Nervous San Diegans try to share houses

Please don't be a weirdo

“Single mom seeks same to share my home,” Christine Bevilacqua’s Craigslist ad reads. “$700 includes all utilities, laundry, internet, [satellite] TV, master bedroom and bathroom. Depressed, uptight, or lazy women need not apply.”

Bevilacqua isn’t quite a single mother — at least not in the traditional sense. Sure, she is currently raising three daughters on her own, but she’s not exactly single. Her husband, Edward Bevilacqua, is, at the time of this writing, awaiting transfer to prison at the Vista Detention Facility, where he is beginning to serve out what he and his wife hope will be three years of a seven-year sentence. The story is as follows: Eight months ago, the internet-kiosk business the two started was raided by the FBI based on the (correct) suspicion that members were operating what the Union-Tribune describes as a “20 million [dollar] Ponzi scheme.”

The details may be convoluted, but Bevilacqua, 37, is adamant that her husband is innocent and that other employees are responsible for the company’s transgressions. Blonde and petite, Bevilacqua sits at the kitchen table of her rented home, one she will soon be leaving for much smaller accommodations.

“[My husband] was in jail for so long because he was refusing to plead to something he didn’t do and was pushed and pushed and pushed by the public defender’s office to take a deal,” she explains. “And, finally, the judge gave him an ultimatum: ‘If you don’t plead and you go to trial and lose, I’m going to be very heavy-handed with sentencing.’ ”

For Bevilacqua, who has been a stay-at-home mom for ten years, and her daughters, aged 5, 8, and 10, this means a drastic cut in income and the eventual relocation from their 6000-square-foot home in Bonsall to the modest yellow Fallbrook one-story they currently occupy. It also means that Bevilacqua has had to get a job and, ultimately, a roommate.

Hence the ad on Craigslist, in which Bevilacqua has outlined her willingness to sacrifice her “sanctuary,” the house’s master bedroom.

“I just can’t keep paying the rent here,” she says honestly, as the evening light fades in a window overlooking the quarter-acre property the house sits on. “I mean, family’s been helping me, but that can’t go on.”

The current economic crisis hasn’t made things any easier. Even with her job as an administrative assistant for a wholesale florist — her first salaried position in ten years — Bevilacqua is finding it difficult to support herself and three children under 12.

Her daughters, she says, are not “too traumatized,” but are having some trouble adjusting to their new, more frugal lifestyle. The major differences? No Disneyland, says Bevilacqua, and fewer meals out.

“They still ask me for stuff,” she says. “I tell them, ‘I’ve explained to you guys that we just have money for the basics.’ And they’re getting it.”

While Bevilacqua’s case may be unique, due to her husband’s unfortunate circumstances, her situation is not. There are dozens of other families who, like Bevilacqua, are seeking a roommate — sometimes more than one.

Rhonda Wallace found herself in a similarly tight spot when she moved back to San Diego in September from Las Vegas, where she and her 21-year-old son were staying with her eldest daughter. In San Diego, Wallace, 52, found and “fell in love” with the Spanish-style, one-story house in Talmadge she now rents. The back-patio view, which looks out over shrub-filled canyons and Fairmont Avenue, sold her on the place, and she doesn’t want to leave.

For the past three years, Wallace has been living off the proceeds from the 2006 sale of her house in Seattle, but now finds herself short on money. Even with her current job as a customer-service representative, funds are tight.

“I have not been this poor…ever,” she says matter-of-factly, as she smokes a Kool on her back patio. “I’m just not handling poverty well.”

Currently, Wallace has two roommates, a single father with every-other-weekend custody of his three-year-old, and a single woman, along with her 21-year-old son. Wallace says she hasn’t had to live in a shared home for years. Though she likes her roommates, describing them as “courteous and cordial,” she is definitely not used to sharing space with strangers.

“Having to live together with someone like we’re 20 years old, it’s hard,” she says.

The original plan was for a friend of her son’s to move in with the two of them, but that fell through shortly after their relocation from Las Vegas. In need of extra financial support, Wallace ran an internet ad and promptly found her female roommate. After putting up a “For Rent” sign around the corner from her home, she got her second roommate, the single father, who works not far away.

