Tough times mean tight quarters

First Jason Farber lost his job. Then his new wife, Julie, lost hers. Their combined $160,000 income vanished, and soon their savings did too.

The unemployment checks weren’t enough to pay the rent, so they turned to Jason’s mother for help. Suzi Farber, 62, willingly opened her doors because she was having trouble making her own house payments. The couple moved into her Encino home in late February.

“It’s not where I would choose to be,” said Jason Farber, 39. “But it’s where we ended up.”

As the nation’s economic crisis deepens, families hit hard by layoffs and foreclosures are turning to relatives for help. They are trying to ride out the recession together by sharing homes, bills and groceries.

The pooling of resources harks back to the Great Depression, when families were doing whatever they could to make ends meet, said Zsuzsa Berend, a sociology professor at UCLA. She said the practice is probably happening more in areas like Los Angeles, where rents and property values are high, than in less urban areas.


Living with family members can benefit everyone, Berend said, because of the economies of scale -- it’s less expensive to heat one house than two, less expensive per person to cook for six people than four. But living together can also strain family relationships and lead to arguments over privacy, money and household duties.

“There is this myth that hard times bring people together and they discover the true value of family,” Berend said. “I don’t think that’s true. . . . Financial difficulties don’t bring out the best in people.”

Adult children moving back in with parents is the most common combined family living situation. No figures exist to show how many families have begun doubling up as result of the recession, but in 2008, even before the sharp downturn in the economy, about 19.9 million adults ages 18 to 34 were living in their parents’ homes, up from 17.8 million five years earlier, according to U.S. Census data.

People are also renting rooms to siblings, cousins and aunts and uncles. In 2007, nearly 3.5 million people were living in the home of a sister or brother and 6.8 million lived with other relatives. Seven years earlier, 3 million were living with siblings and 4.9 million were living with other relatives.

Suzi Farber bought her house for $711,000 two years ago, using in part money she had recently inherited from her parents. She put 15% down and was able to afford the $3,759 mortgage each month primarily using interest from her investments.

But in the last year, the investments have lost two-thirds of their value and will run out soon if the recession continues. Her house has also plummeted in value and now is worth less than the loan. She defaulted on March 1. Farber, who recently ran a gift-wrapping firm, hasn’t been able to find work. “It’s not just people in Lancaster,” she said. “It’s hitting everyone right now.”

Farber, who was already helping Jason and Julie pay their bills, said having them move in made sense for everyone. She said she is trying to go out of her way to make sure they feel welcome. She gave up her bedroom and moved into the guest room so they would have more space. She moved her car to the street so they could use the garage for storage.

Suzi said she is anxious about her own finances but more worried about her son.

“I think it’s harder on Jason and on his self-esteem, being with his mom and not being able to support his wife,” she said. “That makes me sad.”

Jason said the move has “been a little blow to the ego” but that he is also getting spoiled. On a recent morning, Farber made an egg salad sandwich for Jason as he watched the news. “The Dow is dropping rapidly,” he said.

Jason, a USC graduate, was working as a project manager in commercial development when the bottom fell out about a year and a half ago, several hotel projects canceled, and he found himself unemployed. In February 2008, Julie was laid off from her job as a brand manager after 17 years in the fashion industry.

They moved to a cheaper place, but even with $21,000 a year in unemployment checks, they couldn’t afford to pay rent and they used up their savings. Both have applied for numerous jobs. Jason has submitted applications everywhere from property management companies to a 99-cent store. “I’d rather not work at Jack in the Box, but I’ll take anything,” he said.

He is taking classes to be certified as a welder, hoping that federal stimulus money will lead to jobs. Julie plans to study medical coding and billing.

She said she has changed her lifestyle, shopping at the 99-cent store, clipping coupons, eating at home and washing her car by hand. She wishes she didn’t have to rely on her mother-in-law.

“I hate it,” she said. “But thankfully we have his mom’s house to move into.”

Jason said he worries about jeopardizing his relationship with his mother if they have to stay too long. “Hopefully we won’t drive my mother crazy,” he said.

The family is trying to make saving money and living together fun. They post their market receipts on the wall, circling their savings.

On a recent afternoon, Suzi and Julie walked through Ralphs with their coupons, looking for the best deals. As they calculated which potatoes were cheaper, Julie -- a self- described shop-aholic -- picked one and said with a chuckle, “Remember? I’m the professional. This is my retail therapy now.”

For some families, the honeymoon already has ended.

Maria Garnica, her husband and their two children are sharing their two-bedroom apartment in East Los Angeles with five members of her husband’s family. The relatives moved in over the last year because of rising rents and lost jobs. There are bunk beds in Garnica’s living room and makeshift beds on the couch and the floor.

“There is no privacy anymore,” said Garnica, 29, who works at a day-care center. “Before I had my living room. Now everyone is in my living room.”

Before, Garnica said, she used to relax on her couch in the afternoons before cooking dinner. Now, she goes straight to her room after work and rarely cooks because she said preparing meals for nine people is too much like working in a restaurant.

There are two refrigerators and they don’t share food. They try to give each other space, she said, but too many people are crammed into a small apartment. “You can feel the tension,” she said.

But Garnica said living on their own isn’t an option. Her husband, who worked at a printing company, was laid off last month. The relatives pay half of the $1,600 rent.

“I have no choice,” she said. “We do need them for the income.”

She knows that isn’t likely to change for a while.

Adrea Bellenbaum’s time living with family, however, soon may be over.

After graduating from UC Riverside in 2008 with a degree in political science, Bellenbaum moved in with her father in a senior citizen complex in Hemet, thinking she would find a job and be back on her own within a month. She hid in the apartment so her father wouldn’t get evicted.

“I couldn’t find a job to save my life for three months,” she said. “It was definitely a reality check. . . . I kind of thought I would have my act together by the age of 25.”

She found a minimum-wage job stocking shelves at a craft store 40 minutes away. The paycheck didn’t go far, so she contributed by cleaning and buying some food. Last month, she and her father moved in with his girlfriend, who worked in real estate and couldn’t afford her own mortgage.

Finally, Bellenbaum’s resume, degree and determination paid off; she got an entry-level offer for a government job in Washington, D.C., and is waiting for a background check.

Now she is trying to save money for moving costs. Bellenbaum said she is thankful that her father, a truck driver, has been able to help.

“Otherwise I would have been on the street,” she said.




Getting along with one another

Orange County clinical psychologist Patricia Yglesias says merging households can cause conflict and stress in families. She suggests these strategies:

Set a budget for the household and decide how the responsibilities and bills will be divided.

Discuss expectations beforehand and continue communicating if issues arise.

Be aware of the different family roles and try not to revert to old patterns or reignite old tensions.

Be respectful of relatives’ space and privacy, and find ways to create some time apart by planning free or inexpensive excursions outside the house.

Seek out professional help if necessary.

Source: Patricia Yglesias