How To Live Near Your Friends: The Illegal Bay Area Version

rhetoricize
5 min readNov 19, 2023

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This is my illegal Bay Area version of a well-meaning yet financially-privileged article called “How To Live Near Your Friends”. The sticky part of this article is that it assumes a considerable number of people in your social circle have (a) spare rooms 😂 (b) the finances to move to a neighborhood of their choice 🤣, which is often not possible in the San Francisco Bay Area’s utterly unsustainable horror show of a housing market, even with pretty decent income. If it were that easy to live near friends, we’d all have done it already.

Here’s how renters do it in the Bay.

  • Live in a closet long enough to lie down in. Bonus points if you are able to score a closet that exits into common space, rather than a closet that exits into someone else’s room.
  • Live in a basement. Bonus points if it’s actually a finished basement with access to the common space, not just a cobwebby hole in the ground. (I’m assuming there’s either no window or no real door — otherwise you’ve got yourself a real room that just happens to be located in a basement, and is probably already taken.)
  • Live in a shed. (Usually have to exit the shed and enter the main house for bathroom & kitchen access.) Bonus points if the shed is insulated.
  • Find an empty vertical space above a washing machine, in a corner of your kitchen, above a bookcase, etc. Turn it into a guest sleeping space by building a loft, buying a used bunk bed frame, hanging a cargo net, etc. (Obviously you don’t have enough square footage to partition off any amount of precious floorspace, which is where the vertical build comes in handy.)
  • Ask a friend if you can live in a tent on their roof, in their backyard, etc. For longer-term stays, may have to pay a reduced rent to use the common space.
  • Live in a pass-thru room, where you have to walk through someone else’s room to get to the common space. These weird layouts are more common in mini-mansions with wealthy older homeowners, but they sometimes get leased out to friend groups when the wealthy older homeowners relocate to their second or third house.
  • Use a futon, pull-out couch, floor cushions, hammock, shared bed, or other easily-concealable sleeping situation in an apartment that has an arbitrarily low cap on the number of residents who are technically allowed to live there.
  • Find a friend who doesn’t mind sharing a room with you. Works best if one of you is sleep-shifted, or only uses bedrooms for sleeping (as opposed to doubling as a workspace or hosting space). Bonus: if the room has high ceilings, you can build a structural loft to cut it in half into two low-ceilinged rooms with no noise privacy.
  • If you have a car or van: build a bed in the back, then use it as an illegal ADU to live closer to friends who don’t have available rooms. For longer-term stays, can pay a reduced rent to use a friend’s common space and driveway.
    (This can actually be a huge upgrade in the Bay: upgrading from paying $1500 for a tiny room in a half-decent location, to paying almost nothing to live in a tiny room in your location of choice.)
    Bonus if you can find a rare flat driveway.
  • One of the most common SF landlord tricks is to make a unit appear less expensive than it is by advertising the only common room in the unit as a “spacious bedroom that could be used as a living room!” This is one of the few compromises a group friend house typically won’t make, since common space to host potlucks and gatherings is one of the most important cornerstones of a friend house.
  • Sometimes you can only find an affordable lease with enough bedrooms right next to the freeway, in a neighborhood with a lot of shootings, in a food desert, or with other major drawbacks. This is a common but stressful option, making it difficult to establish a long-term friend neighborhood.

If you have never before lived in the Bay Area with a <$200k income, these options may seem farfetched beyond satire, but let me assure you that I have seen everything in the list above done by at least one friend with a full-time tech salary, and personally resorted to some of them in places where my slumlord didn’t mind.

It’s also a common temporary maneuver for people who have just moved to the Bay and have plenty of money but are still finding a longer-term sublet or lease. That’s just how the housing market works here.

I can afford to live in decent places with multiple housemates splitting a place, but it’s exceptionally hard here to line up a group of people to start a lease at the same time. So that usually means applying to live with strangers. Which is fine, I can become friends with some housemates over time, but it’s so much cozier to live with people I’m already friends with.

For many Bay Area residents, a not-room may be their only choice. Some homeowners love the idea of making extra cash with minimal effort, and it’s common to see not-rooms like this advertised on Craigslist for $1000/month, or a tent in someone’s backyard going for $100/night on Airbnb.

Unfortunately, many higher-end non-resident landlords, detached as they are from the insanity of being on the renters’ side of the market, are unable to conceive of a world where someone who is genuinely “respectable” by landlord standards (tidy, employed, regular income, high credit score, responsible, communicative, always checks that the stove is off) might have a good reason to be a temporary bonus housemate in a not-room. Co-living flexibility is simpler with slumlords, who won’t fix your leaking roof or broken plumbing, but will at least take your money and let you stay.

It’s not that I don’t love having my own above-board, private, nice room to myself. It’s just that it’s deeply shitty to live without friends within easy walking distance, and this is really what the housing market has come to.

While it’s definitely possible to live with friends in a manner that the rest of America might consider “normal”, such opportunities are rare here. If your rent budget is $3000+ and you like living alone-but-near-friends, then you are in the enviable position of being able to strike quickly at open 1bd apartments in nice neighborhoods without waiting around for anyone else to commit, find a subletter for their current place, and go in on it with you.

The rest of us (who either prefer living in community houses, or don’t have a $3000+ rent budget) may wait years for a suitable, available, actual room near friends. In the meantime, many of us face the choice between (a) living in isolation far away from our friends, versus (b) living with dear friends in a weird, suboptimal, possibly-illegal, not-quite-a-room jammed into a corner of a friend house. Indeed, living near friends is so very important for mental health that many of us have been willing to achieve it via wild and wacky housing tradeoffs far beyond any basics that the author of “How To Live Near Friends” has considered.

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rhetoricize

autotelic polymath with an overwhelming compulsion to reverse engineer things I’ve never tried before