Revisiting The Brother-In-Law on the Couch: Consolidating Housing in Hard Times

Sharon September 2nd, 2008

For those who are new to my blog, the title above refers to an older post I wrote, one that became mildly famous. In it, I argued that the face of peak oil, climate change and the coming hard times for most of us may well look like our family members losing their jobs, homes and coming to live with us.   Quite honestly, I think the reason this has gotten so little discussion in the peak oil and climate change community is that many of us are far more troubled by the idea of actually having to live with our relatives than we are with more extreme scenarios (raiders taking our food, not ever being able to get toothpaste again). 

I’m not going to go over territory I’ve already covered, so please take a look at the post if you are interested and aren’t familiar with it already (an abbreviated version is in _Depletion and Abundance_ if you happen to have it lying around ;-) ).  But I did want to talk about the concrete realities of living with (or preparing to live with) extended family.

We did this for a while - Eric’s grandparents came to live with us on our farm, and stayed with us until their deaths (unfortunately, this was not terribly long - we miss them very much).  Now this was very much a planned consolidation - we bought the house with the intention of having them come live with us.  It was also very much wanted - but that doesn’t mean that it didn’t come fraught with drama - both with other family members, and among those of us doing the living.  Doing it on the fly, out of necessity would have been 10 times harder.

Which brings us to rule number one - consolidate earlier, rather than later.  If you know it is coming, get the process underway.  This won’t work for everyone, in every situation, but if you are facing peak oil with your 80 year old mother living in another city 150 miles from any of her kids, start talking with your siblings about getting her closer.  No, she may not want to.  And you may not want to.  But with the exception of families that have abandoned all ties, dealing with this now is going to be 1000 times more pleasant than trying to get your mother into your home in the midst of an energy crisis and a blizzard.  If you know you are the one who your feckless sister is going to come rely on when she dumps the next stupid boyfriend, start planning where she’s going to sleep.  And, if say, you are the governor-of-Alaska-cum-nominal-and-possibly-temporary-vice-presidential- nominee and have a 17 year old pregnant daughter, make sure that between your speeches to the right-wing/family-values crowd you are allotting space in the governor’s mansion (don’t get all excited about moving yet) for your daughter, her fiance and your new grandkid.   

If you know that elderly parents, disabled relatives or people with kids are likely to end up needing you, now is probably a good time to begin adapting your house not just to living with your own personal needs in mind, but to living with other people.  Installing those shower bars, putting in an additional composting toilet in that extra closet,  getting the kids used to the idea of sharing a room - these are things you can start now, if it looks like they are coming.

It can be quite hard to persuade people to adopt such arrangements in advance of necessity - privacy is such a strong issue, and most of us see such arrangements as fundamentally defeatist -that the ideal has us owning our own, living autonomously as a nuclear family or individual as much as possible.  The fact that this is our ideal should, however, come under scrutiny - most of human history was not spent this way.  On the other hand, this fragmentation of families and communities is enormously profitable for capitalism.  I’ve said this before in more detail, but we should be somewhat suspicious of our sense that we need the huge spaces in most American houses for reasons of actual privacy - less than 75 years ago, the average American had sufficient privacy with about 250 square feet per person.  Now the average is above 850 square feet per person.  Is it really true that we have some biological need for that level of privacy?  Or is it more likely that just as we’ve been sold a whole lot of other things, we’ve been sold this idea we can’t live in close quarters, and should regard this as a move of last resort.  Not that the “room of one’s own” doesn’t have merits - but Virginia Woolf was not talking about a 1000 square foot great room ;-) .  

Figuring out how such family members can be integrated into your lives is another thing that you can do now.  What role are they going to have in your household?  How are all of you (and just because you are providing the home doesn’t mean you are off the hook on this issue) going to compromise to keep everyone happy and working together.  Being the homeowner gives you some priveleges, such as establishing basic home and safety rules, but tyranny is neither nice nor a good idea, unless you want to live in constant conflict. 

It is also worth remembering that in many cases, the arrival of family may not be an imposition on you, but your salvation - more and more of us are already struggling to pay the mortgage and keep up with the other bills.  The only way we may be able to heat homes and keep payments up is by bringing in others to contribute.  Or we may only be able to get a home by buying out a share from a family member in the future.  Even if you don’t need them now, the post-peak reality is that there’s going to be a lot more work - the things we used to use energy for now will be done by people.  The nuclear family, or single life are probably not especially optimal for this scenario.  So the ”this is my house and you’ll do as I say” thinking should probably be left at the door with anyone you want or need to live with. 

It isn’t always clear that the person with the best “homestead” skills will necessarily be the most useful person - if they can’t get along with others, are so caught up in other issues that they can’t utilitize their skills, or even if what is most needed is not another person who knows how to can food, but someone who can hold down enough of a job to keep the mortgage payments coming.  It isn’t always clear how things will work in hard times - keeping one’s options open for the people who matter to you is always helpful.

