing to home I’d found for years.” 

While home sharing is just gaining traction as a means to deal with the state’s housing crunch, the practice of households “doubling up” to work around a tight market and high prices has been on the uptick in Colorado, according to a recent report. 

Researchers Jennifer Newcomer and Phyllis Resnick, working with the Shift Research Lab to analyze U.S. Census data from 2006 and 2017, found that the percentage of doubled-up households edged upward. And while the Denver real estate market appeared to loosen last spring, they caution that the numbers suggest doubling up may be masking pent-up demand.

They found that, whether by teaming with traditional roommates, piggybacking with family or renting space from senior homeowners, Coloradans have embraced shared living spaces in significantly greater numbers than just before the Great Recession. Doubled-up households total more than a half-million across the state — a 34% increase since 2006.

Back then, approximately one in five doubled up. Now it’s one in four.

Their study follows up on the team’s research last year that focused on the scope of Colorado’s housing deficit, which determined that the supply-and-demand dynamic could take more than a decade to fix. The latest data-crunching suggests that while some predictions point toward signs of easing demand, the tendency toward doubling up could ratchet it back up once those households break apart.

And that could exert significant impact on the market, Resnick points out. While some family dynamics, such as in inter-generational households, might remain intact, unrelated individuals brought together out of financial necessity eventually will go their separate ways.

“At some point,” she says, “we want our own space.”

Although whatever impact on housing this might have wouldn’t necessarily appear in a sudden burst of demand, the researchers say, even a gradual shift in doubled-up households — about 405,000 involving family and about 155,000 non-family currently exist in Colorado — could exert pressure on the housing market.

“If all these people woke up tomorrow and were sick of living together,” Resnick says, “that would drive prices a lot higher. We know that’s not going to happen. It’s going to happen gradually over time. But what it says is, under the right circumstances, we could have a way to go before this market is able to adequately supply the housing it needs.”

Add a wall, add a roommate

Sometimes, the crunch demands creative solutions. In a daunting Denver housing market that seemed intent on squeezing her out, a single interior wall made all the difference for Eva Bray.

After college, she landed a job as a paralegal but, as she sifted through the city’s rental market a year ago, her search repeatedly met with sticker shock — even when she factored in a roommate.

Then she had a thought: At these rental rates, why not just buy? With a dad who’s an experienced contractor, she began the search.

“We started looking for a unique situation, maybe an apartment with a design flaw that could be used to our benefit,” Bray, 24, recalls. After about 20 tries, she found a two-bedroom condo in a Capitol Hill development with an off-set sitting area that, after construction of a wall and a doorway, transformed nicely into a third bedroom. 

That changed everything. Bray connected with two new arrivals to Denver — one from New York, the other from Seattle — and with a pair of roommates, the mortgage proved manageable. Instead of a rental, she has an investment.

“We’re able to live in this place none of us would be able to afford on our own,” she says, “but living together allows us to have a nice situation.”

For her roommates, she figures, this arrangement will work until they’ve put together the resources to embark on a search for their own places.

Some remodeling work by her dad, a contractor, gave Eva Bray the flexibility to add a second roommate and afford to purchase this Denver condo. (Photo courtesy of Eva Bray)

The phenomenon cuts across demographic lines. 

On the low-income side of the ledger, doubled-up households could have an unintended consequence. Multiple earners drive up household income, which in turn drives up the qualifying level for subsidized housing, since federal income limits are established from median household income. Those are the kinds of policy implications the researchers will explore in the next phase of their study, scheduled to be released later this year.

“When you have a bunch of people doubled up,” Newcomer says, “it can skew perception of their capacity to pay.”

The question, Resnick adds, is what those household incomes will be if and when they’re broken apart — and how that will add to housing demand.

“When you read they’re building more downtown lofts at $1,800 a month, that’s a price that meets this demand,” she says of the current situation in Denver. “People choosing to double up don’t have the income to afford something like that on their own. I grew up in New York City, so I lived it. There was no other choice. This is not New York City yet, but we’re seeing more in the non-family area, sharing units because they really don’t have a choice.”

