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A narrow brick apartment building that’s six stories tall with an ornate stone entrance. The edges of the photograph are surrounded by green leaves. Photo by Michelle Gerard

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Living with strangers: Detroit roommates find comfort, tension under quarantine

“I couldn’t imagine living alone right now,” one Detroit tenant says

The last names of the subjects in this story have been omitted to maintain their privacy.

Because she suffered a heart attack in 2018, Ellen has an underlying health condition and is at additional risk for complications from the novel coronavirus (COVID-19).

Further risks have arisen now that she lives with roommates in a three-bedroom, 850-square-foot apartment near Belle Isle. She and her housemate, Anthony, are on the same page about how to navigate the coronavirus pandemic while living together. The third housemate, not so much.

“He’s just young and oblivious to everything and just cares about himself,” Anthony says.

Their main complaint about Adrian is that he frequently leaves the house and they suspect he’s lying about where he’s been. Anthony says about Adrian that he’d rather go out “than follow the orders of the governor.” Ellen is also worried that Adrian isn’t washing his hands enough and keeping up with personal hygiene. When they try to talk to him, Anthony says, “He is totally unreceptive.”

The COVID-19 pandemic and Michigan’s subsequent stay-at-home order have forced roommates without familial ties to adapt to nearly constant, close-quarter living. It’s also created some uncomfortable and potentially unsafe conditions when roommates don’t comply with the governor’s order.

Under Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s “Stay Home, Stay Safe” executive order, all citizens have been directed to stay home and nonessential businesses are required to cease activity through April 30. People who violate the order can face up to a $1,000 fine for each violation, or $1,000 for each day that the violation occurred.

Anthony and Ellen say they’ve considered reporting Adrian to their landlord, but didn’t know you could report violators to the police or city’s health department. “I honestly had no clue that you could do that,” wrote Ellen in a message (to avoid being overheard by Adrian).

Not all Detroit roommates are dealing with high levels of tension. In West Village, housemates John and Mike are having a totally different experience, partially due to the extra space afforded to them by their 1,000-square-foot apartment and one fewer tenant.

Mike describes the apartment as separate having wings. “We’re very lucky,” he says. “I think we have the space to cope with each other and the situation pretty well.”

The weekend of March 14 and 15, when coronavirus in Michigan surpassed 30 confirmed cases and K-12 schools shut down, the two housemates prepared for the next few weeks. They disinfected all of their surfaces, stocked the kitchen with food, and haven’t left much since.

“We’re both taking it quite seriously,” John says.

Mike appreciates how their apartment’s management company is handling the outbreak. Management hired a professional cleaning crew that wipes everything in the hallways multiple times a day and has changed how they disperse packages.

But with their lease up in May, they’re preparing to have a conversation with their landlord. While they like their management company, prior to the outbreak they had hoped to sign someone to replace John. Now, that scenario is unlikely and they hope to do month-to-month for a while.

Under another executive order, evictions are prohibited until April 17. But after, they’ll resume as normal and renters are responsible for all payments during the moratorium.

Mike feels the federal or state government should do more for renters to avoid unnecessary movement and spreading of coronavirus. “I think everything should be frozen for three months: no mortgage, no rent, no expectations of recouping lost payments and just keep everyone inside for three months,” he says.

Similar to Ellen’s situation, in the North End of Detroit, four housemates in their late twenties live together—one of whom frequently leaves. Santiago, Erica, Mario, and Marissa live in the top unit of a duplex that’s approximately 1,200 square feet. Marissa just got back from New York and is now traveling back and forth to her family’s home in Michigan.

Santiago says there’s a little concern, but all of the housemates are fine with her travel.

“We trust our friends,” he says. “We’re cautious about going out and of course washing our hands 20 times a day and showering after you come home and wearing gloves.”

Joshua Petrie, a research assistant professor in the School of Public Health at the University of Michigan, says that if people are following the CDC’s guidelines about hand-washing and socially distancing themselves, then there isn’t a lot of risk to normal activity in the house. But while people like Adrian near Belle Isle and Marissa in the North End seem healthy, when they leave for nonessential reasons, Petrie says, “There still is risk.”

One problem is it’s hard to know who has the virus when many people are asymptomatic. Plus, young people are not immune to COVID-19. “There have been serious illnesses in younger people as well, including deaths,” Petrie says. The youngest person in Michigan to die from coronavirus was a 20-year-old in Grand Blanc.

Additionally, the risk is not just to yourself, but to others—current estimates show that on average one infected person infects one to three others. If a housemate isn’t complying with CDC guidelines, Petrie says they need to have a serious conversation about the risks and potentially take additional precautions. “Avoid making contact with them as much as possible if you’re worried about what they’re doing,” he says.

Even with all of the challenges, the benefits of social interaction with housemates often outweighs the extra risks that come from sharing the same space.

“I couldn’t imagine living alone right now,” Ellen says. “You don’t know when it’s going to end ... this could go until June or July.”