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How ‘ for roommates’ could save seniors from homelessness

Web services like Silvernest pair priced-out renters with financially struggling homeowners.

By Hanna Merzbach

In the middle of the night in October 2021, Brenda Rose was up with her sick dog, Hazel, searching the web for housing in Portland, Oregon. For 15 months, Rose, 62, had been living on the city’s streets in an RV. The pandemic had wiped out her photography business, and she could no longer afford her rent. When her RV broke down, she says, she was feeling “at the end of my rope.”

“I didn’t think I would get to retirement age and not have money,” says Rose, who had a housing budget of $900 a month in a city where the average rent of a one-bedroom apartment is nearly double that. 

After scouring ads on every corner of the web that night and finding nothing in her price range, Rose finally found what she calls “a lifesaver”: Home Share Oregon, a nonprofit launched in 2019 to match people in need of affordable housing with financially struggling homeowners who have open rooms. Home Share Oregon provides access to a platform called Silvernest which, much like does for dating, pairs housemates together through compatibility surveys. Without hesitation, Rose signed up.

After answering a series of get-to-know-you questions, the site paired Rose with Gayle Macdonald, a 70-year-old retired massage teacher on a fixed income who had an extra room in her Northeast Portland ranch house. The pair discussed everything from how their dogs, Hazel and Paulie, would get along to whether sponges or dish towels are better for doing the dishes (dish towels, obviously, they say), and determined it would be a good match. In late December, Rose moved into the house. Now you’d mistake the two for old friends. 

“Anything we can do to expand the supply of housing should be on the table.”

Alicia Sasser Modestino, Northeastern University professor of public policy, urban affairs, and economics

“It costs a lot to live nowadays,” says Macdonald. “So, I don’t know who this isn’t a good option for.”

In some parts of Oregon, rent has gone up more than 16% since the start of the pandemic, yet an estimated 1 million rooms sit empty in people’s houses in the state. Home Share Oregon leverages those rooms to both provide affordable housing and generate income for homeowners, while also, the organization says, reducing social isolation and loneliness. Similar home-sharing programs are popping up everywhere from Denver to New York City, with the National Shared Housing Resource Center counting over 50 such programs nationwide. 

This comes as pandemic-era foreclosure moratoriums expire, inflation is soaring, and affordable housing is growing scarcer, leaving many seniors particularly unprepared for retirement. Home-sharing is one way of taking advantage of the existing housing stock to ease costs. Such arrangements can be a welcome relief for people in the right circumstances. But they have limits as well, experts say, in the form of cultural barriers, access, and safety concerns.

Home-sharing platforms like Silvernest cater to many groups that struggle to pay rent or a mortgage, including students, low-income earners, and disaster survivors. But their main focus is generally seniors, and for good reason: Signs of a senior homelessness crisis are looming. As of September 2021, about 1.7 million homeowners over 55 were behind on their mortgage payments nationwide. 

Tess Fields, the executive director of Home Share Oregon, says baby boomers like Rose and MacDonald had no way of knowing how financially unprepared they would be for their retirement years. Costs have skyrocketed, and many in their generation started saving too late. She says older women are especially hard-hit. They are likely to outlive their spouses and have had fewer opportunities to save than men due to gaps in their wage-earning years — often because of their roles as the primary caregivers in their families.

“They have worked their entire lives and paid taxes their entire lives, and they’re at risk literally of being homeless,” Fields says. “Home-sharing … can increase their access to housing and make them less mortgage-burdened.”

When Home Share Oregon launched an advertising campaign in 2021, it was like a tsunami hit, Fields says. Nearly 2,000 renters or homeowners signed up for the platform by the end of the year, and 250 pairs have been successfully matched. Silvernest, which launched in late 2015, says it’s helped renters save $23 million and homeowners earn $31 million nationwide. The webapp’s user numbers have nearly doubled nationwide in recent months — from 1,600 new users in December 2021 to 2,800 in March 2022.

But those numbers still represent a small sliver of the housing market. What’s more, the number of potential renters using the service still far outnumbers homeowners, with only one room available for every three rental seekers in Oregon. Some of the disparity is simply because one family or couple living under one roof is a more familiar arrangement in the United States: A 2021 University of Washington study identified cultural barriers as one of the largest challenges facing the growth of home-sharing initiatives. It’s taboo for kids to live with their parents post-college, and — Golden Girls references aside — most seniors don’t think of renting out their spare bedroom. 