With Wallace’s son, who attends cosmetology school full-time, the grand total of additional housemates amounts to three — aside from Wallace herself, who acknowledges that things are for the most part working out.

“Everybody’s kind of independent; we all do our own thing,” she says. “It’s not like we all sit around and watch TV together like we’re a big family unit. It’s just not…it’s not weird, like I thought it would be.”

Recently, though, there have been bumps in the road. The single father, says Wallace, has started to skip out on his share of the rent.

“He told me he had tons of money, that he had enough to pay his bills and split the rent and utilities,” she recalls. “Come to find out, one day, when it’s time for rent, I had to cover his share because he showed me this court document where he had been kicked out of an apartment where him and his wife had lived. And that’s why he couldn’t pay me the rent. His wages were garnished.”

Wallace didn’t use a specific screening process for her renters, instead relying on intuition. This, surprisingly, is not uncommon. Julie Sampson, 33, who rents out a room in her home, as well as a granny flat on her property, uses the same method when finding tenants.

Her current renter, a fellow single mother and son, was a Craigslist find, a “really nice” woman whom Sampson felt she could trust. She had a steady job and, according to Sampson, “That was pretty much it.”

The house she owns in Rainbow, which sits amidst wholesale nurseries and avocado farms, is a three bedroom that she, her seven-year-old boy, and two roommates (also a mother and son) occupy. Half hidden by trees and shrubs, Sampson’s home is impeccably neat inside, despite her claim that she is a bad housekeeper. No one would guess that four people — two under ten — live there, save for a plethora of school pictures and academic certificates hung in places of honor on the wall.

Sampson, unlike Bevilacqua and Wallace, has had plenty of previous tenants, a few of them friends.

“Once I split up with my son’s dad, I wasn’t getting the same support that I was when he was living here,” Sampson says matter-of-factly.

It’s mid-morning, and she is sitting barefoot on the couch, dressed for the day in a black skirt and a shirt that reveals a tattoo of her seven-year-old son’s name inked across her collarbone.

“Actually,” she continues, “what first happened was a couple, a friend of mine and her then fiancé, wanted to move down to San Diego from L.A., and they were living in hotels. I said, ‘Why don’t you just stay here and drive down to San Diego every day and look for a place and job?’ So they stayed here, and then they gave up on finding a job in San Diego, and they decided they were going to just look around here. They wanted to rent this room, so I said okay.”

After they moved out, an acquaintance of Sampson’s — and the mother of one of her son’s classmates — expressed an interest in taking their place. Along with her three children, this woman received subsidized support via the government and worked it out so that Sampson was named her designated childcare provider. A stay-at-home-mom for her son’s seven years, Sampson took the job.

“Since my son was born, every job, with the exception of one, has been in childcare,” Sampson, who is otherwise unemployed and currently taking classes in creative writing at Palomar Community College, says. “I did that so I could stay home with my son, so that I didn’t have to work and pay for childcare elsewhere. But now he’s at the point where he’s at school until 3:00. The rest of the day, until 6:00, I can send him to — if I were to get a job — afterschool care, and it’s only $7 a day. Before that, I would have been paying a lot more for childcare, and it wasn’t worth it. Watching other people’s kids was beneficial.”

The children and Sampson’s son, whom Sampson describes as both a “good kid” and a “big pain in the ass,” got along fairly well, except for one of the children.

“My son and [the tenant’s] youngest daughter just butted heads,” Sampson says, “but I still continued to watch the kids until [the tenant] ended up losing her job. She worked at that restaurant [near the house] that closed, so then she didn’t have a reason for me to watch her kids anymore.”

Sampson’s current tenant, by contrast, is rarely around, working later hours at an urgent-care facility and returning home with her son — who stays at his grandparents’ and is enrolled in afterschool care — on the later side of the evening. At the time of this writing, they are currently moving out.

Being a single parent and living with near-strangers is a bit of a risk, Sampson, Bevilacqua, and Wallace all acknowledge. But each, as mentioned before, selected roommates based on good faith.

