South Philly roommates are spending increased time with each other, with mixed results

The COVID-19 pandemic has complicated some roommate relationships in South Philly.

When Passyunk Crossing resident Katie Tella first learned about the safety precautions necessary for staving off contraction of COVID-19, she and her roommate immediately turned their South Philly vestibule into a “decontamination chamber.”

“Anything that comes into the house – groceries, mail, food delivery, whatever – gets dropped in the vestibule and wiped down,” she said. “We leave it there for an hour before bringing it in the house.”

For Tella and her roommate, the transition certainly hasn’t been painless, but it’s been congenial.

“The only time that we’re interacting with anybody else,” she said, “is when we have beers outside on the stoop and talk to a friend on the sidewalk.”

Things have also been pretty harmonious for Point Breeze resident Jason Wagner and his roommate, who’ve gotten into the habit of disinfecting light switches and door handles every other day without having much of a conversation about it. It just naturally happened.

“What’s annoying is not being able to go out and see people,” said Wagner. “I thought I was an introvert, but not going out and seeing people is awful.”

Wagner does actually have another roommate who’s a schoolteacher. But he “escaped to his parents’ house” after the city’s schools were closed.

For other South Philly roommates, things haven’t been as easygoing. When one Lower Moyamensing resident mentioned her desire to visit family over Passover to her roommate, there was friction between them.

“I gave her a weird look and asked her why she would leave the house,” said the roommate, who requested their name be withheld (the roommate uses they/them pronouns). “It was very clearly communicated to us that we should not leave the house.”

The roommate told their housemate that it wouldn’t be fair to endanger the other people living in the house, they said. After appearing to persuade the roommate out of visiting family for the holiday, she ultimately decided to visit anyway and told her roommates so.

“I was at a loss for words at that moment because it’s not what I was expecting at all.”

Since the roommate came back, the Lower Moyamensing housemates agreed to certain pandemic rules to put in place, including mandatory showers whenever you enter the house and avoiding common areas as much as possible. But the roommate who visited her family hasn’t been following them, and now her fellow housemate feels the need to self-quarantine in her bedroom to protect against catching the virus. 

“I don’t like that I feel unsafe in my own home and that my friends didn’t consider my well-being,” they said of their roommates.

Things haven’t been going perfectly smoothly for Amanda McIllmurray, who also lives in Lower Moyamensing, either. Her situation is complicated by the fact that all four of her roommates are her younger siblings. The youngest is 17.

“When the stay-at-home requests were first [announced], we had a two-hour sibling conversation about what everybody felt comfortable with and what their fears were,” she said. “We had to anticipate what tensions might come up.”

Part of the rules the McIllmurrays created was to not have any visitors over and to not be a visitor at anybody else’s house.

“My one sister broke that rule to go stay at her boyfriend’s house,” she said. “So we had to have a conversation about that.”

They also created a schedule for chores like cooking dinner and disinfecting groceries, which they enforce via an app called Our Home.

“We have a whole system for sanitizing groceries,” said McIllmurray. The system involves disinfecting the groceries while wearing gloves and masks before transporting them to a separate counter, then sanitizing the counter space where the groceries were sanitized.

“None of us are sick yet so it might be working,” she said.

A 2017 study by Zillow showed that in 2016, 33 percent of adults in Philadelphia live in “doubled up households,” which the US Census Bureau defines as households containing “a person 18 or older who is not enrolled in school and is not the householder, spouse or cohabiting partner of the householder.” That figure increased from 24.1 percent in 2005, according to the study. Nationwide, the figure went from 21 percent in 2005 to 30 percent in 2016. Most of the increase (54.5 percent) went to people living in the 23-29 age bracket. The next highest was the 50-59 age bracket at 28.4 percent.