“Many of us have forgotten how to home-share — this is something we did when we were young,” says Fields, who is no stranger to home-sharing. Now 53, she has rented out a room in her house on multiple occasions, once following a breakup when she needed help covering the mortgage, and another time when she broke her legs and needed help with household chores. 

Silvernest lets users list a space or create a profile, message potential roommates, and access template lease agreements free of cost. Optional background checks cost $29.99 for most users, but nonprofits, like Home Share Oregon, cover these costs, regardless of the user’s income. Fields says the platform helps users get into the home-sharing mindset by prompting them to consider questions about the specifics of such an arrangement: whether they want to share a bathroom, allow guns in the house, or allow smoking and marijuana. The site also includes scenarios related to COVID-19, like, “When around non-household members, do you wear a mask?”

According to Silvernest president Riley Gibson, demand for home-sharing has taken off in recent months as the pandemic eases up and inflation reaches new heights. But “it’s still pretty niche,” he says. “I wouldn’t say the cultural shift has happened by any means.”

But that might not be the case for long, especially now that sharing of other types of assets — cars, vacation homes — is baked into the economy and culture. It’s only natural for this kind of technology-assisted sharing to move into the housing market at a time of desperate need, says Alicia Sasser Modestino, a professor of public policy, urban affairs, and economics at Northeastern University.

Modestino notes that home-sharing is nothing new — people have been doing it informally for decades. She herself lived with an elderly woman while in graduate school and did chores for a discounted rent. Home-sharing platforms are one of many efforts to utilize existing space for housing, like converting hotels into apartments or relaxing restrictions on mother-in-law units. The city of Boston ran a pilot home-sharing program in 2020, matching graduate students with senior homeowners. Later, the city worked with Nesterly — an MIT-born home-sharing platform — to scale the program.

“We’re in this crunch right now — there’s just no way we can build enough housing in the next one, two, three years to meet the demand,” she says. “Anything we can do to expand the supply of housing should be on the table.”

But it’s not always a perfect solution, some experts warn. Ted Landsmark, director of the Dukakis Center for Urban and Regional Policy at Northeastern University, is wary of home-sharing in a dense city like Boston, where people live in high-rises with greater fire hazards and safety concerns. He also points out that the city’s large populations of immigrants and students are always vulnerable to exploitation from landlords, who may want to cram people into small spaces and charge outrageous prices.

He points out that an informal kind of home sharing is already common in certain industries, and it can be less than ideal. In Boston, flight attendants or families of restaurant workers have packed into crowded units, and this has led to safety hazards and landlords taking advantage of desperate people.

“We all want to encourage a certain amount of home-sharing, but the circumstances and conditions have to be appropriate,” Landsmark says, emphasizing that public health and safety authorities in cities like Boston need to stay vigilant. “A digital platform is not a safe home,” he adds.

Digital home-sharing platforms also may not be accessible to all. Racial minorities and those with lower levels of education are less likely than white Americans to have high-speed internet access at home. And the people listing rooms for rent are more likely to be white, since the gap in homeownership rates between Black and white families today is higher than it was before the civil rights movement.

Still, such programs are expanding across the globe: According to Homeshare International, 19 countries have at least one formal home-sharing program. In the U.S., programs are especially widespread in Florida, with its large population of retirees, and California, where it has emerged in response to the state’s ever-rising housing prices and homelessness crisis. From Berkeley to Orange County, programs pair senior homeowners with college students, two groups who may otherwise be at risk of homelessness in the densely packed state.

In Portland, residents have a little more space to spread out. The Oregon home-sharing pair, Rose and Macdonald, each have their own garden outside the large ranch-style house. Rose’s $880 monthly rent includes not one, but two bedrooms — and her own bathroom.

“I’m really happy here,” Rose says. “And my kids are happy that I’m not living in an RV.”

Though Rose and Macdonald have their separate spaces, they do come together to eat dinner and walk their dogs, who now get along quite well. For them, home-sharing is not only a way to make living more affordable, but it’s allowed them to find friendship as they age.

“It’s not just the money,” Macdonald says. “It’s the relationship piece.”

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Hanna Merzbach is a reporter and fact-checker based in Bend, Oregon. She has written for The Atlantic, High Country News, and Portland Monthly.

Illustration by Raquel Aparicio


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