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All in together now

As the cost of housing rises, people are living with roommates later in life. As Frances Bula writes, many find they enjoy it more than they expected

Conor and Veronica Lorimer talk with roommates Matt and Danielle Clarke and their daughter Frances, 2, at their home in Vancouver, British Columbia on December 28, 2016.

Vancouver is a city renowned for unusual living arrangements, as people scramble to find housing that fits into normal budgets. Even so, four roommates who share a house in pricey South Cambie admit that they frequently are met with surprise and disbelief when they explain their situation.

That's because Matt and Dani and Conor and Veronica aren't your usual roommates. They are two married couples in their 30s, all working at professional jobs. And each couple has a child.

"When I mention it to other people, it's definitely novel to them," said Veronica Lorimer, a trained lawyer originally from a big Filipino family in Australia, now working as a paralegal in Vancouver. She and her husband, Conor Lorimer, welcomed their first child in a home birth just after the new year – an event that Matt and Dani Clarke tactfully respected by moving out for a few days to allow their roommates some privacy and time to adjust.

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The four contemplated their situation in their living room one recent morning while the Clarkes' toddler played on the floor. Yes, some people find it odd, but they say it has worked out surprisingly well, even though the main motivation for all of them was to save money by splitting the $1,900-a-month rent. "I was really nervous about it. When we first moved into this house, I didn't want to live with other people. I thought, 'I'm 30, I have a baby,'" admits Dani, an interior designer.

The Lorimers moved in around Thanksgiving, 18 months after Matt had tentatively put out the word that he and Dani were looking for someone to share the house, a 1942 four-bedroom bungalow that has 1,660 square feet on 1 1/2 floors, a large backyard – and a single bathroom. (The long-time owners, who raised a family there decades ago, are waiting to cash in on Vancouver's oxygen-deprived real estate market, but no one has yet snapped up the $2.48-million property for redevelopement.)

Matt and Conor had lived together once before, long ago, in a shared student house near the University of British Columbia, so they knew each other, but weren't in each other's main circle of friends.

Canadian census data has shown that Vancouver and Toronto are the cities most likely to have ‘non-family members’ living together.

In spite of her initial hesitation, Dani finds that she enjoys having other people around in the evening, when Matt, a theatre artist and instructor, is sometimes working. "It helps me sleep a little better," she says.

Veronica also welcomes the chance for built-in company since Conor, who works as a forest educator at a camp outside Vancouver, is away for much of the summer. The logistics of the single bathroom have, surprisingly, not been that difficult. The four don't schedule any kind of co-operative cooking, but do often end up making and eating meals together. And there's plenty of room for each child to have a separate bedroom, although the new baby is sleeping in her parents' room for now.

This foursome may be at the edge of extreme roommating, but many others aren't far behind. As housing prices have risen throughout North America, the numbers of people living with roommates has climbed.

In the United States, Seattle recently topped the list of roommate cities. A recent analysis by the Seattle Times indicated that 12.5 per cent of people were living with a roommate, boyfriend or girlfriend, an almost 40-per-cent increase from 2010.

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Census data in Canada indicate that Vancouver and Toronto are the cities where people are most likely to live with "non-family members." In Vancouver, the 2011 census showed that about 8 per cent of people in the city of Vancouver proper were living with "non-relatives" – about 46,000 people out of about 590,000. In Toronto, 136,000 out of the population of about 2.5 million were living with non-relatives.

The rise of roommate-matching sites such as TorontoRoommates.ca, offering listings and advice on choosing potential roommates, is another sign of the times.

"Over time, there has been less stigma and a rising social acceptance towards more diversity in our living arrangements," says Barbara Mitchell, a sociology professor at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver. Single living has boomed in Canada since the 1960s, as women became more independent and it became more socially acceptable for people to live on their own. More recently, the rising cost of housing has cut into the economic possibilities of living alone. That has inevitably meant that house- or apartment-sharing now extends well beyond the 20s, which has been the most common age for living with non-family members for the last half-century.

Yes, there are economic reasons. But those who do it say there are many other benefits.

Pierre Gauthier, who is 44, has been living with a series of roommates the last few years, since he broke up with a girlfriend.

"There's always someone to talk to. You make a new friend," said Mr. Gauthier, a film and video specialist who shares his two-bedroom, $1,400-a-month apartment in an older house in Vancouver's Mount Pleasant neighbourhood.

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Conor and Veronica Lorimer talk with roommates Matt and Danielle Clarke and their daughter Frances.

Gauthier expects he'll be sharing spaces for a while, and that doesn't bother him. He has a friend who is 67 and has roommates, so he doesn't feel as though it's a time-limited option. "I find personally I don't mind it. I like living with someone," he says.

Ellinor Stenroos, a 35-year-old custom jewellery designer in Calgary, has lived with a wide variety of roommates over the last decade, from a 51-year-old female friend to her sister and her husband. Her current roommate is an architectural draftsman, who works from home, as she does.

That means a busy feeling in the four-bedroom, $1,700-a-month townhouse in Calgary's Inglewood neighbourhood, where they each have a bedroom and a workspace. But she likes the feeling of comfort and security, having someone else around. "I would have felt a lot more lonely without him," she says.

Living with roommates does require a certain diplomacy, says everyone who does it – even more diplomacy than is required for a spouse or partner. Everyone mentions standards of cleanliness as one aspect that can make or break a roommate relationship, with the person who typically can't stand seeing dirty dishes around being the first one to crack.

The two couples who share the Vancouver house haven't gone as far as to draw up a chore wheel, but they say they're all conscious of the need to make sure dishes are done, toys and papers are picked up promptly and clothes are not strewn around.

Noise is another friction point. Also tough: Having one person in the house who has sworn off drinking and another who throws wine-laced dinner parties.

And most also say that, even though having roommates is becoming more common, they still have a sense of not quite fitting the norm.

"It does make me feel like I'm less of an adult sometimes," Stenroos says, "needing to have roommates."

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