In New York, where high rents, small apartments and vibrant social lives were, until recently, hallmarks of life, roommates were seen by many as a financial necessity rather than a lifestyle choice: people with whom one ideally maintained a cordial, if arms-length relationship until circumstances allowed for the move to your own studio apartment.
But in a world of Zoom meet-ups and masked outdoor gatherings, the appeal of living alone has dimmed. Cut off from the social whirl of pre-coronavirus life, distanced from friends and colleagues and lacking even the impersonal companionship of a crowded restaurant or a group exercise class, a studio apartment no longer seems the prize it once did. The right roommate, though, can also be a co-worker, a workout buddy and a dining companion.
“Living alone and not being socialized, I was starting to feel like a hamster in a cage,” said Marc Jenkinson, 32, who this summer left his one-bedroom apartment in the West Village to move in with Peter Englert, 28, a friend from his L.B.G.T.Q. volleyball team who had been living in a Clinton Hill studio.
“After working from home for the first three months, I was like, ‘I just need to see someone on a regular basis — not planned or social distancing,’ ” said Mr. Englert, who works in digital advertising. “I feel so much less anxious. I’m not thinking, ‘When is the next time I’m going to see someone I know?’ ”
The friends moved into a two-bedroom, two-bath apartment by McCarren Park in Greenpoint this July, which not only eased their solitude, they also got a lot more space, including a private balcony, and significantly reduced their respective rents.
“It’s been really, really great. I’m surprised I didn’t live with someone sooner,” Mr. Jenkinson said. “During the day, we’re both working and in the evenings we’ll watch TV and hang out. Even the small interactions make such a big difference. When I’m taking a lunch break, I can come out and chat a little bit versus living in complete silence.”
Chelsea Hale, the Triplemint real estate agent who found the apartment for Mr. Jenkinson and Mr. Englert, said that she has seen several other clients leaving behind solo living situations to move in together. She has also seen a lot of desirable studios lingering on the market.
“I had a listing on the Upper East Side — an $1,800 studio in a doorman building, which would normally be very coveted, but this year was really hard to fill,” Ms. Hale said. “The apartments that are renting right now are one-bedrooms for couples or two-bedrooms for roommates.”
Indeed, while rental prices have dropped across all categories, studios have had some of the biggest decreases. The average price for a Manhattan studio dropped 13.8 percent, to $2,456, in September 2020 from the same month last year, according to a market report from Douglas Elliman. Manhattan two-bedrooms, on the other hand, were down 4.2 percent year-over-year, with an average rent of $4,817.
The desire for roommate camaraderie is such that Melinda Sicari, an associate broker with Douglas Elliman, has not only seen a lot of people moving from studios into two-bedroom shares, but also high demand for five- and six-bedroom apartments with prices that pencil out, per room, to roughly the same as smaller, traditionally more popular shares.
“I’ve been surprised by the traffic on larger apartments,” she said. “Being alone for months, not going into an office, people got really lonely.”
This summer, Chris Hattar and five roommates moved into a six-bedroom financial district share, one of Ms. Sicari’s listings.
Before the pandemic, Mr. Hattar, 24, had been living with two of the same roommates in a Murray Hill flex two-bedroom, with a third bedroom created from a partial wall in the living room. Three other friends from Williams College lived upstairs in a similar setup. The friends from the two apartments would often socialize on weekends, but after coronavirus, neither half-sized living room was an ideal venue for socializing or working.
By moving together into an $11,000-a-month six-bedroom in the financial district, everyone doubled the size of their daily social circle, got an actual bedroom, reduced their rent slightly and gained a big, loft-style living and dining room where they can watch the latest Netflix show or sports.
“It feels reminiscent of old times. We can socialize and not be isolated,” said Mr. Hattar. During the day, he said, “there’s an office camaraderie” with roommates working side-by-side in the open living/dining room and going out to pick up lunch together.
There is one downside, however: conversation can occasionally get in the way of work. “Because we’re all friends, someone will make a comment and we’ll get rolling and 30 minutes will go by,” he said.
Although many people in their 20s left the city to stay with family at the start of the pandemic, a lot of them have since decided to return. And what they want, are spacious apartments to share with friends, according to Robert Morgenstern, the founder and principal at Canvas Property Group, a New York-based real estate services firm.
“There are a lot of people who have great relationships with their parents and are happy at home, but that’s not universal,” Mr. Morgenstern said. “After four or five months, a lot of people were done. They’d rather sign a lease with friends in the city than work from home in isolation at their parents’ house.”
And, given that so much social life in the coming months will be apartment-based, people not only want spaces suitable for cooking, working and hanging out in, but roommates they actually want to do all those things with.
“People are posting listings that say, ‘I no longer want to live with strangers. I want to live with friends or roommates who will become my friends,’ ” said Stephanie Diamond, the founder of Listings Project, a weekly newsletter of real estate and other opportunities. “People are looking for spontaneity. They don’t want to have to text someone and set up a time to get together. They want someone who can just join them in the living room.”
Before coronavirus, Mike Hurowitz, a 30-year-old tech recruiter, was perfectly happy living with three roommates in Bedford-Stuyvesant, where he paid $1,000 a month. “I’d found the spot on Craigslist and in normal times it was all that I needed,” he said. “It was fine.”
But despite having no issues with his roommates, “the stress of the world collapsing, and living with people I wasn’t particularly close to was hard.” When the opportunity came up to live with a friend in a three-bedroom in Crown Heights, he hesitated — rent was $250 more a month — but moving in turned out to be a great decision.
He was furloughed from his job for three months and during that time broke his collarbone in a bike accident; his life, which had been largely apartment-based before, became even more so. Living with a good friend made all the difference. (Their third roommate has spent much of the pandemic out of town.)
“Now we spend an obscene amount of time together,” he said. “I went from taking walks alone to always having someone to talk to. We tell each other stuff that’s roommate privilege — meaning it can’t leave the apartment. We’ve gotten way closer; she’s one of my best friends.”
And while the end of the pandemic, whenever and however it comes, may lead to a surge in solo living, at least some have become converts.
Estefania Martinez-Aleman, 22, spent the last four years in a Midtown Manhattan one-bedroom that her parents rented for her when she was a freshman at Fordham University; they wanted to be able to stay with her when they visited from Miami.
“I didn’t really chose to live alone,” Ms. Martinez-Aleman said. But she didn’t mind it, either. She had a very active social life and friends would often stay over at her place if they were hanging out in Manhattan.
But after she and a college friend went to her parents’ house for spring break — a trip that stretched to months because of the coronavirus — they decided to move into a two-bedroom in Stuyvesant Heights, Brooklyn, together.
“It’s definitely been comforting living together during the coronavirus,” said Ms. Martinez-Aleman, adding that it has also been amazing for her health. “Before, I would order in, order in. Now, I have a buddy, we go to the supermarket together, pick out what we want to eat for the week and cook healthy meals.”
But what she really loves about living with a friend is that while there’s always someone around whose company she enjoys, she never feels pressured to hang out.
“Before, whenever I was with friends, I felt like I had to entertain, like we’d have these insane dinners,” Ms. Martinez-Aleman said. “Now, I don’t feel that. I’m just living my life. We can have a lemonade together and talk again in four hours.”