Stephanie Pellicano spent the better part of the pandemic trying to persuade her sister, Jacqueline Pellicano, to get an apartment in her building along the waterfront in Jersey City, New Jersey.
Stephanie Pellicano worried that her big sister’s living arrangement — with a roommate in another Jersey City building where other tenants did not seem to be following social distancing practices — was risky for their family. It would be better, she thought, if they were all together.
The older Pellicano resisted until October, after her roommate contracted COVID-19, and she subsequently spent three weeks sleeping on her younger sister’s sofa. “But it worked; it just made life easier,” she said. “It was so nice to all be together and it kind of solidified it: ‘OK, yes, I do want to be here.’ ”
By November, she was living in a studio in the complex.
While the pandemic drove many Americans back home to reluctantly live with parents or siblings because of financial or health concerns, siblings such as the Pellicanos made the move by choice, seeking out separate apartments in the same building. In the era of the social bubble, these siblings took the directive a step further and created their own physical bubble, becoming each other’s neighbors, dog walkers and after-work buddies.
Now as the country reopens with access to the vaccine widespread and infection rates falling, these siblings are settling into a living arrangement that might not have happened if not for the events of the past year. In many cases, they are living closer to each other than they have at any point since childhood. The pandemic unexpectedly reshaped their relationships and their lives in long-lasting ways.
The pandemic was an “opportunity for adult siblings to connect with each other,” said Jonathan Caspi, a specialist on sibling relationships and a professor of family science and human development at Montclair State University in New Jersey. “When the world feels very out of control and very alien, you crave something that is familiar. It’s almost like that Freudian idea of regression, going back to an earlier time when things were more familiar.”
These moves came at a moment of increased mobility in the country. Some 16% of American workers moved between April 2020 and April 2021, the first increase in migration in over a decade, according to an Apartment List survey.
The Pellicano sisters now see each other four or five times a week, watching movies together and watering each other’s plants. When their mother visits from Florida, she can float between the two apartments without traveling across town. The months spent in the same bubble, and later in the same building, changed their dynamic. “It’s nice, because I can say, ‘Hey, I’m coming over,’ ” Jacqueline Pellicano said. “It’s just brought us all closer.”
‘The pandemic push’
For some, the pandemic provided an opportunity to make life changes that had been postponed for one reason or another for years. The support of a sibling made it easier to finally take that leap.
Sarah Conroy, a fashion stylist, was living in Brooklyn, New York, last spring. Her sister, Beth Conroy, an acupuncturist and a digital marketing consultant, was living in a studio in Jersey City, where she had lived for 13 years. Suddenly, the sisters found themselves locked in apartments and neighborhoods they had outgrown.
In Jersey City, after more than a decade in the same apartment, many of Beth Conroy’s friends in the building had long since gone. The space was large but dark.
“I was alone in my apartment; I don’t get any direct sun,” said Beth Conroy, who has a history of anxiety and depression, and began to relapse during the pandemic. “As I was taking care of myself, I realized that my environment was so important.”
Her sister, Sarah, meanwhile, had been contemplating a move from Brooklyn to New Jersey for two years but had never been quite ready. In April 2020, she had to euthanize one of her dogs. Her sister “came right away and ended up staying a week,” Sarah Conroy said. “It was great to have the company, but also she was like, ‘You have so much sunlight in your apartment!’ ”
Beth Conroy started spending half of each week with her sister in Brooklyn. “Sarah and I saw the benefit of being closer, of having access to each other, that we could be with each other and support each other that way,” Beth Conroy said.
Back in New Jersey, she started seeking a new apartment. She decided it was worth paying an extra $1,000 a month in rent to live in a full-service building.
“I said: ‘I am going to do this. I don’t know how long this is going to go on. I need some sanity,’ ” she said. ‘I want the pool. I want the coffee shop. I want the courtyard.”
In August, Beth Conroy signed a two-year lease. Sarah Conroy followed a few months later, moving into a one-bedroom at the end of October, weary from a Brooklyn summer filled with political protests and endless illegal fireworks.
By the end of the year, Sarah Conroy had lured a friend and longtime neighbor, Valeria Mezzano, to the building, too.
Sarah Conroy wonders if any of this would have happened without the pandemic. “This was a move that maybe I was afraid to make before just because it’s such a big change from the way I’d been living,” she said. “I’ve heard a couple of friends calling it the pandemic push.”
The three women asked building management to program their key fobs so they could access one another’s apartments. Now they walk their dogs together and are growing vegetables in the building’s community garden beds. Beth Conroy can see into her sister’s third-floor apartment from her apartment on the fifth floor, so she knows when she is home. “It’s kind of quirky and ridiculous, but I am also kind of creeped out by it,” Beth Conroy said. “I stand in the window like a creep and then I text her.”
‘He can’t ignore me now’
For siblings who were already attached at the hip, finding homes in the same building made an intertwined life that much easier. Last spring, Amanda Gerome was living alone in Manhattan. Her brother, Ryan Gerome, was living with roommates across the city.
