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The teenagers who live alone

Getting one’s own place before 18 can be a crash course in independence

The first time Crystal Stokowski lived alone, she was approaching 16. The apartment was an unfurnished three-bedroom with two living rooms, an enormous space with radiators too weak to keep out the chill of winter in Massachusetts, which hit shortly after she moved in. Stokowski warmed herself by the oven while eating cheap, easy-to-prepare meals: frozen lasagna, peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, ramen noodles, rice and seaweed, and “so much bread.”

She had moved out of her family house as a matter of necessity. “I came from an abusive home, and at that point, I couldn’t take it anymore,” Stokowski says. Growing up, her family had a “weird reputation” around town; the cops would regularly show up to their house, and though nobody addressed the situation directly—not the police, neighbors, clergy, nor teachers and guidance counselors at school—a woman from church had a sense of what was going on. She hired Stokowski to help out around her house and with her children, offering her a room in exchange. The arrangement didn’t work out well, Stokowski says, but the woman gave her another option: She could live in the third-floor apartment of a different house the woman owned, pay a small sum in rent, and help fix the place up.

Stokowski agreed. She had dropped out of high school and was working two jobs, one at a photo studio that did yearbook pictures and another at J.C. Penney Portraits in the local mall. For $100 a month, she had that entire, massive space to herself.

Teenagers live by themselves for a range of reasons. Some, like Stokowski, have chosen to leave an unhealthy or dangerous living situation; others have gotten kicked out of their homes. Some have moved abroad to attend high school while their parents or guardians remain at home, or are pursuing location-dependent modeling or acting careers far from where they grew up.

The degree of financial and emotional support that they receive from their families or communities also varies dramatically. And that’s a crucial piece of the equation when it comes to where and how they live: Every landlord has a different philosophy about renting to minors, says Douglas Elliman real estate agent Janna Raskopf, but it’s typical for them to require a guarantor or adult co-signer to ensure that someone is on the hook for rent, particularly if the teenage tenant doesn’t qualify financially themselves. (Raskopf is seeing more co-signers and guarantors than ever before in New York City, where rental laws recently changed to bar landlords from taking more than one month’s rent as a security deposit.) “In this climate and market, landlords just want to make sure that the tenant will fulfill the obligations of the lease and pay the rent,” says Raskopf.

Now 37 and expecting her first child, Stokowski describes herself as hyper-independent—she has to remind herself that she can count on others to share her load—and attributes her problem-solving skills in part to living alone at 16. “Most of the time, I feel like I can do anything,” she says. For a decade, she worked as a production assistant for the band Modest Mouse, retiring from that a little over a year ago to work for a nonprofit arts center in Rehoboth Beach, Delaware.

A teenage girl in a hoodie looks over her shoulder while pulling two rolling suitcases behind her. Illustration.

When she moved into the three-bedroom apartment, Stokowski’s first order of business was fixing a gaping hole in the kitchen ceiling. “It was sort of a shitshow, the house,” she says with a laugh. She went to the hardware store and an employee gave her the proper supplies and instructions for how to mend the hole. She faced a learning curve: When Stokowski painted the ceiling, she didn’t wear goggles and wound up getting an infection when paint dripped into her eye. She burned a pot of rice while teaching herself to cook. This was the turn of the millennium, and her apartment didn’t have internet. The answers weren’t a Google search away.

The first piece of furniture Stokowski acquired was a kitchen table she found on the side of the road, which a friend helped her haul up the stairs. (Even today, thrifting and curbside shopping remain her preferred methods of procuring home goods.) The space remained a “very sparse hodgepodge”: She didn’t have chairs for months, so she ate her meals sitting atop the table or on the floor.

Despite the cold, despite eating “terribly,” living alone was a positive shift for Stokowski. “The first few months alone, I think I felt empowered and really motivated and just kind of ready to have this big change in my life,” she says. “I felt very weighted down from my family and the abuse and stuff.”

She had started dating a boy in her band, and after about four months of living alone, her boyfriend and one of their bandmates moved in. It seemed like the sensible thing to do: Stokowski had so much space to herself, and living alone in a three-bedroom felt selfish. But it also dampened the lightness that had come with moving out of her family home. For the first time since she’d left home, she became overwhelmed by the fear that her father, who didn’t know where she was living, would find out where she was and hurt her. When she lived alone, she only had herself to worry about; with roommates, the caretaker in her became concerned for their wellbeing, too.

“I felt very paranoid and depressed for months, until I was able to work through it,” she says, adding that, though she didn’t realize it at the time, making art and music greatly helped her through that process.

At 17, Stokowski started touring the country with a punk band. When she returned to civilian life at 18, she found out about a historic building in Western Massachusetts that had previously been a fire station and a post office. She took up a one-bedroom there, a space with a huge wall of windows overlooking a rehab center, for $375 a month. This time around, Stokowski found that living alone ignited her creativity. She worked “very part-time” at a local diner and used the rest of her time to screenprint, crochet, play music, and make clothes in her apartment. “I feel like I grew a lot in an artistic way,” she says.