“She was a single mom, she was really nice, and she had a job,” says Sampson of her latest tenant. “That was pretty much it for me. There were two other people that had wanted to rent, and I chose her, mainly because she was a single mom, and I trusted her because she was nice. I [didn’t] picture her needing a background check, for some reason.”

Wallace didn’t conduct any sort of check, either.

“I just kind of went on my gut intuition,” she says. “I was looking for somebody who was normal and stable and had a job.”

She does understand that there is a safety concern, especially with her son involved, in letting people she doesn’t know into her home.

“I don’t know [my roommates] from Adam, so I don’t know what comes with them,” she says. “So the first time one of their friends shows up at the door, it’s, like, ‘Okay, and who are you?’ It’s awkward.”

Sampson, unlike Wallace, says she doesn’t particularly want to rent to a single man, if she doesn’t have to. “I mean, I guess this is kind of sexist, but if [my renter] were a single man, I would probably at least check the Megan’s Law website and make sure he wasn’t a sex offender. I can’t even say that I’d want a single man in my house. I guess I’m prejudiced. I mean, I’m not scared of a woman. I don’t want a man around my child. A woman could do just as much damage, but I guess I just don’t think like that.”

The lack of background checks appears to be common, while relying on intuition seems to be the preferred screening method. Liz Drewry, who currently rents from a single mother in Mira Mesa, says she was interviewed at length by the woman she lives with but was not asked for references — which she has.

“I offered references because I have them, but she didn’t want them,” she says, sitting outside a Starbucks in her parents’ neighborhood of Rancho Bernardo, hair pulled back in a neat ponytail. “And it was the same thing with the other family I lived with. I guess I just looked trustworthy.”

Drewry, 24, has lived with three families, the first a single mother with a son in the Rancho Bernardo/Carmel Mountain Ranch area for $500 dollars a month, the second a married couple with three girls in Serra Mesa for $600 a month, and, currently, a single mother of two in Mira Mesa for $650 a month. Her current room is 12 x 18 feet.

She says she likes the family atmosphere more than rooming with friends because she finds it eliminates certain aspects of shared living that frequently come with the early-20s set.

“It’s definitely a different dynamic,” she says. “You get home from work, and instead of everyone just lounging around and playing video games, someone’s making dinner — usually mom — and the kids are doing their homework, and there’s less of a worry of who’s going to come in at two in the morning, drunk or whatever, which has never been a good thing for me.”

While she doesn’t directly help with childcare, Drewry does interact with the two girls, who are 10 and 12, as she has full access to the house and is considered a member of the household.

“I’ve actually offered several times to pick the girls up from school because I get off work a lot earlier than [their mother] does, but she’s always declined,” Drewry says. “I think she doesn’t want to cross that line. But I’ll help the girls with their homework. I definitely help them with their homework because their mom obviously has been out of school a lot longer, and she doesn’t remember stuff like pre-algebra. She’s got one more year before I’m out, too. I told her, ‘I can do this, but next year, you’re on your own!’ ”

So far, Drewry reports, things are working out terrifically. She likes the woman she lives with and the two girls, the eldest of whom she shares a bathroom with, and they are kind and polite to her.

There are, though, she says, times when it can get complicated living with a family, especially when the line between “tenant” and “caregiver” are blurred in the eyes of young children.

“It’s less complicated for me with these girls, especially because they’re older, and they understand that I’m not actually a parent,” she says. “And I’m sure that their mom sat down and explained to them that ‘Lizzie is an adult who will be living with us, which means that if she tells you something, you need to do it, but she’s not a parent, so you don’t go to her with problems.’ ”

With the previous family Drewry lived with, a husband and wife, each with a four-year-old daughter from a previous marriage and an infant together, she had less interaction with the kids, more often observing their behavior. The two four-year-olds got along well, she says, which surprised her.

“They were like best friends,” Drewry says. “They loved each other. It’s bizarre. [The parents] had been married for about two years so [the two girls] had known each other since they were two. But…I always felt like there was maybe a little more resentment from the one who lived there full-time than she was able to vocalize at four.”

