As a single parent, Gabriela Villagomez-Morales faces one question with uncomfortable regularity: What are you willing to do for your kids?
It’s the question Villagomez-Morales’ own mother asked her when, at the start of the pandemic, her job at a child care facility ended indefinitely. Other workers could tap into coronavirus relief, including enhanced unemployment payments, to keep the lights on and a roof over their heads. But despite being a taxpayer who contributes to that system, Villagomez-Morales and other undocumented immigrants couldn’t access those programs.
Without those payments, she had no way to make rent in the home she shared with her four children, ages 20, 18, 10 and 9. So when her mom posed the question, they both knew the answer.
To weather the coming months of uncertainty, Villagomez-Morales would have to move in with her sister, who had a large enough house with room for six kids between them; their mother; and her sister’s husband.
It felt like defeat, she said.
“It was hard for me, because I’ve been independent since I was 16,” said Villagomez-Morales, 37. “I talked to myself in my head, having conversations to myself, and I’m like, ‘Oh, I don’t really want to ask for help. Is there anybody else?’”
It was her mom who convinced her into it. “You are really brave for asking for help,” she told her. “Breathe. Take it easy. You’re doing it mostly for your kids.”
The 10 of them lived together (largely) harmoniously for almost a year at her sister’s home in Tacoma, Washington. Villagomez-Morales’ younger daughters helped with her sister’s two toddlers. Her mom pitched in, too, filling a needed child care gap that was plaguing families across the country and kicking women out of the labor force entirely.
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Part of the economic slump in the past two years was driven by the disappearance of millions of jobs predominantly held by women, including in child care, the industry that employed Villagomez-Morales and has a workforce that is about 95 percent women. From March to April 2020, 1 in 3 child care workers were out of work, and the industry is still missing about 124,000 jobs to return to pre-pandemic levels. Villagomez-Morales is back to work: In December 2020, after being unemployed for months, she got a job. In January 2021, she moved out of her sister’s house and into an apartment with her kids.
The move to cohabitation eased a significant amount of pressure for Villagomez-Morales at a time when parents, but especially single parents, were being squeezed on all sides — by child care, loss of work and extreme burnout. That, mixed with a housing market that has become increasingly inhospitable to low-wage people, and especially moms, has more single parents looking into the benefits of cohabitation to ride out the pandemic.
Though Villagomez-Morales was initially afraid of how cohabitating would impact her relationship with her sister, it worked surprisingly well.
“I noticed that because it was an emergency, she stepped up and I stepped up,” she said. “I have a really hard time asking for help, even when I need it. And in the end, it went well.”
The rise in cohabitation in the past two years is a manifestation of the severe pressure single parents are under — and, for some, it’s a potential long-term solution. For many, it solves two major pressure points: bringing down housing costs and providing additional child care support that has allowed parents to stay employed.
Between March and April 2020, more than 280,000 moms went from living alone to cohabiting with another adult, according to an analysis of U.S. Census Bureau data performed by The 19th in collaboration with Misty Heggeness, principal economist and senior adviser at the bureau. The overarching trend in cohabitation is similar whether single women have kids or not, but the monthly changes are often steeper for moms. Those relatively large and sudden changes in cohabitation for single moms generally line up with waves of coronavirus cases and their accompanying effects on school closings.
More broadly, one in 5 children live in a single-parent household, and single mothers head about 80 percent of those families, according to 2020 U.S. Census Bureau data. Nearly a third of families headed by single mothers are living under the federal poverty line, and more than half of them are led by Black moms or Latinas.
Historically, single mothers have held high labor force participation rates — in January 2020, they had the highest rate of any group of moms, with 81 percent working. But during the pandemic, their workforce participation rates saw the steepest decline, and non-White single mothers were hit the hardest: According to an analysis of census and Bureau of Labor Statistics data by Heggeness, Black single moms were leaving or losing jobs at a rate 7.5 percentage points higher in January 2021 compared with January 2020.
Across the labor force, mothers overall have experienced two brutally stressful years with similar trends, Heggeness said, “but I would say, for single mothers, the bluntness of it is more extreme.”
Many single moms clamored to return to work once jobs resumed, but they did it without the care or paid leave infrastructure in place to help them do it. Single mothers were more likely to work in jobs that did not have significant paid sick or family leave, for example. So when coronavirus cases dipped and then rose, closing schools and making child care untenable for working mothers, many had to take additional leave that threatened the stability of their jobs.
“What we see is this accelerating return to work with a lot of question marks — literally, how are they doing it?” Bauer said. “We’ve asked a lot of [single moms], and it is disappointing to me that following this we are not going to see sustained and permanent structural changes as yet to how we support caregivers.”
Meanwhile, rent prices have risen sharply in 2021 — single mothers are more likely to be renters than homeowners. Median rent for a two-bedroom rose nearly 14 percent between February 2021 and February 2022, according to a recent report from Zumper, a major rental listening platform. An April 2021 survey of single women who are heads of households by the federal mortgage lender Freddie Mac found that more than half were spending more than 30 percent — the recommended amount — of their income on rent. About 41 percent of Latina single moms said living alone was a financial struggle for them, compared with 25 percent of Black single moms and 27 percent of White single moms.
The uncertainty of work and housing has made cohabitation an attractive option, said Marika Lindholm, the founder of Empowering Solo Moms Everywhere (ESME), an online community for single mothers.
In her network, many mothers have talked about turning to coliving during the pandemic, when the level of “heartbreak and difficulty is just tenfold.” Some have had parents move in to help in the short term, while others have moved in with other single moms. Often the biggest hurdle is the stigma, Lindholm said. Moms who move back with family frequently talk about feeling as if they’ve failed. But, she said, “I don’t want moms blaming themselves when they’re being failed by a nation that has enough wealth.”