It probably goes without saying that all of us would prefer useful, helpful, kind people we get along with - those magic  cousins who are professional gardeners and cabinetmakers, and their grown son who can lift a refrigerator straight over his head and never complains about anything.  Instead, you will probably be getting the real cousins - an overweight computer programmer who doesn’t like to go outside because of all the bugs, his testy wife who spends two hours a day doing her hair, their surly teenager who wants nothing to do with any of you and an elderly, snappish and incontinent dachshund.  I’d throw you a pity party but I’ve got relatives of my own ;-)

The challenge here is to find the good and useful skill set and the fine traits underlying the obnoxious ones.  Sometimes this is simply not possible, but often, it is.  The computer programmer may not be great at outdoor work, but may be tireless at tending and teaching the young kids in the family.  His wife may not shine in the mornings during hair doing time, but is great at organizing a new business and is willing to do the cooking.  The teenager may not want much to do with you, but set to finding ways to save money on food, may come up with a plan that keeps everyone eating.  And perhaps the dog will heroically scare off a burglar someday ;-) .

 Some of this is, of course, less likely than others.  Some people are just twits.  But that’s another argument for taking in the less twittish parts of your family early on - thus, you can say to your sister in Peoria, “Sorry, I’ve got Mom and Uncle Gus and cousin Leo.  That means you get Leona and the three little devils…er…darlings.” 

It will help, in all of this, if you can find ways to structure you house that give everyone some space and privacy - although not necessarily as much as they were used to.  That might mean knocking down a wall to make dormitory-style accomodations for four girl cousins, or at least hanging curtains so that families can have a little privacy.  If you can divide family space by floor, or by using seperate entrances, it may make the transition to closer quarters easier.

Much of the advice in my previous post (and the original BIL in the couch post) applies to living with people now, whether you want them or not.  Honestly, though I think a large part of the practicalities are personal to the people involved - they cannot necessarily be predicted.  What is important is that people be respectful, that they work on making roles for one another, and that they spend their time looking forward, instead of at what they once had.  Honestly, many of us spent some of the happiest times of our lives living closely with others - in service, at college and after becoming independent. Simply determining that such relationships could be positive, the symbol not of a loss but the reclamation of something might help ease the pressure and anxiety we fear about them.  At least until the dachshund arrives ;-) .


19 Responses to “Revisiting The Brother-In-Law on the Couch: Consolidating Housing in Hard Times”

  1. wasteweardailyon 02 Sep 2023 at 1:55 pm

    What makes you so sure that people won’t come with guns or weapons or fists and just take all you have. If things get that bad won’t people get bad as well? Do you think living out in the country is safer? My Dad says there is no use in preparing because it will all be stolen from you anyway. I just don’t know what to think about all this. I’m getting really freaked out!
    Cindy in FL

  2. Kation 02 Sep 2023 at 2:10 pm

    ROFL Ok. I’ve run out of time to finish reading this post before I must head out to work, but I DID get as far as to read your bit about Palin. *BWG* I’m loving how you tied in that bit. VERY funny!!!!

    Blessings. -Kati (An Alaskan who’s liked most of Palin’s work as governor, but who’s scared by the thought that she could wind up vice-pres., or worse, president of our country. She’s a good governor, but far too staunchly republican to do our COUNTRY any good, IMO.)

  3. Shambaon 02 Sep 2023 at 2:21 pm

    More food for thought about taking in others! I tell you what, I’ll be delighted to take the dachsund and other pets, if you keep the twits aways from my door! (I mean that seriously!) That’s what I’ll be, the neighborhood animal/pet caretaker for households who can’t take pets! I do best with cats, BTW. LOL I’m getting plenty of practice these days anyway.

    Thinking about all this heavy duty stuff in your posts the past two weeks and Gustav are contributing to “apocalypse fatigue”. I ‘m so tired of thinking ahead, thinking ahead and trying to think of what I can do, be, think, say, stash, repair, etc. for the harder days/weeks/months/years ahead.

    Thanks for the thoughts, serious as they are, we need them!


  4. Rosaon 02 Sep 2023 at 2:31 pm

    We were a little deflated to learn that my parents who live in an RV have a backup plan - friends have offered them parking space, installed an electric pole for them, and will likely take them into the (wood-heated, owner-plumbed & rehabbed) house should things get bad.

    I highly recommend having at least extended visits with people so you can work your issues out while there’s space for drama - I lived with my mom for 8 months when I was 23, and it was ugly for the first several months. But I saw my aunts have the same fights with their mother when they were in their 70s and she was in their 90s, as they had before flouncing out of the house and across the country when they were in their teens and she was in her thirties. I’m really glad me & my mom have worked that stuff out.

