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Irma Hodzic and her brother feel trapped in the two-bedroom apartment they share with their mother, Behija, in West Valley City.
The living room doubles as their mother’s bedroom, and Irma, 43, struggles to maintain her mental health in the “constant commotion” of an apartment where three adults are squeezed in. Without any privacy in the crowded and disorganized space, she deals with brain fog, anxiety and depression.
“Taking care of your health and mental health, it’s just been really, really hard,” she said.
Her brother, 45, has his own worries: that he’ll never marry or start a family if he can’t afford to get into his own place eventually.
Amid the state’s affordable housing crisis, many Utahns have moved in with family or friends, sometimes sleeping on couches or air mattresses in small apartments in an effort to save money on rent. But the decision can cost these individuals in other ways — leaving them with little privacy, taking a toll on their social lives and health and straining relationships with the friends and loved ones who take them in.
Experts agree that the economic fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic likely prompted more Utahns to move into these shared living situations. However, it can be difficult to compile data on the exact number of households that are “doubled up,” where adult children live with their parents or where unrelated families or friends cohabitate.
These renters are often low-income, immigrants or people who are undocumented, and many are driven into shared living situations by economic necessity — but some may have to break their lease or city code in the process.
For that reason, people don’t generally talk about sharing housing unless it’s in the context of homeownership, said Tara Rollins, executive director of the Utah Housing Coalition.
”They’re going to try to be under the radar,” she said.
Many of the Utahns who find themselves doubled up are searching for new living accommodations but lack the resources to move as rents trend higher. And some are on the verge of giving up, now looking at housing options outside the state and even outside the country.
Irma and her brother — who came to the United States in the late 1990s in search of a better life after leaving Bosnia during the war — would have liked to live on their own or find a bigger place to care for their mother, who’s getting older and doesn’t speak much English.
But the nearly $1,200 they pay toward their apartment each month is already a stretch, especially after both siblings lost their jobs during the pandemic. And they have few cheaper options, even with the $650 their mother gets from Social Security each month.
The siblings have grown increasingly cynical about the prospect of the American dream, Irma said, and they’re now packing up and working to find a new home for their cat as they prepare to move back to the country where they were born.
“This is how we grew up in the ’80s in Soviet era-style communism — really crowded living conditions,” she said. “I didn’t expect that in America, but it’s kind of the same. I was expecting, you know, the American dream of homeownership, good job. I don’t know. I feel like it’s really out of reach.”
‘The only way I could be housed’
In December 2019, after Spencer Cawley realized he could no longer afford to live in Salt Lake City on a part-time income, he moved to Bountiful to live with his brother and sister-in-law and their newborn baby.
If the two-bedroom apartment felt a bit crowded at first, it seemed to shrink smaller still when the pandemic hit and both Cawley and his brother began working remotely — and then again when Cawley’s partner moved in from Nashville a few months later and began looking for work in Utah.
Having four adults and a newborn in the small space made the limited amount of socializing the household would do during the pandemic — like when the grandparents would come by to see the baby — feel stressful.
“It was just those logistics of not having that freedom to be able to just go home,” said Cawley, 36. “You couldn’t just go to your place and be in your space. You were in someone else’s spaces and also someone else’s timeline. That, I’m sure, was the same for them.”
Cawley and his partner were eventually able to obtain full-time jobs, and they recently moved into an apartment that became available upstairs in the complex where his brother lives. It’s been nice to have a bit more breathing room in his living arrangements, and to have a place to go at the end of the day to decompress without feeling like he’s in anyone’s way, Cawley said.
“After having worked all day to be able to come home and make dinner and not have to worry about, am I being too noisy or am I in the way of my brother and his family while they’re doing their stuff ... for morale and my own mental health, it’s nice to not have that additional worry,” he said.
Despite some of the stressors the tight living situation produced, Cawley said he’s grateful to his brother for taking him in — and he feels it strengthened his bond with his family overall. If they hadn’t given him a place to live, Cawley’s not sure where he would have gone.
“It’s the only way I could be housed,” he said of the arrangement.
‘We have different lifestyles’
When Chiemi Maloy returned to the U.S. from Ghana a year and a half ago, she decided to stay with her parents for a few months — just enough time so she could get settled again.
But striking out on her own has proven much more difficult than she ever expected, with the confluence of COVID-19 and rising rents stymieing her attempts to find housing.
“Moving in here was technically part of the plan,” Maloy, 31, said. “But staying here was not.”
Trying to minimize her family’s risk of contracting the coronavirus, Maloy found a job as a paraeducator in her dad’s school so they would be interacting with the same circle of people.
And because she carpools to work with her father, her transportation and job are now all connected to living in her parents’ Bountiful home — making it that much more difficult to relocate to Salt Lake City, where she’d like to find housing.
“Do I get a job there and then an apartment?” she wonders. “Or do I get an apartment and then a job?”
Because living costs are so high in the city, her inclination is to nail down her employment first, but she says there “isn’t an exact plan,” and she’s feeling somewhat stuck at the moment.
It’s not that she’s in a bad living situation, she said, adding that her parents are loving and accepting.
“But we have different lifestyles,” Maloy said. “It is just weird sometimes being very different and trying to live separate lives under the same household.”
Even after she leaves their home, she’d have to face the prospect of sharing a living space with someone, since she might need a roommate to split the cost of rent. And she’s not convinced that relocating to a different part of the country would help, suspecting that many cities are suffering from a shortage of affordable housing.
She said she’s trying to convince some of her family to move with her to New Zealand, where they already have relatives.
“At this point, there’s a lot of me that just wants to be out of the United States altogether,” she said.
‘It’s what we have to do’
Chelsea, an Orem renter, just wants a parking space and a bit more privacy.
The Salt Lake Tribune agreed to identify her only by her first name because she fears retaliation for criticizing the apartment she shares with her fiancé, his brother and his former co-worker.
The four roommates have a single designated parking spot between them. They’d have to pay an extra $60 a month for an additional space in the complex’s underground garage, she said, and there’s stiff competition for the free street parking.
“If you aren’t there before maybe 6 or 7 at night, all of the parking along the building is taken,” she said. “So we have to park out in the Costco parking lot.”
Which leaves Chelsea, 29, and her fiancé trying to cram her car and his motorcycle into the same space so neither has to walk a long distance to get into their home.
The apartment’s thin walls — which do little to block the noise from other rooms and even other units — also are frustrating, she said.
Chelsea said she looked into starting therapy during the pandemic but shied away from it because she’d be stressed about what her roommates and neighbors might overhear during the telehealth sessions.
“Nothing is ever soundproof here,” she said.
Chelsea and her fiancé had originally planned to rent a one-bedroom apartment by themselves. They later decided they’d rather live with roommates now so they can save money to buy a home later on.
But this last year of cramming four adults into one unit has been a challenge, she said, explaining that the roommates have different opinions about how to clean the apartment and clashing decorative styles.
“But we all also know that it’s what we have to do at this point,” she said. “It’s better than living with strangers.”