The idea of coliving, which isn’t new but has been building traction in the past decade, has caught on faster in two pandemic years that have weakened housing and financial stability for many. The growth in popularity of communal spaces, led by communal work spaces like WeWork, has led more developers to build units with coliving spaces in recent years, but those are largely inaccessible to low-income families and still few and far between.
What families are embarking on now is a patchwork of solutions built out of necessity, but which could change the way they think about cohabitation arrangements in the future.
Lindholm has seen the shift start to happen in the conversations mothers are having on her platform.
“Family support, friend support, I think it does open up possibilities for a different type of living arrangement that is probably far safer and more comforting and less stressful,” Lindholm said. “I'm seeing it already when I see moms searching – the other moms chime in and say, ‘That works really well.’”
The pandemic might be the mechanism through which rigid ideas about family structures and relationships are eroded. It has helped dismantle the idea that if you lived your life a certain way, you could be financially stable, said Andy Izenson, the senior legal director at the Chosen Family Law Center, a nonprofit that offers free legal support to LGBTQ+, polyamorous and other underserved families.
“If they were struggling before the pandemic, I think it’s safe to say that many of them had this narrative pushed on all slides, which is: The reason they’re struggling is because their family is in the wrong shape. That illusion is starting to disintegrate,” Izenson said.
Now, they’ve had more people coming into their office wanting to create coliving arrangements, primarily seeking help with contract wording. In some ways, it feels like more agency, they said — people are taking on whatever arrangement makes sense for their family and their financial wellbeing.
Small policy changes during the pandemic also helped push families in that direction. Emergency paid sick leave offered in 2020 through the first coronavirus stimulus package included a broader definition of the ways families could take leave and who qualified for it, expanding to be more inclusive of LGBTQ+ families and “chosen” family, like uncles raising nieces or friends living together — a change which also helped single parents.
The new law also extended to cover other family members who live in a parent’s home, like a sibling or an aunt, so those people would also be able to take sick leave to care for that parent’s child. That provision expired in December 2020.
“A lot of the hardships that solo parents face and many families face when they don’t meet this clear family model are being driven by the fact that our economy and our policies are really one-size-fits-all when it comes to family,” said Jessica Mason, senior policy analyst at the Partnership for Women and Families. “The relationship between family structure and the outcomes for parents and kids is that often if we are seeing worse outcomes for solo parents or people in families that are ‘nontraditional,’ it often gets blamed on people and their family structures.”
That’s where the pandemic has created an opportunity.
In Phoenix, the nonprofit group Helping Hands for Single Moms, which provides scholarships for single mothers attending school, is planning to reintroduce a program that will pair single mothers who want to try cohabitation. The program previously ran for a year in 2006, matching families based on personalities and building in accountability by requiring that mothers spend about five hours per week supporting each other in some kind of activity, such as child care.
The program was successful, but the nonprofit did not have the resources to keep it running. This year, it plans to kick it off again in Phoenix, noting that the need for alternative housing arrangements has risen as rental costs have also increased. Most moms in the program are earning about $12,000 at the start, and the majority are nursing students.
“Today we have a housing crisis. I know we’ve had moms moving back with their parents in some situations,” said Chris Coffman, the CEO of Helping Hands for Single Moms, which runs programs in both Phoenix and Dallas. He’s hoping to get funding support to help cover a portion of the rent for moms who move into the cohabitation model.
In Dallas, program director Jessica Dotson said coliving has also helped moms who have completed their degrees, but who still don’t have the financial footing to cover first and last month’s rent and other rental apartment application fees, for example.
There is also another benefit to coliving that is harder to quantify, she said. One thing that has stood out to Dotson is the help that comes from having someone close by who understands the challenges you face.
“The psychological response of having someone else walk in your shoes — you can just see their shoulders relax, just kind of a deep breath,” Dotson said. “I can see when someone else recognizes their struggle in a very genuine way, they relax. And the way they shoulder each other's trials is just, to me, very impressive.”
For single mothers like Holly Harper, who dove into cohabitation during the pandemic, the psychological benefits were a large part of why coliving has emerged as a lifeline in a dark period.
After both getting divorced around the same time, Harper and her friend Herrin Hopper started talking about the idea of buying a multifamily unit in Washington, D.C., that would afford them each similarly sized spaces with communal areas, and would also help them cut down costs and give them a sense of community that Harper had been fantasizing about most of her life.
It all came together quickly: In two weeks they had made an offer on a property in Tacoma Park — Harper used her divorce settlement to cover the down payment — and they moved in during the summer of 2020 with three kids between them, Harper’s 9-year-old and Hopper’s 10- and 13-year-old. They’ve since added a third tenant in the basement unit, another single mom who moved in with her 9- and 11-year-old. Their laissez-faire homeschooling pod and built-in support network were some of the greatest benefits of the arrangement, Harper said.
During the early months of the pandemic, “everyone was like, ‘We are so alone, we are stressed out,’ and we were like, ‘We’re not,’” she said.
There are also practical benefits: Harper has saved about $30,000 a year in the new space, spending about 26 percent less on housing with a mortgage payment instead of rent, and she has a space that is nearly 50 percent larger on a half-acre lot. And the kids get to enjoy the perks, too, in the form of a slackline, hammocks, scooters, and a trampoline they dragged over from a neighbor who was giving theirs away.
Harper wants to give more people the opportunity to take the coliving leap. She recently bought a three-unit home that she rents out to a single dad and two single moms.
“The structure is what’s right for me, period,” she said.