Roommates: The Part Of Gentrification That We Never Talk About

In roommate situations, the wealth gap between Black and white people provides context for unequal power dynamics.
Nylah Burton Jan, 16, 2019

Last February I moved from Washington, D.C., to the sprawling city of Denver. But most neighborhoods close to my new job were overwhelmingly white and expensive. I got a roommate to help with the expensive part. But because Denver is White Wakanda, I didn’t have much choice about sharing my living space with a white person.

Of course the foolishness started almost immediately. First she told me that she “mostly liked to hang out with Black people,” but when we said the N-word, we made her “uncomfortable.” Then she flung open my bedroom door at 3 a.m.; she had called the police and an ambulance and firefighters because … she had diarrhea. Just a couple of days earlier, I had told her that police interactions make me fear for my life.

Also, she never cleaned the common spaces—not once. After three months and two failed attempts at making a cleaning schedule, I sat her down and explained that it was simply unacceptable to do things like leave s— in the toilet. I also stressed that her dependence on me made me feel like a mammy or a maid. That’s when homegirl flipped. She claimed that my “false accusations” were aggressive. She said, “And I’m offending you as a Black woman?!?! What the f— do you mean by that?”

I knew that if Stomachache Stacy would call the police for wet poops, then she would definitely call them on me for introducing her ass to my foot. So I just moved out. I was able to live with my partner, but many in my situation would have had to pay at least $1,200 a month for a studio, get another white roommate and risk more drama, or move out of the city for cheaper housing.

Gentrified neighborhoods and predominantly white areas are where most job and educational opportunities are located. Getting a roommate is one of the few ways that low-income people can afford to live in proximity to those opportunities. My own experience, however, made me wonder how accessible this option is for people of color, who statistically have less wealth and income than their white peers. I found that there didn’t seem to be any research on the topic of interracial-roommate situations and how they contribute to inequality and gentrification.

To get clarity, I spoke to Dr. Tiffany Green, an assistant professor of health behavior and policy at Virginia Commonwealth University. Green confirmed that unemployment tends to be much higher outside of cities and that moving into cities brings economic opportunities. The problem, she says, is that gentrification frequently makes those opportunities inaccessible to Black and brown people.

Having a roommate, Green insists, is nothing but putting a Band-Aid on a gaping wound. It’s not a solution to the problem, because rent doesn’t get lower—it’s just being split. In fact, economists have shown that when people share homes, it actually raises rents in the area, speeding up gentrification.

For interracial-roommate situations, Green thinks that the wealth gap between Black and white people provides context for unequal power dynamics. In cases of rising racial tension between roommates, white people are more likely to have access to financial support (including co-signers) that makes getting an apartment by themselves much easier. If you are Black, Green says, “You’re much less likely to have family wealth to fall back on to help you with rent and other costs. It’s a legacy of the systemic ways that Black people were prevented from building wealth since slavery. Until we address the wealth gap, these problems in housing [will continue].”

Unequal power dynamics are exhausting to navigate. Nathan (whose name has been changed)—a gender-nonconforming Jewish Nicaraguan, first-generation American who resides in Boston—had a white roommate who constantly “demanded emotional and intellectual labor,” especially around Nathan’s intersection of race and queerness.

But Nathan had to grit their teeth through microaggressions, making  “a choice between false comfort and conflict.” Instigating an argument would cause Nathan’s housing situation to become unstable, which did eventually happen.

For Nathan, living with someone who shares aspects of their identity is not just a matter of comfort but one of safety. For example, when a neighborhood is “prime for gentrification” or is predominantly white, policing of Black and brown people increases.

When I spoke to people of color for this article, I heard an overwhelming number of stories about sexual harassment, discrimination in dorms and false accusations of theft. When I spoke to a few of my white friends about their roommate experiences, they were mostly positive or neutral. One of them said that her only complaint was that her roommate didn’t buy organic cleaning products.

Roommates can be awful, no matter what race they are. But for Black people and other people of color, living with white people can seem like a huge risk. When it turns sour, it can feel as if you’re suffocating. As a result, people of color continue their forced exodus from bustling cities of opportunity.  

If we’re to truly understand housing inequality, I think we need to devote more research to this subject. There are so many ways that white people are able to get an economic advantage over people of color, and having a greater sense of security when choosing roommates is one of them.