The siblings, co-owners of an electrical contracting company based in Queens, had always worked remotely. But the shutdown complicated things. Traveling between the two apartments became more difficult, and now Ryan Gerome had to coordinate his schedule with his roommates, who were also working from home. It didn’t take long for the arrangement to stop making sense.
“We speak to each other 12 to 20 times a day,” Ryan Gerome said of his thinking at the time. “We see each other a lot. Why are we living so far away from each other? We need somewhere where we could take the elevator right to each other. With the pandemic, it just all made sense.”
So they set out to find apartments in the same building. Amanda Gerome played the role of the family real estate agent. “I charged my brother his old Beats headphones to find our apartment,” she said. “I said that’s his fee.”
She found a building with Hudson River views and extensive amenities and rented a sixth-floor one-bedroom. Her brother rented a fourth-floor one-bedroom, both moving in on Sept. 1.
Now, they travel between each other’s apartments constantly. “Ryan is on the phone a lot and sometimes he doesn’t pick up my calls,” said Amanda Gerome, who has since moved into a two-bedroom on the 16th floor. Rather than wait, she runs down to his apartment to get her answer. “He can’t ignore me now.”
For single parents, a move for support
When Avidale Balanzat found out that both of her sisters had moved into a complex in Bayonne, New Jersey, she wanted in.
“I said, ‘There is no way you guys are going to get to see each other and I am not going to be there,’ ” she said, referring to her sisters, Vydanez Balanzat and Rovi Balanzat, who both moved into the building in July.
Avidale Balanzat, who goes by Avi, quickly arranged a building tour, asking the leasing agent to show her a unit facing the inner courtyard, not so she could see the swimming pool, but so she could have an apartment where she could see her sisters. “I wanted to see everyone from the balcony,” she said.
The entire living arrangement was happenstance. Rovi Balanzat, a clinical application analyst at a hospital, found the building by mistake. In June, she was heading to Costco and made a wrong turn, ending up at the building, which was brand-new and looked to her like an oasis. A single parent with two young children, she was tired of living in a cramped Jersey City apartment with no amenities. She was sold on the swimming pool, the children’s playroom and other amenities, quickly renting a two-bedroom.
A few weeks later, her youngest sister, Vydanez Balanzat, who goes by Vy, followed. The lease on her Jersey City apartment had expired, and she saw the move as an opportunity to finally see her sister again. She had been living with a roommate who was a pharmacist, and so at a higher risk of contracting the virus. Because of that, Vy Balanzat, an accountant, hadn’t seen either of her sisters in four months — normally, she saw them every other week.
Next came Avi Balanzat, who works in information technology and quickly found someone to take over the lease on her apartment in Jersey City. In September, she moved into a two-bedroom with her 11-year-old daughter.
For the Balanzat sisters, the move has been transformative. The cousins play together in the complex, and the sisters share in the child care, helping with homework and class time during a year of remote learning that was taxing on the two single mothers. When the holidays arrived, they didn’t have to make hard choices about how to celebrate. Their parents, who live in Jersey City with their 14-year-old brother, Arvinz Balanzat, were able to safely celebrate with them, too. Now that the family is vaccinated, their parents visit frequently and Arvinz sleeps over every weekend.
“The pressure was off, definitely, especially when we all moved in together,” Rovi Balanzat said. “We were able to limit the celebration to those who were already living in the same building.”
Together as the world reopens
Now, as cities and states ease pandemic restrictions, these siblings find themselves with living arrangements they established to weather a difficult time. The moment may be passing, but they’re still living in the aftermath. Caspi, the sibling specialist, sees that as a good thing.
“Close adult-sibling relationships are linked to so many positive, good outcomes in other places in life,” he said, including better health, happiness and career and romantic success. “The fact that they’re having these opportunities to develop these relationships, even if they’re temporary in arrangement, has long-lasting effects. They carry through your entire life.”
Some siblings interviewed, including the Balanzat sisters and Amanda and Ryan Gerome, have no immediate plans to change course. For others, the time is fleeting.
Stephanie Pellicano isn’t certain how much longer she’ll be living in Jersey City, potentially leaving her sister, Jacqueline, behind in the apartment she moved into in November.
“It’s kind of like it was meant to be that we get to spend the last of this time together,” Jacqueline Pellicano said. Once her sister leaves, “It’s going to be definitely strange because I feel like she was one of the main purposes of why I moved there.”
The Conroy sisters also see their time in Harrison as a transitional one. “It’s not inexpensive to live here,” Beth Conroy said. Her goal now is to save money for a down payment for a small apartment. “This really is a steppingstone.”
Her sister, Sarah, whose cost of living fell when she moved to Harrison, views the move as a “baby step to being out of the city.” She, too, hopes to buy a home, but she’s not sure where. For now, she’s enjoying the time with her sister. “Wherever I end up,” Sarah Conroy said, “I’ll always make sure that I’m close to family.”