Trading apartment life for a house

Doubling up — or tripling or quadrupling — can expand housing choice to some degree, even in a tight market.

When Haeley Hutchison, a 24-year-old financial analyst, struck out on her own, she found a roommate and a two-bedroom, two-bath apartment in Denver’s Capitol Hill neighborhood that had all sorts of amenities. She paid $1,275 a month but she really wasn’t using any of the extras. 

What she wanted was a house. 

“I was really looking to get away from the apartment lifestyle, looking to rent a house because I can’t afford to buy,” she says. “I might be able to afford a mortgage payment but couldn’t afford the down payment.” 

She connected with some like-minded young women, hopped on Zillow and went to work. After applying to rent four separate houses and touring nearly a dozen, the newly formed consortium found a four-bedroom, 3½-bath residence, with a two-car garage, in Denver’s Highland neighborhood. 

Now she’s paying $100 less than she did in her old apartment and has an attic floor all to herself. In August, they all moved in and quickly adjusted to the shared lifestyle.

“I’m from a family of five,” Hutchison says, “so I like a busy, bustling house. You need to adjust to each other’s personalities, but once you set the initial ground rules, it’s easy to settle in. I got really lucky.”

In some instances, doubling up — with family — follows cultural norms for multi-generational households. The researchers mapped the Denver metro region’s doubled-up neighborhoods, which revealed southwest Denver and beyond the city’s eastern border into Aurora as areas of higher concentration. 

“That aligns with what have been immigrant landing zones in the region,” Newcomer says, “and on average those households are having larger family units.”

But now that norm is expanding beyond traditional cultural enclaves, notes Jeff Romine, the former chief economist for the city of Denver who now heads economic development efforts in Broomfield.

“We’re seeing it beyond the typical places where we’ve experienced it in the past, which tend to be in certain ethnic or minority neighborhoods,” he says. “Now it’s across the board in neighborhoods all across the metro area.”

Not only has it moved beyond historically Latino neighborhoods and suburbs but there’s also an element that is embracing multi-generational living beyond moderate-income households to middle- and upper-middle-income households. 

“Everybody has their name for it — like ‘The Boomerang Generation,’” Romine says. “But what it really is, is an age group where it’s easy to re-establish back into a household.”

The common areas of a three-bedroom/two-bathroom condo belonging to Denver resident Eva Bray is pictured in Denver’s Capitol Hill neighborhood. The unit was originally a two-bedroom layout but, as Bray wanted an additional roommate (and the accompanying rental income), she transformed a spare “flex space” room into a nonconforming third bedroom. (Andy Colwell, Special to The Colorado Sun)

What’s of concern to him as an economist is whether there are age changes that affect household formation. For instance, is a broader age range of young adults moving back in with parents or other relatives earlier than before? 

“That would explain that delay in having children,” he says “if childbearing years are moved up another five years. Instead of 18 to 30, it’s now 25 to 35. Those are the types of changes that will affect things.”

The share of doubled-up households, viewed by generation, opens the door to some against-the-grain observations about millennials, in particular, Newcomer and Resnick note.

In 2006, nearly 40% were headed by millennials, by far the greatest portion. But in 2017, that figure was closer to 25% — slightly below Gen-Xers. Among the 155,000 non-family doubled-up households, millennials head 93,000, or 60%.

Resnick calls that “a teeny piece of evidence that refutes the argument that millennials are different, that they don’t want families and would ride scooters their whole lives.” Rather, she adds, the decline in doubled-up households among millennials suggests that some of their life changes were simply delayed and now they’re starting families and have “stopped living three or four to a downtown apartment.”

Why seniors stay, why kids face challenges

Meanwhile, the share of Gen Xers — roughly, born between 1965 and 1980 — heading doubled-up households has spiked, something Resnick says she still hasn’t resolved. Perhaps, she speculates, it has something to do with that generation moving toward becoming empty-nesters, though the data still needs a closer look.

