Thursday, July 7, 2011

Group Housing

Now that I am happily living in a 2 bedroom apartment, I would like to reflect on my housing experiences over the past 6 months – mainly on the phenomenon known as “group housing”. It’s a fairly common means of housing, yet specific to the Washington D.C. metropolitan area.

Before I came to live in the Washington D.C. area, I had no idea what a “group house” was. The term refers to a setup where different individuals enter into an agreement to live together; these individuals are often complete strangers at first. (Roommates may not be strangers to begin with, but I find this is rarely the case.) For recent college graduates (like myself), an accurate analogy would be living in a college dorm: everyone has their own private room, but share common areas such as the kitchen, bathroom, living area, and laundry facilities (if any). A “group house” also doesn’t have to be exclusive to individual houses – large apartments can also be used to accommodate similar living arrangements.

The main incentive for strangers to live together is to save on rent. In expensive areas such as Arlington county in Virginia, renting a house can be significantly cheaper than an apartment. Sure, the upfront cost of rent may be higher (e.g. $2100 a month for a 3 bedroom house), but individual rent would be much lower (e.g. $700 per month). The key is finding the right individuals to live together with. I’d consider group housing to be an excellent example of what happens when free market economics prevails: voluntary entry into housing agreements with others. The prevalence of group housing could also be due to the basic economics of supply and demand – in older areas like Arlington county, there are many more houses than apartment complexes.

A “group house” can vary significantly in size, location, and demographic. In terms of size, they can range from only 3 individuals to upwards of 7 and more. The basic rule of thumb is, the more people, the cheaper the rent (more heads to spread costs). Although you may think that group houses would theoretically only exist in expensive locales, in practice, they exist almost anywhere. I believe the reason for this is the sheer range of individual incomes levels: sometimes one cannot afford to live close to a metro station, nevertheless alone. In terms of demographic, while group houses tend to be single gender and center around a specific age group, they can be a mixture of individuals of different ages and genders. Once again, sometimes the reality of tight budget forces us to seek housing opportunities outside of our ideals.

So what are the pros and cons of group housing? I think there is one and only one advantage: cheaper rent. This being said, there is also one and only disadvantage: lack of privacy. Yet I think we can all understand the latter as layers of issues, rather than a single one. Having lived myself in group houses, I will say the biggest challenges have been maintaining cleanliness and noise levels. There is definitely an inverse correlation between the cleanliness and the number of people living together – the more people, the less clean and more noisy. This is what is known as the “tragedy of the commons” in economic speak: the incentive to upkeep decreases as the responsibility of upkeeping expands. Fortunately, a significant percentage of group houses (try to) resolve the cleanliness problem by scheduling a cleaning maid on a weekly or bi-weekly basis.

Overall, group housing is born out of economic necessity –rather than personal preference. I think they are easier to adapt to, the younger a potential roommate is.

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