She also recalls sometimes witnessing temper tantrums thrown by that child.

“Her parents reacted exactly the way all the child-rearing books say you should: you don’t react,” says Drewry, who has no children of her own. “You let her throw the temper tantrum, and you don’t give her any attention for it. Eventually, she’d stop because she wasn’t getting the reaction she wanted, but then like two days later she’d do the same thing. And this was repeated. I said something to the mom, and she said she thought [her daughter] had picked it up from some kids at her day care.”

Despite this, Drewry decided, albeit after deliberation, to live with another family. After the husband and wife bought a house too far for Drewry to commute to work from, she moved into a four-bedroom house with roommates. When that lease was up, she posted an ad on Craigslist, which the woman she currently rents from replied to.

“I had moved back in with my parents because what the hell else was I going to do?” she says, laughing. “And my mom announced that I was not allowed to move out unless I got a license and a car. So, I got a car, and I had a boyfriend at the time, and I was ready to go. I was 22 or 23, this was the third time I had moved in with my parents, and I was over it. So I posted an ad saying what I was looking for, and [she] responded and said, ‘How do you feel about kids?’ I almost didn’t even reply.”

In the end, she met with the woman, and it seemed like — and appears to actually be — a good fit.

The one concern Drewry has is what will happen when the eldest daughter, who is now 12, begins the arduous process of puberty. The house is situated so that Drewry’s room, a converted garage, leads directly into the girl’s room, which Drewry says is not an issue now but may become one later.

“She hasn’t started all of the fun high school things that happen,” says Drewry, with a wry smile. “I know that every kid’s different, but I’m concerned that once that happens, she’s going to feel less comfortable with me walking through her room all the time and that kind of stuff. My big concern is what’s going to happen when she hits puberty and possibly desires more privacy for whatever reason.”

Luckily for Drewry, that hasn’t happened yet, and she, the mother, and the girls operate like…well, a family, something that surprises her and the mother alike. The mother, Drewry says, had several potential renters that desired more privacy than could be offered.

“I can watch TV in the living room if I want to,” Drewry says. “I can use anything in the kitchen. [The mother], if she’s making dinner, will often fix me a plate, which was not included in the original agreement and is fantastic of her. But [other potential renters] wanted to just rent a room and not interact with anyone and [the mother] said, ‘I can’t give someone that. I have kids. I can’t promise that they’ll never come and want you to watch American Idol with them.’ ”

Some who rent from families, in contrast to Drewry, rarely see those with whom they cohabitate.

Eddie Dunn, 28, rented a tiny room from a single mother and her 17-year-old son for a four-month period last year in Oceanside. He paid $500 a month for a room that was roughly 10 x 10 feet. During that time, he barely came in contact with either.

“I seriously saw [the mother] if she was leaving for work or taking out the trash,” Dunn, a slight man dressed in a button-down shirt and sweater, says. “I saw [the son] fewer [times] than I did her, just because he was in school. I heard them at night when they were home and whatnot.”

For Dunn, who, unlike Drewry, did not have access to the house aside from his room, which he entered via the patio, this worked out well.

“I prefer to live alone,” he says. “So what was cool about this was that I basically felt like I lived alone because I never saw them. I had my own space, had my own bathroom, and I kind of did my own thing.”

Dunn moved to San Diego from Boise, Idaho, in 2008 to attend the American Academy of Golf, from which he has since graduated. He came with a $500 monthly budget and, before leaving Boise, made contact with his now-former roommate.

“She held the spot for me for a month; it was great,” he says. “[And] I took a risk with it. I had only spoken with her on the phone a couple of times. I think I gave her some references but she was…I guess she was kind of blind going into it, if you will.”

While he enjoyed living there, despite the smallness of the room, Dunn says he’d rather not live in a family situation again.

“Not because of that situation; that situation was great,” he is quick to say. “I’ve got no complaints. It was a lot of fun; I got what I needed out of it, and I moved on. But entering into a family again, no. I either want to live alone or find some decent roommates.”

These days, it seems increasingly hard for families to find renters. Even though, as evidenced by Drewry and Dunn, there are those who are willing and able to do so, Sampson, Bevilacqua, and Wallace aren’t having much luck finding tenants.

