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Love In The Time of Rent Inflation

When “moving in together” really means “sharing a too-small bed, still paying too much rent, and living with too many roommates.” How the nation’s most insane housing market is becoming a relationship killer.

For photographer Alexandra Farias, however, no amount of sage was going to cut it. She and her 31-year-old boyfriend, Brent, were itching to get her out of the Nob Hill apartment she shared with a roommate and into a place that the two could call home. Brent had an affordable one-bedroom near Dolores Park, but for Farias, the fact that he had lived there with a previous girlfriend was a deal breaker. So they spent nearly two months looking for a new place. The competition was stiff; the people, desperate. “And all for really awful places,” says Farias. “Stained old carpeting, bad mildew smells, no light. But I just wanted to sign a lease, and he kept saying no, that we’d eventually find something we both liked. I thought he was being too picky.”

It didn’t help that Brent, feeling overwhelmed, was mentally checking out. “I was spending all my days visiting places, but he wasn’t involved at all,” says Farias. It wasn’t until she suggested bringing her mother into the process that Brent finally snapped to. “My mom offered to come from Mexico to help me look around, and he was like, ‘No, no, no, no, no!’ We made an offer on the next place we saw.”

The two-bedroom Edwardian they ended up with was well over their initial budget, but they were so happy to be past the apartment-hunting stage that they raided their savings for the nearly $10,000 (first, last, and a deposit) that the landlord required. Everything seemed settled until two weeks before their move-in date, when the landlord asked for even more money to cover their rental application and utilities for the days preceding their move. The couple felt that they were being taken advantage of, so they backed out and began their search again. Although Brent is more into it this time, he and Farias are getting really frustrated, wondering if they’ll ever be able to take that important next step in their relationship.

But at least they’re still looking forward. The sad situations, couples’ counselor Yarbrough says, are those, like Castoria’s, in which the living situation pushes a relationship over the edge. “I work with a 41-year-old massage therapist who was making a good enough living for herself—but when her partner became unemployed, the two were forced to move in with the woman’s parents. It put so much pressure on them that they broke up.” Even worse, Yarbrough adds, is when couples can’t afford to part ways. “I’ve had cases where there’s been an affair or some kind of abuse going on, but because of finances, people are forced to continue in toxic circumstances.”

Even when the two people in a relationship have resigned themselves to less-than-optimal living conditions, the situation can still take a toll. In 2009, Annie Nyborg needed help paying the mortgage on her Precita Park home. Her former Stanford classmate Kirsten took the second bedroom, and soon after that, Nyborg’s boyfriend, Matt, joined the household. Nyborg and Matt are actually quite happy. They love Kirsten and would be hard-pressed to keep the house without her financial contribution. “But there’s definitely less intimacy between us,” Nyborg says. “Sometimes it’s like Matt and I are more like roommates than like boyfriend and girlfriend.” It’s a price she’s willing to pay—for now. But she and Matt are starting to think about the next steps, she says. “And there’s no way we’re going to have a baby and a roommate.”

Of course, the lesson of all these stories is not that it’s impossible to keep love alive in an overcrowded apartment—only that it’s difficult, especially in relationships that are too fragile or too young to withstand the pressure. I mean, why devote yourself to “working things out” when you’re not even sure that he or she is the one?

“It all comes down to how successful a couple is at problem solving as a team,” says Yarbrough. “When faced with stress, a conflict-dependent couple tends to escalate and fight more, while a conflict-avoidant couple will flatten and become bored.” Yarbrough’s advice for romantic roommates feeling the squeeze? “Take a time-out. Agree on how long it’ll be, and go into another room to cool down, read a book, meditate, or call a friend.” And if you’re lucky, maybe that beautiful rent-controlled condo down the street will open up. ❒

Originally published in the February 2013 issue of San Francisco.

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