Living with strangers

With little room for manoeuvre in the St. John’s housing market, more and more people are turning to renting single rooms in shared homes as an affordable solution.

Emily Jackman in her house, which she shares with strangers
Emily Jackman, a student at Memorial University in St. John’s, chose to rent a single room with two strangers. She said setting boundaries was the key to making living with strangers a positive experience. Arlette Lazarenko/Kicker.


Arlette Lazarenko

For many in the St. John’s housing market, renting a place is too costly and competition is fierce, leading some to opt for a more affordable solution – renting a single room.

Emily Jackman had no idea who she would be living with.

After graduating high school, she moved from Marystown to St. John’s to pursue a degree. She had lived with friends and then with a partner, but it didn’t work out for her. But when she looked for a new place, instead of living on her own, she decided to rent a room with roommates again, this time with two strangers.

“When I moved here, the main person who lived here was at her home in Gander,” said Jackman. “She didn’t come back till two weeks later, so I lived here alone for two weeks, which I liked because it gave me an adjustment period.”

At first, her room was her sanctuary. She wouldn’t go out of her room besides the kitchen to grab a bite or outside the house for school. It took her about four months to feel comfortable enough to hang out with her roommates in the shared spaces.

“I can either live with a friend and potentially lose them if a conflict arises or I could live with a stranger and keep the relationship professional and potentially make a friend.”

-Emily Jackman

Unable to afford a place all to herself, Jackman says she also wanted to live with other people.

“I think it (living on my own) would be a little bit lonely and a little bit boring. I like to be with people as long as I’m comfortable with them. But either way, it would have been a financial burden, especially now,” she said.

Jackman isn’t working. She occasionally did part-time jobs, but now she is focused on graduating from Memorial University with a bachelor of technology.

Another person who felt the sting of high rental costs is international student Idris Bamigbayan who arrived in St. John’s on Dec. 31 to do a masters in community health at MUN.

“I was on Facebook marketplace every 30 minutes sending messages to people without luck, and I got so frustrated,” he said.

It was finally through the MUN listing for available apartments that he found a few places within his means. Those places were individual rooms.

“I’m the kind of person who likes my space,” said Bamigbayan. “But a studio apartment was way above my budget, and I didn’t want to rent a room to share with others, but I had no other option.”

He lives with three other people. Each has his own room, and the rest they share.

The high demand in housing is a familiar sight to Andrew Osmond, a realtor working for Bluekey Realty Inc. He recently helped one of his clients list their three-bedroom apartment for rent. In the span of 24 hours, they got 80 requests.

“I know it does exist, but in my travels, it’s very uncommon,” said Osmond about the renting of individual rooms.

The vacancy rate in St. John’s is currently three per cent, according to the most recent figures from Canada Mortgage and Housing. It’s the largest drop in a decade.

Usually, he says, landlords will offer a whole unit, but later some can rent individually per room. The fierce competition can leave people with no options at all.

“I’ve seen more and more homeless people in the city,” he said. “I remember walking around Mundy Pond this fall and seeing three tents there at 7 a.m. in the morning, right next to the road. I don’t believe these people were camping; they probably had nowhere else to go.”

Strangers, safety and boundaries under one house

Jackman says the fact she knew she would be sharing a house with two other women made her less concerned about her safety.

It was a leap of faith, said Jackman.

“I didn’t even know the name of the other person before I moved in, said Jackman about her roommates. “I didn’t even see a picture of these people because it was on Kijiji. But safety didn’t really cross my mind.”

For Bamigbayan, his feelings were a little different.

“I was a little concerned because I wasn’t sure about the kind of people that were there,” he said.

“But then, after speaking to them a few times, I was more relaxed.”

From school to his room, Bamigbayan said he likes the quiet and peace of his room, spending little time in the shared spaces.

“It took some time to adjust – and I’m still adjusting,” he said.

Living with strangers can be similar to a professional environment, with certain expectations and regulations in place.

Bamigbayan and his roommates have a WhatsApp group where they inform each other of the growing pile of dishes or excessive noise by a particular roommate.

Jackman and her two roommates have an app to keep track of tasks around the house. This week, one of the roommates is on vacation. Jackman is doing all her tasks. Next week, however, Jackman’s tasks will be done by the roommate.

“I find when you set the boundaries of how things are run and kept clean in the first week with a new roommate, everything else goes much smoother,” Jackman said.

For Jackman, living with strangers had positive aspects.

“I can either live with a friend and potentially lose them if a conflict arises, or I could live with a stranger and keep the relationship professional and potentially make a friend.”

If things do get messy, the Newfoundland and Labrador Housing Corporation has a 24-hour emergency shelter.

“It’s there to support anyone experiencing or at risk of homelessness,” said Jenny Bowring, the communications manager for the corporation.

Bowring also said they are working in partnership with the Office of Women and Gender Equality and the Transition House Association of Newfoundland and Labrador to support anyone facing domestic abuse.

From strangers to friends

For Bamigbayan, a major benefit he gained from living with strangers was being exposed to other cultures. Coming from Nigeria, he spent a few months at a U.S. university last summer before arriving in Newfoundland.

“I would try new foods that my American roommates cooked, and we would have conversations from perspectives I had never considered,” he said. “It felt really good. That’s why I wasn’t too worried to try renting a room again in St. John’s.”

While roommates have come and gone, Jackman has lived with one roommate for 2.5 years, and they have become fast friends.

“In the first four months we learned how to live with each other. I think that’s why we became such good friends because there’s never any issues about anything to do with the house at all. We learned how to live together before we became friends.”


Arlette Lazarenko is a journalist and editor for Kicker News. She is an avid reader with a passion for people, culture and technology. She lives in St. John’s with her husband.

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