Under One Roof

6 minute read
Sally S. Stich

Five years ago, when Janice Rensch, a sales manager for Paychex, bought a house in a pricey neighborhood in San Mateo, Calif., she could afford the mortgage, but the monthly payments proved to be a stretch. Fifty-two and divorced, she did what young people have done for years–she took in roommates. “It’s like college without the beer parties,” says Rensch of life with her two female housemates. “We all have our own lives, we pass each other coming and going, we chat when any two of us are around, and we just feel more secure at night knowing someone else is in the house.”

Reminiscent of the TV show The Golden Girls, this type of postcollege-roommate arrangement is an attractive and increasingly popular alternative for single folks 50 and older. “The ideal situation for the aging population is housing that is available, affordable and accessible,” says Larry McNickle, director of housing policy for the American Association of Homes and Services for the Aging. “Given that in a recent AARP survey, we found that 86% of the people ages 55 and older owned their own homes and 83% of them wanted to stay in them for as long as possible, home sharing could be one alternative that meets all three requirements.”

The concept of home sharing among non-family members was introduced at a seminar on aging in the early 1980s by Maggie Kuhn, founder of the Gray Panthers and a home sharer herself. Kuhn’s case for the practice was fourfold: it used existing buildings, eliminating the need for new and costly construction; it conserved the neighborhood, assuming that the housemate helped with home maintenance; it avoided institutionalization for the homeowner; and it reduced loneliness.

What emerged from that seminar was the National Shared Housing Resource Center, which is now a network of more than 300 programs under the auspices of nonprofit agencies across the U.S. All offer a formal matching process that involves extensive interviews with both providers and seekers; mandatory reference checks; and help with writing contracts that address such matters as rent deadlines, the use of common areas and rules for entertaining friends and grandkids. The agencies also make check-in calls during the early stages of matching. If a conflict arises that housemates cannot resolve, or if a homeowner can’t get rid of the housemate from hell, the agencies will intervene–although the latter problem is mostly headed off by the screening process. All this is offered at no charge or for a nominal fee or donation.

To find housemates, Rensch went to HIP (Human Investment Project) Housing in San Mateo, one of the nonprofit agencies under the umbrella of the National Shared Housing Resource Center. “Particularly in parts of the country like California, where affordable rentals are in short supply, home sharing is a great alternative that benefits both parties,” says Laura Fanucchi, director of HIP Housing. “The majority of our home providers are 60 and older and need financial help in order to keep their homes. But seekers are anyone from college students to 70-year-olds with limited resources.”

In Rensch’s home, all three women have their own bedrooms, bathrooms and phone lines. They share all the common areas. They buy their own food and rarely eat together. For Wilma Grove, 69, Rensch’s newest housemate, the arrangement lets her be near her grown children yet still live on her fixed income. She pays about one-third of what one-bedroom apartments go for in the area.

For Mike Root, 58, who owns his home free and clear in Ann Arbor, Mich., sharing his house is mainly about companionship, not money. Never married, Root, a retired vocational counselor, uses a wheelchair, although he has some mobility in his legs. He relies on his housemate, construction worker Eduard Koopman, 54, to shop for his groceries once a week. In exchange, he offers reduced rent. His previous housemate, Maureen Salazar, 54, is a single woman who three years ago decided to leave the corporate world to pursue life as an artist. “I had to cut my living expenses,” she says, “and what Mike offered, in addition to his whole basement for my studio, was rent that was $350 less than what I had been paying.” Salazar was able to save enough money to move into her own place.

The varied reasons for home sharing often depend on age. In a study of 105 home providers conducted at the University of Kansas Life Span Institute, researchers R. Mark Mathews and Deborah Altus found that people 55 to 70 tended to value home sharing for its financial savings while the 70-and-older group prized the service and security. The older people wanted someone else in the home so that they would feel safer as well as get some help with chores. “One woman in her mid-70s, who’d applied for a housemate after her husband died, ended up having six different housemates over several years–all of them foreign students at a nearby university,” says Mathews. “She helped them with their English, and they taught her about their culture. Now she feels like she has family all over the world.”

Enhanced well-being is no small benefit of a shared-living arrangement. Social isolation is a major issue for older people, especially widows and widowers who suddenly lose their social support. “What we’re really talking about when we speak about aging and housing,” says McNickle, “is long-term care. And home sharing is an option that brings in an informal support system, re-creating, in some cases, a family structure.” Baby boomers may be the perfect candidates. “This is a generation that enjoyed communal living in the 1960s,” says Robyn Stone, executive director of the Institute for the Future of Aging Services in Washington. “As they age, they may be perfectly amenable to living with non-family members–more so than the current aging population–if it means being able to stay in their own homes.”

Even for those whose college days predated hippie communes, like Janet Carroo, 75, and her housemate, Betty Koontz, 79, the shared-housing arrangement can be life transforming. When Carroo asked the Center of Concern in Park Ridge, Ill., for a housemate shortly after her husband died, she never expected to find a new best friend. Both women are widows living on fixed incomes, but they have created a rich and energetic life together–going to church, sharing meals, visiting the elderly as volunteers and traveling together to see their grown children in Florida and Arizona. “We’ve become like sisters,” says Koontz, “and living with Janet has made my life much happier.”

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