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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.

There was nothing romantic about it when Elizabeth Castoria moved in with Peter, her boyfriend of less than a year. They were already having problems and weren’t really ready to make such a commitment, but they let it slide, thinking of all the money they would save by shacking up. It was 2010, and although the recession had spared Castoria’s job in publishing, she was unwilling to pay the outrageous rents she was seeing on Craigslist. So the thirtysomethings moved into a two-bedroom apartment in the Mission that they would share with a friend. And soon after, the friend’s girlfriend. And the girlfriend’s son. And the son’s dogs (three of them). A love nest it was not.

It all sounds like fodder for prime time à la New Girl, where attractive, successful friends share square footage, neckties hang on doorknobs for privacy, and arguments go on for just a few minutes before someone in a Peter Pan collar and Warby Parker frames charms the gang into reconciliation. The Real World version? “Peter and I fought a lot. Not having enough personal space or time alone really hindered us as a couple,” says Castoria, a petite, laid-back brunette of the vegan persuasion. “We’re both pretty independent, and being at home together with all those people and animals accelerated the deterioration of our relationship.” After six months, they were done.

Nora Allen’s (not her real name) relationship never even made it past the starting line because of a similar home-as-dorm situation. Three years ago, the nurse practitioner moved into a three-bedroom in Cole Valley with two friends: both straight men whom she’d known for years. She loved the setup, but it caused some awkwardness on first dates. “One of the first questions a guy will ask is where I live. Do I have roommates, or do I live alone? Even if it’s just an innocent question, I feel like, ‘I’m 32. Shouldn’t I be more adult at this stage?’”

Then she met David (not his real name). Their relationship progressed nicely—until David became frustrated that he and Allen weren’t getting enough time alone. (He had roommates, too.) They would plan romantic dinners at home, but inevitably one of Allen’s roommates would walk in with two or three friends, and the evening would turn into a party. Eventually, David just refused to spend the night. “He said he never felt like my apartment was also his space,” Allen says. It was a tough burden to impose on a new relationship, and they broke up about six months in.

It’s a common story these days: relationships cramped and tested as couples navigate the city’s increasingly competitive rental market. The average San Francisco monthly rent has climbed 30 percent in the last two years, and national real estate investment firm Marcus & Millichap estimates that the average rent will rise to $2,011 this year—and won’t taper off before 2015. It’s no wonder that renters race to outbid each other, crowds line up at open houses with résumés and pay stubs in hand, and vacancies sometimes fill overnight.

People determined to stick it out in (or move to) the city are being forced to double, triple, and even quadruple up. According to Lovely, a website for would-be renters, a large majority of its users are looking for an apartment for more than one person. Even some of Lovely’s cofounders struggle to squeeze into the rental market: Doug Wormhoudt has been searching for a place with three to four roommates for two months; Blake Pierson has been crashing at the office while he looks at roommate options; and a company engineer left his family in Chicago to lease a place here with four other people.

The squeeze is tough on anyone who had hoped to leave dorm life behind, but especially so on romantic partners, says Potrero Hill couples’ counselor Cameron Yarbrough. “There’s just so much that can go wrong here, like a lack of boundaries and competition for resources,” he says. “If you can’t get away from your partner when you’re mad, the temptation to get in the last word, or just one more quick jab, is really high.”

In Castoria’s case, the only escape was taking a 35-minute run. Trouble was, when she ended up back at her front door, the tensions were still there to greet her. “We became two people who were unhappy, not speaking to each other, and living in the same room,” she says.