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."