More and more families are doubling up in Colorado homes

Two Denver researchers have established it’s happening. Now they will try to determine why.

Jennifer Newcomer, director of the Piton Foundation's Shift Research Lab, attends a General Assembly event on gentrification, May 15, 2019. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

Jennifer Newcomer, director of the Piton Foundation's Shift Research Lab, attends a General Assembly event on gentrification, May 15, 2019. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

Donna Bryson. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

More Coloradans are living with friends, roommates and relatives now than before the economic decline of the late 2000s, according to Denver-based researchers who now plan to dig into the data to understand the implications of doubling up or couch surfing.

Jennifer Newcomer, director of the Piton Foundation’s Shift Research Lab, and Phyllis Resnick, executive director of the Colorado Futures Center, looked at census data to determine how many households included more than one family, related to one another or not. They found 415,000 such households in 2006 and 560,000 in 2017. The increase of 34 percent was more than twice the 16 percent increase in all households over that period. Newcomer and Resnick released their report Tuesday.

The two will next break down the incomes of the families who make up doubled-up households to determine whether they would be able to afford median-priced housing in their communities. That could shed light on the income gap as well as underline the importance of providing housing that low-income families can afford, Newcomer and Resnick told Denverite. Newcomer said preliminary testing of the data indicates economic stresses are contributing to the rise of doubling up, but that it is too soon to draw conclusions.

Doubling up is not necessarily bad, said Resnick, whose think tank focuses on economic issues. She lived with her parents for a few years after graduating from college “and it helped give me a leg up on my career.”

Urbanists may have chosen group living to promote density and affordability. Families may be living with and caring for an elderly relative. That older relative may be providing childcare for the grandchildren. Or two recent college graduates may be splitting the rent as they start their careers.

“We don’t want to be passing judgment on the choices that households make,” Resnick said.

But some families may be crowded together out of economic necessity. The federal department of Housing and Urban Development does not define such a situation as homelessness. But the U.S. Department of Education requires local school districts to identify and provide support to children living in homelessness or precarious situations such as doubling up. Families who move in with other families because, for example, they have been evicted can find such arrangements don’t last. In some cases, the host could be accused of breaking a lease because too many people are being sheltered, and the result could be two homeless families.

Newcomer and Resnick found that about 40 percent of Colorado’s doubled-up households are in rental units.

“There could be some real vulnerabilities,” Newcomer told Denverite. “We don’t know the degree people are secure in that housing situation.”

She and Resnick delved into the issue because of anecdotal evidence that doubling up was increasing along with housing prices as wages have lagged. The phenomenon has captured attention elsewhere in the country. Studies have linked crowded housing to diseases such as asthma. Children in crowded housing are seen as especially at risk of illness and their academic performance and behavior also has beens shown to be affected by poor living conditions.

The focuses of Newcomer’s Piton Foundation include childhood development and health. In Colorado, where much of the doubling up is along the Front Range, including in Denver, Newcomer and Resnick found that one in five of all the state’s children under six were living in doubled-up households in 2017, up from one in six in 2006.

“The thing that was most startling to us was how many little children are living in this situation,” Resnick said.

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