Kristen Zatina, 35, chose to live with a roommate when she moved to Baltimore. (Lloyd Fox, Baltimore Sun video)
When Tessa Trach sat down to work out a budget for her first job after college one thing was immediately clear: She needed a roommate.
“I didn’t even think about living by myself,” said Trach, 22, who lives in Federal Hill with three roommates. “I knew it would be too expensive.”
Cohabitation is hardly a new trend among young adults starting out on their own, but a recent report suggests that more working-age adults are living with a roommate than ever before.
In Baltimore, 33 percent of adults aged 23 or older lived with a roommate or parent in 2016, up from 23 percent in 2000, according to an analysis of Census data by Zillow, a real estate and rental marketplace.
Living habits in the Baltimore area are tracking with a national trend that Zillow said could be driven by rent prices rising more quickly than wages. Student debt, socialization and the rise of multi-generational families also may be contributing to the trend, it said.
“There’s a pretty shared experience across the United States, and that starts with rent affordability,” said Skylar Olsen, a senior economist at Zillow. “As rent prices go up, it’s costing a greater share of your paycheck to just cover the brass tacks of housing.”
Zillow counted doubled-up households as those occupied by two or more adults between ages 23 and 65 who aren’t married or in a relationship.
Kristen Zatina, 35, probably could have afforded a small place of her own — after all, she rented a studio for herself when she lived in Washington, D.C.
But when she moved to Baltimore last year, Zatina, an account manager at Baltimore public relations firm Profiles, opted to rent a room (with its own bathroom) from another 35-year-old who owned a condo in Midtown.
Zatina saves several hundred dollars a month, which she puts toward car payments, health insurance and her savings account.
“It feels more comfortable,” she said. “I’m not worried about money. When you’re older and not in college, you don’t have that sense of ‘I can figure this out later.’ As a mid-30-year-old, I need to figure stuff out now.”
Zillow researchers found that the metro areas with the greatest share of adults living together had some of the most expensive rents.
Los Angeles has the third most expensive rents in the country and the highest rate of doubling up. About 45 percent of adults there live with a roommate or parent, according to the report.
Rents aren’t rising at the same rate in the Baltimore area.
Rather, with hundreds of new apartments flooding the market, prices have leveled off, growing just two-tenths of a percent over the last year, to a median of $1,730, according to Zillow’s analysis.
Zillow estimated that the typical Baltimore-area renter spends about 27 percent of their monthly income on housing. Financial advisers commonly recommend spending no more than 30 percent of income.
“Baltimore is still known for its reasonable cost of living, and I think that’s still the case for housing,” said Kirby Fowler, president of the Downtown Partnership of Baltimore, which promotes the city.
Fowler said that doubling up may be on the rise in townhouses, detached houses and smaller apartment buildings, but studio and one-bedroom apartments remain the most in-demand units at the high-rise buildings that dominate the downtown rental market.
Still, rent affordability remains an issue for many, said Cheryl Knott, a project manager with the Baltimore Neighborhood Indicators Alliance at the University of Baltimore's Jacob France Institute.
According to 2015 Census data, just over half of Baltimore households shelled out at least 30 percent of their income on housing, which Knott said is a measure of whether housing is affordable. That’s up from about 40 percent in 2000.
By pooling their resources, Livingstone and two of her friends can afford a much nicer abode than any of them would be able to swing on their own.
Their three-bedroom rowhome, which is owned by one friend’s parents, boasts modern upgrades, a parking space and a roof deck.
More renters doubling up in Baltimore could be a sign of the city’s appeal as a place to live, Fowler said.
“In some ways, if doubling up is happening, it means more people are getting used to living downtown,” he said.
Trach works at a school in Stevenson, where she could have gotten more apartment for her dollar, but she was willing to live with roommates in order to afford a city lifestyle.
“Living in the suburbs you’re kind of isolated,” she said. “I wanted a chance to get to know people my age.”
She pays $775 a month — about a quarter of her monthly pay and below the $900 she decided she could afford — and lives with people who, like her, want to go out and explore what Baltimore has to offer.
“What a lot of people love about college is all your friends are in walking distance, you can go knock on their door,” Trach said. “When you have a houseful of people you can hang out with it feels like you haven’t grown up too quickly.”