    Now I only have to worry about the fact that the only relative we have with extra space should we become refugees, is in Missouri. And not a hippie-friendly part of it, either. Oh well, at least they have an insulated attic and a sunny yard.

  5. Paula Hewitton 02 Sep 2023 at 2:35 pm

    I can only hope that matricide comes under ‘crimes of passion’ or ‘unreasonable duress’ down the track. I have thought and thought about this issue. It is something we may have to do eventually - but I wont be subjecting the husband and kids until its desperate. We would fight and evryones lives would be miserable (my husband would rather starve than live with her) ….I wont be putting in another composting toilet …..maybe making sure there is room in the compost heap for her instead…….grin.

  6. Fernon 02 Sep 2023 at 2:49 pm

    Paula, in my case I’m trying to figure out where to bury my MIL’s boyfriend, since I’m finally getting along better with my mother. At least I have a friend with 56 acres and a backhoe….

  7. Survivalist News » Casaubon’s Book: Revisiting The Brother-In-Law on the Couch: Consolidating Housing in Hard Timeson 02 Sep 2023 at 3:51 pm

    [...] Casaubon’s Book » Blog Archive » Revisiting The Brother-In-Law on the Couch: Consolidating Housi… Which brings us to rule number one - consolidate earlier, rather than later. If you know it is coming, get the process underway. This won’t work for everyone, in every situation, but if you are facing peak oil with your 80 year old mother living in another city 150 miles from any of her kids, start talking with your siblings about getting her closer. No, she may not want to. And you may not want to. But with the exception of families that have abandoned all ties, dealing with this now is going to be 1000 times more pleasant than trying to get your mother into your home in the midst of an energy crisis and a blizzard. If you know you are the one who your feckless sister is going to come rely on when she dumps the next stupid boyfriend, start planning where she’s going to sleep. And, if say, you are the governor-of-Alaska-cum-nominal-and-possibly-temporary-vice-presidential- nominee and have a 17 year old pregnant daughter, make sure that between your speeches to the right-wing/family-values crowd you are allotting space in the governor’s mansion (don’t get all excited about moving yet) for your daughter, her fiance and your new grandkid. [...]

  8. Verdeon 02 Sep 2023 at 5:37 pm

    Sorry, I can’t hear you, I’ve got my hands over my eyes and fingers in my ears. I actually have good relationships with my family (from the distance of several hundred miles) but I think I’ll take them in unplanned… sort of like that baby up NorthWest ways… (that was great).

  9. Emilyon 02 Sep 2023 at 7:24 pm

    The “away room” might be a good thing to plan. Basically, it’s an empty room that anyone can use to “get away.” Read, sleep, paint, pray, dance…or just shut the door. Not everyone can have their own room, but everyone can have the away room (or cabin, or tent, or…) for a while.

  10. Daharjaon 02 Sep 2023 at 9:46 pm

    The issue I had with this post (and the older version) is that, once again, it assumed that others are the ones who had to move and we (the reader) are the ones who saved the day with our forethought and wisdom and planning and…yada yada…

    It’s like the die off situation. If die-off happens, we always imagine it happening to other people. Not to us and our families, with other peple surviving instead.

    In the case of the above post, wha’s to say that you would have people move in with you? And how would you feel if you have to move in with with your trailer-home bound relatives, because your farm is, say, repossessed by government officials and turned into a state growing area or a military possession?

    Stranger things have happened.

    I guess what I am saying is that in the future, nothing is certain. We can plan and create and make the perfect safe haven with off-grid facilities and a great food supply, then have it taken away by authorities when times get tough, or have to leave it when we steal across the border in the middle of the night with our toddlers, or when we are shot in the face by people less gun-shy than ourselves.

    Rather than being prepared with room for relatives who may or may not come to live with you, doesn’t it make far more sense to be able to be flexible and sociable with the communities that we have, be able to work with people from all social strata willingly and positively, and be able to adapt to changing circumstances independently and in a focused way as times change?

    I think so.

    We don’t know what the future will bring. But for now I’ll focus on networking with my community and remaining debt-free and building social capital, rather than bothering with having spare rooms for possible hangers on in possible circumstances in possible futures that may or may not happen.

  11. Daharjaon 02 Sep 2023 at 9:47 pm

    What I’m also saying (and didn’t above) is that perhaps one of the most important skills is being able to persuade others to take you and your loved ones in, in case of terrible times.

    Bargaining skills and negotiating skills are worth far more, in ANY times, that being able to knit socks or have a spare room.

