12/15/2014 12:55 pm ET Updated Feb 14, 2015

An Ode to Roommates


Less than a century ago, Virginia Woolf wrote an essay titled "A Room of One's Own". It could be accurately described as an early feminist manifesto that could fit comfortably under the "bold for its time" category. It advocates in favor of opening spaces -- literally and figuratively -- for female talent in literary fiction, in a time when the field was almost exclusively male. According to Woolf, a room of one's own and some income were required if women were to successfully write fiction, since these conditions would liberate them from economic dependency, allowing them enough freedom to write.

It's hard to disagree with Woolf's premises when applied to women writing fiction, but from the perspective of real estate it's a very different story. A room of one's own nowadays can become an aspirational utopia in heavily populated cities, where more people decide to stay than leave, motivated perhaps by professional incentives, vibrant cultures or burgeoning consumer markets -- where it also just happens to be the most expensive places to find housing. In some of these cities, increased demand in markets where urban planning regulations vastly limit supply, finding an affordable place to rent is mostly wishful thinking, a problem that affects disproportionately underprivileged minorities and underemployed youths, who in turn, also have a harder time finding the resources to pack and flee towards more affordable locations.

Yes, nothing is overrated about having a room of one's own: the living situation that Virginia endorsed is not only fertile soil for introspection and creative enterprises; solitude also offers liberation from the expectations and discomforts often imposed by sharing a space with another person. Privacy feels like an expansion of individuality and rights, as it allows oneself to simply and plainly be.

But it wasn't until acquiring the Woolf standard of real estate that I came to realize how roommates, while apparently undeserving of Woolferian praise, offer many advantages often overlooked. Roomies are an interesting concept: they range from casual acquaintances to best friends, including complete strangers contacted after Craigslist prospecting, who share living quarters and engage in various levels of intimacy that many would only enter under the conditions of love and mutual commitment that come after a time devoted to getting to know the other person, in order to identify compatible traits and deal breakers. With roommates, the dating stage is omitted, going sometimes straight from handshaking and exchanging basic information to the intimacy of non-romantic cohabitation and pre-first-coffee-of-the-day interaction.

Roommates thus share the same roof -- "till end-of-the-lease do us part" -- out of convenience and budgetary restrictions. Love, which is what moves many people to tolerate the defects or annoying quirks of their partners, is sometimes, sadly non-existent amongst roommates, at least at first. And yet, many traits that make diverse societies viable, like tolerance and respect for other people's rights, opinions and individuality, the capacity for empathy and other invaluable elements that make coexistence possible within heterogeneous communities are strengthened and practiced through these instances of forced intimacy, and are worthy of the same eulogy Woolf dedicates to the advantages of living solo. As it's more of an inevitable consequence, there is no merit in respecting the rights or annoying quirks of others when it's done for love. Respecting them before affinity arises, simply because of shared space conditions, is where merit comes in -- it implies recognizing and embracing the other's humanity and individual quirks for their own sake.

It would be irresponsible to approach the roommates subject without a head nod to their narrative usefulness in pop culture -- what would've made Gilmore Girls survive if Rory had embraced Woolf's ideal after leaving Lorelai's home for college but the amazing interactions with Paris Gellar?

What would have made the hilarious trivia scene in Friends possible? No matter how close a group of friends can be, it takes roommates to know how many towel categories a person has. What, if not comparison with Spike, would have made boring Will Thacker endearing and adorable in Notting Hill?

Sure, Virginia Woolf, a room of one's own is a valuable status. But its value can only be truly appreciated after enjoying roommates for a while.