For seniors who want to age in their own homes but could use help with the housework or who feel a bit lonely, home-share programs offer a practical, safe solution. They match homeowners — usually seniors — with home seekers who are willing to trade services for reduced rent.
Often, especially in college towns, these home seekers are students; others might be low-income seniors or folks in transition due to divorce or changes in employment.
The concept originated with Gray Panthers activist Maggie Kuhn, who rented rooms in her Philadelphia home to younger adults at reduced rates in exchange for services and companionship. According to the National Shared Housing Resource Center, established by Kuhn in 1981, home-share agencies now exist in more than 20 states. They range from hands-on programs that do background checks, arrange matches and serve as mediators to agencies that simply provide information on resources in an area.
Several of the more successful full-service programs have been up and running for more than three decades. Among them are the Home Share program founded more than 40 years ago by Independent Living, a nonprofit senior support agency in Madison, Wisconsin; HomeShare Vermont, established in South Burlington in 1982; and HomeShare at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor’s Housing Bureau for Seniors, since 1982.
Though each is independently run, many of the basics are the same. Personal preferences are determined upfront: Does the seeker prefer a separate bathroom? What kinds of services does the home sharer expect? Perhaps most important is a thorough application process that includes background disclosure, income certification and at least three professional references.
“It is a barter system of sorts,” says Margo Fochs, coordinator of Independent Living’s Home Share program. “The seeker enables the sharer to stay safely in their home while paying a more manageable amount of rent.”
This is augmented by background checks and personal interviews and, at the University of Michigan’s HomeShare, says interim director Janet Hunko, a visit to the home to look at the space.
Rents are negotiated separately for each case and depend on what services the homeowner needs. Hunko says rent generally ranges up to $400 a month in the Ann Arbor area, depending on the circumstances. In rare cases, it might be waived entirely.
Program staff — most of them volunteers — do their best to find good matches between home sharers and seekers.
“One of the benefits of the screening we do is that it really helps people to find the right match,” says Kirby Dunn, HomeShare Vermont’s executive director. “HomeShare is really about relationships. It’s not like having a roommate where it’s ‘you go your way, I’ll go mine.'”
Applicants to both the Vermont and Wisconsin programs pay nonrefundable application fees — $30 and $50, respectively — as well as a match fee based on income, payable once a successful match of homeowner and tenant is found. Both agencies also receive some funding from local government and charities.
“As a private, nonprofit organization that relies heavily on charitable gifts, our fees are an important source of income for our program,” says Dunn. “We believe that people who benefit from our services should help pay for them.” The match fee in that program ranges from $60 to $500.
“There’s a suggested donation based on income” in Ann Arbor’s program, Hunko says, ranging from $300 to $500. Support for that program also comes from the university, community funders, private donations and fundraisers.
When a potential match is found, coordinators arrange an introductory meeting between the prospective housemates. Safeguards against hasty decisions are built in. “Even if they think it’s a fantastic match, there’s a two-day wait in case they change their minds,” says Hunko. “Then, if they want to go ahead, I will make a contract.”
In Madison and Vermont, applicants agree to a two-week trial period before the final contract is signed. Contracts in all cases spell out the terms agreed to in detail. But the relationship with the HomeShare agency doesn’t end there.
Program representatives keep in touch with participants, checking in from time to time to resolve any misunderstandings that may arise. Often it’s just a communication breakdown. For example, when a home sharer complained that his tenant was “cooking too much,” Fochs investigated and explained that his tenant, a commuter who lived in only part of the week, was preparing food to last him through the weekend.
Chores exchanged for all or part of the rent might include anything from shopping, cooking, light housekeeping or gardening to simply giving the homeowner the peace of mind of having someone else in the house at night. But any chores performed by the renter usually stop at personal services such as bathing or administering medications.
In Madison, Independent Living also offers a program called Home Share Plus for senior homeowners who need more assistance in order to stay home.
“When personal caregiving is required of the live-in companion, the companion continues to pay rent as before and also becomes an employee of Independent Living,” says Fochs. “The homeowner pays an hourly rate to us for personal care, and we pay a wage to the companion.
“So the caregiver has the benefit of workers’ compensation, and the homeowner does not have to pay employment taxes or handle the management of the staff. The homeowner pays only for time used for personal care needs.”
HomeShare Vermont offers a screening and matchmaking service for live-in or hourly caregivers who are then paid by the client. Dunn made a presentation to the 2012 National Symposium on Shared Housing about linking home-share programs with caregiving services, but says it will probably never become a national model. The two services make uneasy bedfellows, especially since adding caregiving services raises issues of liability.
Although it’s popular in places where housing is very expensive, home sharing is not for everyone, says Dunn. “Most people don’t want to share a home, their own or someone else’s,” she says. “People do it when they’re faced with no options, or options they don’t want to pursue.”
“As a culture,” says Fochs, “we want a home and a vehicle of our own. That represents a certain level of independence, and to give it up means having to face the reality that we need help.”
But as the boomer generation ages, Dunn says, making new connections and trying new solutions may become more common.