  12. Clifton Park_Momon 03 Sep 2023 at 7:23 am

    My DH & I bought a house last year with more space than we need (4 bedrooms and we only have one child — foolish, I know), so I’ve gotten very comfortable with the idea of welcoming family to come live with us — perhaps my parents (but preferably not his, thanks), or any of our siblings or friends.

    Not surprisingly though, when you mention this idea to people who are fully ingrained in the status quo (big homes, big cars, long commutes, expensive child care), be prepared for them to laugh at you and tell you how funny you are. I imagine most people would have to be in absolute dire straits before being willing to take this step. It’s unfortunate. I think my daughter would really benefit from growing up around more of her extended family.

  13. Sharonon 03 Sep 2023 at 7:56 am

    Daharja, I actually have written a number of times (and discussed at some length in the first BIL post) that it might be you moving. Because this class focuses on adapting-in-place, we covered where else we might go in a crisis earlier, and this is focusing on what happens if people come to you. Tomorrow’s class will be on community building. The structure of the course is to cover a range of scenarios.


  14. Taraon 03 Sep 2023 at 8:07 am

    There’s one aspect of this that’s been bugging me. My husband and I live in a very small house by today’s standards (about 975 square feet). It has a nice open and usable floorplan, but it’s an older house and has exactly ONE bedroom, and exactly ONE small closet. We do, however, have a lot of land, and are well-equipped to take people in. The problem is, we’re absolutely busting at the seams with all the stuff that we’ve either purposely stored or opted to keep because of its usefulness. We have a lot of stuff, and nearly all of it is stuff we think we might need. So my question is, how do we fit anyone into our house (or indeed, go back to taking up only 250 square feet each)? Where is the line between having room to store “preparedness items” and having room to house people? We’d have to give up one at the expense of the other, no question. We are looking into building a shed to store some excess, but still…

    Perhaps in the era of the mega-house, this isn’t a problem that most people have, but surely there are some folks out there like us that have a great place to keep people, except for the tiny accommodations? Maybe we (like a previous poster) could provide refuge for pets and livestock. :)

  15. Sarahon 03 Sep 2023 at 8:39 am

    Tara — in a shorter-term emergency, you might want to invest in some tents and have people camp out in your yard, provided whatever the emergency was didn’t result in it being too freezing or soggy outside. Everyone could hang out inside for much of the time, but you wouldn’t have to find room for them to actually set up living space.

    I’m not really planning on taking people in for more than the short-term, either, since we’re in an apartment, though we could consolidate our rooms and use the second bedroom for another person or couple if we really had to. If it came to that, what might actually make more sense would be to cut the apartment in half and have the bedrooms and kitchen be one “apartment” and put the new people in the (largeish) common space on the foldy couch…that gives one outside door apiece, and the bathroom is central enough that we could really stay out of each other’s space pretty well except at mealtimes.

  16. Sharonon 03 Sep 2023 at 9:18 am

    Tara - I’d say it is generally easier to build something to house your stuff than to build something to house people, simply because people are pickier about temperatures ;-) . This is a real issue - I’d figure that in a tough time, people don’t need private bedrooms - you can live with folks camping on the living room floor, at least for a while. In the longer term - relocation of stuff, or perhaps the building of a small cabin for the people seems like a good idea.


  17. Georgeon 03 Sep 2023 at 9:20 am

    How about small cabins ? You talk about building a shed, is that not the same approximate space as a room in a house? Communal outdoor kitchens/eating areas can work if the weather is right think State and National park campgrounds for communal his/hers bathrooms and showers. If ya got the land like you say it can be done. How about Building a Barn? and putting in stalls?
    Think outside the 975 sq ft box :)

  18. Taraon 03 Sep 2023 at 11:39 am

    Good ideas, all - thanks!

  19. homebrewlibrarianon 03 Sep 2023 at 2:03 pm

    I live in 600 sq ft and my sister with her two oldest children (15 and 13) will be coming up for a visit next summer. I figure between my double bed in the bedroom, the single bed futon couch and a queen sized air mattress on the floor in the front room, we’ll have everyone sleeping somewhere. I have one bathroom and very little furniture. I’ll be able to sleep everyone and find enough places at the table for us to eat. Since she has very little money, we’ll be eating home a lot and sharing my car. I see this as a trial run for “how many bodies can I cram in this space and we don’t kill each other.” I also expect us to be outside quite a bit and plan to recruit the kids (and my sister) to help out in the gardens. Should be interesting because I don’t have a television and only one computer which I rarely use so the kids will be electronics free during that time. I do have packs of cards and a cribbage board and I’ll be happy to take them to the library to pick out some books (I’m thankful all three are voracious readers).

    True, it’s a very short term experiment (maybe 10 days) and it won’t happen during a crisis but at least I’ll have a better idea of what to plan for and expect. And thank God I have a year to prepare!

    Kerri in AK

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