Tough economy forces Victoria woman, others into cooperative living situation

Jan. 7, 2012 at 11:02 p.m.
Updated Jan. 7, 2012 at 7:08 p.m.

Fiction writing is one of Kay Johnson's passions. Johnson has struggled for years with finances and marriage and now finds herself living with friends in their spare rooms.

Fiction writing is one of Kay Johnson's passions. Johnson has struggled for years with finances and marriage and now finds herself living with friends in their spare rooms.

In her wide-eyed, hopeful younger days, Kay Johnson envisioned herself living in a big, picture perfect farmhouse.

But after nearly a year of retirement, two divorces, $35,000 worth of debt and a bad credit history, Johnson's American dream has been significantly downsized to bouncing between a loft above her friend's living room and a trailer without a stove, shower and clean water that she shares with her ex-husband.

"I still had a 20-year-old brain thinking that everything will be OK, but at 53, I feel differently," said Johnson, as she wiped tears from her eyes. "It's just very frustrating and sad."

Like a growing number of adults, a dire financial situation has forced Johnson into a cooperative living situation, otherwise known as adult roommates.

Cooperative living is formally described as a living arrangement or home-sharing situation in which two or more individuals cohabitate under the same roof, allocate expenses and divide responsibilities, without sharing a romantic or marital relationship.

According to 2010 census data, among unrelated people, a variety of living arrangements have flourished among all ages, including cooperative living, unmarried partner couples and especially multigenerational households.

Enacting their own anti-poverty program, more Americans have moved in with relatives to form multigenerational households.

From 2007 to 2009, the total number of adults residing in a multigenerational living situation jumped from 46.5 million to 51.4 million, marking the largest increase in the number of Americans living in multigenerational households in modern history, according to a recent Pew Research study on ways Americans are fighting poverty in a bad economy.

Seth Forman, professor of public policy at Stony Brook University and author of the book "American Obsession: Race and Conflict in the Age of Obama," said these increasingly commonplace living situations are part of a 15-year trend that began with the burst of the housing bubble in the 2000s and was heavily impacted by the recent rising unemployment numbers and smaller paychecks.

Most housing markets have been bumping along rock bottom for the past year, said Forman, who pointed out that most new construction is multi-unit residential properties, not single-family homes.

Johnson, an Ohio native who moved to Victoria as a teen, has experienced multiple living arrangements throughout her life.

By age 26, she was married with two children and living a comfortable middle-class lifestyle in a spacious three-bedroom, two-bathroom house in a nice community.

"My ex-husband made good money," said Johnson, whose ex worked as an electrician. "I wanted my children to have nice things."

Although she had worked various daycare and clothing retail jobs while she was married, after her divorce from her first husband in 1994, Johnson found herself broke with the exception of a small amount of cash she had been able to stash away during her marriage and half of her ex's 401(K) that she had inherited after the couple split.

Johnson and her daughter went from living with relatives to living in apartments that she could afford on the sparse paycheck she received working as a teacher's aide in the Victoria school district.

She even began cohabitating with an ex-boyfriend for a short while, a decision that prompted Johnson's daughter to move in with her father.

In 1999, Johnson married for the second time, and the couple moved into a trailer home in Coletoville.

In a good year, the couple brought in a combined $32,000, but their annual finances averaged $25,000, said Johnson, as she described the couple's lack of financial investments or savings accounts.

"It was horrible. It would come down to, 'Can we pay this bill this month?'" said Johnson, who said her husband only worked menial jobs. "I always drove the crappiest car."

When the couple divorced in 2007, Johnson flitted between various friends' places, to moving in with her elderly mother, to eventually moving back in with her ex-husband, an alleged hoarder.

Unfit living conditions in the trailer forced Johnson to move into her friend's loft in October.

Divorce is a big contributor to cooperative living and multigenerational living situations, said Christine Clifford, CEO of Divorcing Divas, a company aimed at using education and resources to encourage and empower people going through a divorce.

"The single most devastating thing that happens to men and women when they are going through a divorce is they take a huge hit financially," said Clifford, 57, who is a two-time divorcee herself. "A lot of women are forced to go back into the workplace after staying home to raise children or possibly for the first time."

The days of divorcing and selling the family home and acquiring the equity to make a down payment on a new house or pay apartment deposits and rent are gone, said Forman.

"Now, most people getting a divorce have homes that are underwater, sometimes they even owe money on it," said Forman. "They are having a real tough time and have to get a roommate or downsize to an apartment in undesirable area."

Experts offered other explanations for the growing trend including cultural practices, the decline of marriage rates among non-college-educated individuals, security needs as well as the need for social companionship.

"To go from having someone in your life every day to having no one is shocking," said Clifford, who said it takes about two years to recuperate from a divorce. "Having a roommate is a transition."

Clifford suggested sites such as as a great away to meet other divorcees looking for a roommate.

Forman forecasted that living situations of these types will continue to grow in coming years based on government approaches to the economic situation.

"With the way government policy, both local and national, are going, there is going to be an increase in rental houses. Single-family homes will edge down," said Forman. "We cannot look to housing for the economic revival we want. That has been the engine for economic growth for the last century. The housing market is down and the prices will continue to follow."

For now, however, Johnson said she is making the best of her current situation.

"It's only right twice a day," Johnson said as she happily told the story behind her grandfather's broken railroad watch, along with several antiques, a worn Bible, and family photos spread around the loft she shares with her friend's exercise equipment, luggage, Christmas decorations and other overflow items.

"They are gone now. All I have are memories," said Johnson as she motioned toward pictures of her mother and a makeshift shrine she made for her brother's ashes, which she adorned with favorite Irish paraphernalia.

After going through the $21,000 retirement payout she received after leaving her job with the VISD, Johnson is making strides toward getting a place of her own, most likely through Section 8, by working as a site director for the Mission Valley YMCA after-school program.

Johnson, a grandmother of two, and who is bipolar, now receives a disability check.

"I would take a hand-me-down trailer house. I just want a place of my own. It doesn't have to be fancy. I just don't want rats or roaches," said Johnson, whose emotions quickly turned sad. "I look at my children, who have done so well. They own their own homes. I've worked all these years, and all I have to show is a car that will break down and a bunch of antiques, which my children will probably throw away after I die."

"All I have is my kids. That's the only good thing I've done," she said.

Looking back, Johnson, said she would do many things differently if she could turn back the hands of time.

"Don't waste your money. Don't blow it on stuff. Learn how to save it," Johnson said, addressing younger generations with words of advice.

She remains optimistic that tomorrow will be better than today.

"I have such a strong faith. God takes such good care of me," Johnson said. "God has been blessing me every single day in one way or another."



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