Amanda and Rose, one of the photographer’s roommates, during a game night at the house.

Off Topic

For Love and Money: Finding Roommates After 40

What’s it like to take on roommates in middle age? A photographer in Detroit finds something special when she lets other people into her home: intimacy.

In September 2017, following a marriage, a divorce, and ten years of living on my own, I opened my two-story Detroit home to friends. I was just about to turn 42. Feeling unfulfilled by dating apps and disenchanted by the steeply rising cost of living, I was curious about ways to create community. My primary inspiration were the millennials who live around me in Detroit, many of whom embrace the idea of having roommates. (In contrast, most of my single, Gen X friends would do anything to afford to live alone.) Specifically, I thought of a married millennial couple I knew who had brought roommates into their home for environmental reasons. I’d often be at their house for dinners or parties, and I saw how they’d formed a makeshift family of sorts. There was a palpable intimacy, something I’ve found difficult to achieve in friendship, and certainly in the dating scene, as I’ve gotten older. I really started wondering: would my life feel fuller, more alive, with roommates? Soon, I was living with three other people and two dogs.

Rose moves into the house. (All photos from 2018.)
The photographer at home. Photograph by Laura Khalil
 
“Have you lost your mind?” a friend said when I told her about my idea of getting roommates. “Isn’t that something you do in your 20s?”

It may seem strange to some, but communal living is a normal arrangement in 21st century America. Nationally, nearly one in three adults lives with a roommate or parent, according to a 2018 Pew study. As opposed to the American dream of home ownership, about a quarter of people over 40 seek an apartment—and roommates—after being divorced or widowed. Though I was the only one in my house over 40, I was not the only divorcée; two of my roommates were divorced as well. The primary motivation of my renters was the cost of housing; even in Detroit, it’s expensive. I own my home, but I too needed the help to be able to afford to chase a career in photography.

Rose and Laura catch up over champagne.
The house dishwasher, always full.
Chelsea and Laura get ready for the day.

Mine isn’t a typical middle-aged existence; oftentimes, when I’m traveling home from a trip or a shoot, I think about what it is that I’m coming home to. There aren’t kids or a husband waiting to say hello at the door. Did I ever think I’d live with anyone other than a partner after I divorced? Never. But I always felt my house was meant for more than just me, and it makes me happy that now it’s home to a lot more dreams than mine. My roommates sitting around the table ask about more than the overarching plot; they dig into the nuances of my life that only they would know about. The tiny, important details of a life unfolding.

Laura and Rose get ready for an afternoon at the Renaissance Festival.
Laura’s vision board.
Laura watches the Home Shopping Network.
 
“It’s not what I thought it would be,” I’ve heard several friends say about Detroit, as they packed up their cars for bigger towns, and maybe bigger experiences. Everybody seems to come to this city with a loaded dream, and I can understand that. I arrived here with similar expectations of finding a cheap space to make work—namely, so I could launch a photography career and undertake a major creative project. Maybe the difference is that I came to find a home, and I found that too.
 
The photographer dancing with one of the dogs, Violet. Photograph by Laura Khalil
Laura and Chelsea.
The photographer and Rose. Photograph by Chelsea Harmell

 

I’ve seen my roommates cry. I know if they put sugar in their coffee. One of my roommates recently sent me a picture while she was getting a bra fitting in the city.

 

Chelsea gets ready for her wedding while still living in the house.
Chelsea’s wedding, a small civil ceremony with a reception at a local meadery. Photograph by Laura Khalil

 

It’s been nearly a year and a half since I started living with roommates. “You’re so much happier,” an old friend said to me the other day. I was surprised. I hadn’t realized I ever seemed unhappy.

 

The photographer preparing for a trip. Photograph by Laura Khalil
Violet in the bushes.
Watching an episode of The Golden Girls.

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