Sampson reports that she received one reply regarding her ad, but says the woman sounded “a little bit off.”

Wallace is having similar problems and is getting few responses to her numerous ads on Craigslist.

“None. Zero. Zip,” she says, of her success. “And if you put an ad for a roommate on Craigslist, you would not believe the cockamamy stories that you get. Oh. ‘I presently live in the U.K., I’m 23, I’m a student…’ Unbelievable.”

A lot of these are scam offers, she says, from people overseas who want to send her checks for the house’s full rental amount, and then for her to send back an amount equal to the total rent minus their portion.

Other than that, Wallace says, her email inbox has been fairly quiet. “A couple called the other day, a husband and wife with a kid. But no, we can’t do that.”

Though the occasional visit from the single father’s three-year-old boy doesn’t bother her, as she has three grown children and a few grandkids of her own, the drama of a couple, she says, would be too much.

Still struggling to find someone else to fill the fourth roommate slot, Wallace may need to find another way to pay her rent.

“Now, trying to find a job? The job market is horrible; I can’t find a regular job, and at 52, starting out…” She sparks up another cigarette. “I not only have empty-nest syndrome, since the kids are grown and whatever, I have empty life syndrome. Where do I get a job? Who’s going to hire somebody who’s 52? I just thought my life would be so different at 52, and it’s just such a piece of crap right now.”

Bevilacqua is also not getting the responses she needs. She says she was contacted by a few potential renters, but that they eventually stopped communicating with her.

“I spoke with two women, briefly, and sort of told them about myself,” she says. “Then there was a woman that had a trailer, a 35-foot RV, who was going to park on the property. I’ve got a quarter-acre all fenced in here, and that sounded like it was going to work out great. She was going to pay me $400 a month, which now isn’t enough [since finding out that her husband was not going to trial and would not be home for several years] — this was a few months ago — to park here. She’d kick in a little bit more once we saw how the electric bill was affected by her plugging in to the house. And she was just going to mind her own business and come and go and do her own thing. It was going to be great, but she disappeared. She literally stopped returning my calls. I was so disappointed. She seemed for real.”

Bevilacqua pauses. “But, whatever,” she says.

Meanwhile, she’s still hopeful and has a back-up plan: moving into a one-bedroom apartment in Carlsbad with her three girls. It’ll be a tight fit, she anticipates, but the family will work it out somehow.

“Someone I know owns the building,” Bevilacqua says, “so that’s my next move, but [the apartment is]…teeny tiny. That’s going to be the biggest adjustment. But my theory is, if we have to live in a tiny apartment…it’s like half a block from the beach. I’m not going to live in the middle of Vista because that’s going to be zero fun. I’m going to put all my stuff in storage, and we’ll make do. We’ll live at the beach and make new friends.”

Wallace, on the other hand, is still nervous about her situation. The single father, she says, started to behave strangely and has now been absent for some time.

“I don’t know where he’s been staying or what he’s been doing, but that’s why I kind of have a feeling he’s going to move out and leave me holding the bag,” she says. “And I’ve asked him, ‘Are you sure you’re going to have the rent on Monday, are you sure?’ And he says, ‘Yeah, yeah, yeah.’ Like when he gave me the utilities the other day, I [asked], ‘Okay, you’ve got the rent covered?’ And he said, ‘Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah,’ but I am just very uneasy. I don’t believe him.”

Sampson’s not sure what she’s going to do next.

“Honestly, living here has been great, but it’s getting a little old, and my son’s not particularly attached to the school,” she says. “I was thinking, I have some family in Guatemala, [that I would] take him down there, learn Spanish and live there for a while, or go down to San Diego and go to school, and he could go to school.”

She glances out a nearby window, looking wistful.

“I don’t know,” she says.

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I enjoy stories about ponzi schemes. :D

Thank you for writing about this. There is so much talk in the media about the recession and foreclosures and little discussion of how people are coping. What an interesting sign of the times that you have single mothers looking for other single mothers to share rent with. I admire the strength and ingenuity of these women.

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