But what the data says about millennials speaks more to the impact of the tough economic times they endured in early adulthood.

“The Great Recession changed the capacity to make decisions like owning a home or starting a family,” Resnick says. “Had the economy been different, that generation might not seem as much of an outlier.”

Baby Boomers’ share of doubled-up households held steady at a shade above 25%. And this is where Resnick likes to “get on my soapbox” about boomers’ impact on housing — even if it’s largely anecdotal.

Some of them resist downsizing because various property tax credits encourage them to remain in homes where they may have lived for decades, whether they want to or not, she says. The credits can exempt them from taxes on the first $200,000 of their home’s value, once they turn 65 and have lived there for at least 10 years.

“If I’m one of those aging baby boomers, still married, children gone and I start looking at moving, I lose that credit,” she says. “What we’re doing is providing incentive to stay in homes they don’t want to be in anymore, and may be inappropriate with stairs and yards. We’re seeing surprisingly low churn of existing houses, which could be really nice starter homes that aren’t turning over because the older residents are staying there.”

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One of the more surprising findings for the researchers involved the number of children who live in doubled-up situations. From 2006 to 2017, the number increased.

“Is that good or bad thing? It depends,” Resnick says. “If they’re in a situation where you have family and then grandparents living with family, providing in-house daycare, it can be a good thing.”

But doubled-up situations with children in a rental environment can be unstable and lead to problems with evictions, living on the economic margins and bouncing among schools. While there’s no overarching rule, Resnick says that the uptick in kids living in doubled-up situations might be a warning sign of challenges for young children.

Adds Newcomer: “We know that kids having to move more than two times in their education career life cycle have a much lower propensity to graduate from high school. That ties in with broader economic challenges.”

Denver resident Eva Bray, 24, poses for a portrait in the nonconforming third bedroom of her three-bedroom/two-bathroom condo in the Ogden Flats building of Denver’s Capitol Hill neighborhood on Saturday, Sept. 25, 2019. With the addition of a wall and French doors and a standalone wardrobe (not pictured), what was originally a “flex space” became a room for a second tenant so she could benefit from the additional rental income. (Andy Colwell, Special to The Colorado Sun)

More than a place to live

Merrick says that, as wonderful as his home-sharing experience has been, he hopes that one day he’ll once again own his own home. He’s working a couple of part-time jobs now, and feels like he’s getting his financial bearings once again.

He’d like to return to his work as an artisan-craftsman, in which he applied his creative skills to high-end homes. 

Kelly Evans, executive director of Neighbor to Neighbor, says in the 16 months that HomeShare has been up and running in Larimer County, they’ve enrolled about 60 households and achieved six matches. Though the number may sound low, she notes that most such programs achieve only one or two matches in their first year.

“It’s a bit of a process, because rooming with someone is an intimate experience,” Evans says. “We have someone work with each party to identify their preferences, food, cleanliness, all sorts of lifestyles. Then the system to help us match. There’s not only rental income for the homeowner and affordable rent for the tenant, but also companionship.”

Merrick says he has enjoyed the living situation and getting to know his landlord, who’d lost her husband just five years earlier. In their first year together, he noticed that she kept all the curtains drawn, the rooms dark and everything in its place.

“But then, the curtains started to be open, light was allowed in, now she’s gone through the whole house, inside and out, like she’s wanted to for years,” he says. “She keeps going, and that keeps me going.”

Now, as part of their doubling-up agreement, she insists on doing his laundry — as long as he keeps his room clean. 

“That may not happen to everybody,” Merrick says, “but it’s a friendlier way to bring a few people together with specific needs who won’t find other avenues in this madness.”

Construction cranes and Denver’s skyline from a Capitol Hill rooftop. Researchers say doubling-up in housing could prolong the housing crunch. (Andy Colwell, Special to The Colorado Sun)

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