For some teenagers, it becomes very clear very quickly that living alone isn’t the best choice, insofar as it’s a choice at all. Haley Pham, a 19-year-old with more than 2 million subscribers on YouTube, moved into a two-bedroom apartment in downtown Austin when she was 17. Her parents had recently divorced and were selling their house, so it seemed like a good time for Pham, who was by then making money from social media, to get her own place nearby—signed for under her mother’s name but paid for by Pham, who was still in high school at the time.

“It only lasted two weeks before I couldn’t do it anymore,” she says. “I learned a lot during that time, but I basically learned how much I hated living alone.”

It was fun to a certain extent, Pham says. She loved touring potential apartments and getting to decorate her space exactly how she pleased: Very pink, “very girly,” mostly with pieces from Urban Outfitters. (Naturally, she made a video about the experience that features her haul.) The problem was, she was scared to go to sleep. She felt paranoid all the time and couldn’t relax when she was by herself, which resulted in her staying up until 3 a.m. and sleeping until noon, if she slept at all. “It was just ruining my work schedule,” Pham says.

The beauty of living alone is you don’t need to accommodate anyone—everything’s in your control.

Pham says she has friends who live alone and play podcasts to distract from a silence that’s practically waiting to be broken by threatening sounds—“It’s scary to hear any small noise,” she says—but instead of toughing it out, she asked her mother, who had been looking for her own apartment, to move in with her. They get along incredibly well, Pham says, and that held true when her mom took her up on the offer. “I feel like with a lot of mother-daughter relationships, it’s really rocky to be living together, but I could be in a 30-square-foot room with her and it would be fine,” says Pham, who continued paying the rent while the two lived together because her mother had lost her job. (She still supports her mom financially and says that she takes great joy in doing so, describing it as “a dream come true, to say the least.”)

After a year, Pham decided to move into a house with her boyfriend, YouTuber Ryan Trahan, and a bunch of friends. As happens when roommates blend their decorative styles, the place isn’t as pink as Pham’s previous apartment was; she says that Trahan has a particular talent for interior design and has taken the lead on that.

Still, she says, she’s planning to build out her own space within their shared home: “I think we’re going to make a room that’s specifically for filming, something that I can make a little pink girl cave.”

Brisbane-based Luke Alexander also filmed an apartment tour video for his popular YouTube channel after he moved into a studio by himself a month shy of his 18th birthday. Now 20, Alexander feels that living alone can be a good or bad experience, depending on what’s going on in a person’s life, but for him, that studio represents a dark, isolated time. He had finished high school but hadn’t entered university like his friends, because he wasn’t yet an Australian citizen. (Born in South Africa, Alexander moved with his family to Australia when he was 12; he became a citizen in the spring of 2018 and is now attending university.) He worked at a supermarket and a pizza shop, and when he wasn’t doing that, he was usually lying in bed.

“I was struggling with an eating disorder at the time, which I made a video about later on, and I was struggling with depression. Basically I lacked a lot of motivation, because that’s what depression does,” he says. “If I didn’t have to go to work, I would just not get out of bed.”

Alexander had started making YouTube videos shortly after graduating high school, inspired by creators like Emma Chamberlain and Conan Gray, and forcing himself to film a new one each week gave him “the slightest sense of purpose.”

He rented the studio through a local youth accommodation service that provides housing at a discounted rate to young people with a proven need to leave home. He’d applied to the service, as well as the Australian government’s Youth Allowance program, when the emotional turmoil and fighting that arose from living with his mother became too much, and he was originally placed in a shared house with other teenagers. (He says that his relationship with his mother is better now.) “It was like I left one toxic environment to move into another,” Alexander says: The place was a mess, his roommates regularly brought people home when they weren’t supposed to, and drug use was common.

The first few months alone, I think I felt empowered and really motivated and just kind of ready to have this big change in my life.

A few months later, Alexander was able to move into the studio. It was the perfect size for one person, he says, with a washing machine in the bathroom and a partial division between the bedroom and living area. He went to Kmart for cheap furniture, bought a desk and chair off Facebook Marketplace, and rounded out his furnishings with items from his previous apartment, his mother’s house, and acquaintances looking to unload used goods. All told, he spent about 300 Australian dollars.

Alexander lived alone for five months, until his older sister moved in; the two subsequently got an apartment together, and now he lives alone again. The feelings of isolation are still a struggle—especially when school isn’t in session and he’s home alone working on his YouTube channel—but Alexander has figured out tactics for managing them. He makes sure to leave the house at least once a day, to go to the gym or take a walk, and he makes a concerted effort to reach out to family and friends, particularly those he hasn’t talked to in a while, and to put himself in situations where he’ll meet people, like acting classes.

All told, Alexander prefers living alone to rooming with other people, which in his experience can strain even good relationships. “The beauty of living alone is you don’t need to accommodate anyone—everything’s in your control. I can film a video whenever I want here because I don’t have to worry about when people are getting home or if people are being noisy with the TV,” he says.

And Alexander feels that he’s more mature than many of his peers, having had to tackle the challenges of living alone at a younger age than most. He’s itching to move to Melbourne, a leap that doesn’t seem quite so scary given his sense of self-sufficiency.

“Independence and freedom is a really great thing,” Alexander says.

Eliza Brooke is a freelance writer. She covers design, culture, and the like out of various coffee shops in Brooklyn.