Housesharing: A Solution for All Ages

No doubt you have heard about—or perhaps experienced—housing insecurity. Homeowners are faced with skyrocketing property taxes; renters are desperate for affordable housing. Too many Americans have lost their peace of mind about the roof over their head.

A year before COVID hit, Boise State University saw an uptick in students who could not afford either campus housing or off-campus living. Some faculty reached out to nearby neighborhood associations to ask if they knew whether homeowners had extra rooms they’d consider renting to these students. This resulted in an Intergenerational Homesharing Group (IHG) that began investigating how to bring renters and owners together in a way that would safeguard and benefit both parties. Because my husband and I have had dozens of housemates, I joined this group to offer real-world experience.

We bought our 3,000-square-foot home in 1986, when Gary was 45 and I was 39. Both of us had experienced communal living previously, and my grandmother had lived with my family. We decided to share our home because it had more room than the two of us needed, and we could use help paying its expenses. We also wanted occasional assistance with snow shoveling, gardening and housecleaning.

During the last 35 years, we’ve welcomed single males, single females, couples and brothers. Some were students, and most were younger than we were, often by a generation or two. (None were related to us—that’s a whole different kind of homesharing, one that was quite common when I was young and is again part of the “new normal” for many families, thanks to low wages, school loans, the high cost of housing, and COVID.)

If you’re contemplating homesharing, here are some suggestions.

  1. The home must provide privacy for everyone.  In our case, the lower floor has a bedroom/bathroom suite with a large closet and an entrance on that floor. We also have a guest bedroom upstairs, and now that housing is so scarce, we offer it as well. Our renters have their own refrigerator and pantry on the lower level but share our upstairs kitchen and laundry facilities.
  2. Charge only what the renter can afford to pay. One woman, who gave birth to her son soon after she moved in, did housecleaning as her rent. They stayed with us for 9 months, until the toddler began to walk and the mom decided she wanted more space. Gary knew far more about parenting than she did, and he was very good with the baby. I learned what it might feel like to be a mother (I never had kids) and why people want to be parents. This experience was priceless to me.
  3. Interview in person. In all these years, we have never had a written lease. We meet people, decide if their needs and ours match, and set a certain length of time (usually a month) to determine if sharing space is going to work out for everyone. We’ve only had to ask one person to leave (a divorcing mom who needed more time with her young kids in the house than we could allow, since it wasn’t child-proofed). This informality works for us because we feel comfortable living with people we aren’t related to. Other homeowners and renters might prefer more formal arrangements.
  4. Expect the unexpected. Through home-sharing, Gary and I have met some incredible people. We’ve became friends with activists, journalists, an attorney, and musicians, many of whom we still see. One man who lived with us for five years planted an orchard for us (apricot, plum, apple, pear, cherry, peach and maple trees) and tended it in exchange for his room; after moving out, he has continued to be our orchardist for an hourly wage. Most recently, we’ve shared space with two 20-something New Americans born in Iraq and a 35-year-old Chinese visiting researcher in geology working at Boise State University. Our conversations with them are engaging and extraordinary!

While COVID put a damper on the Intergenerational Homesharing Group, two of us recently were invited to advise the City of Boise, which is researching options to address a major affordable-housing shortage. Homesharing is one of them, and rightly so. It requires no new (and expensive) construction, no empty land, no hassles with developers. What it does need is a formalized method of two-way outreach to connect owners and renters.

Data gathering for that has already begun. IHG developed interview questions designed to gauge owner interest in participating, and surveyed several individuals to explore the strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats of intergenerational housing.

In addition, we’ve identified a number of organizations that support shared housing and are eager to provide suggestions and data for homesharers and decisionmakers. Generations United (www.gu.org), SHARE Sonoma County (https://sharesonomacounty.org/), the National Shared Housing Resource Center (https://nationalsharedhousing.org/), Sharing Housing, Inc. (https://sharinghousing.com/), and the Population Health Learning Collaborative (https://improvepophealth.org/) are just some of them.

Is homesharing for you? Think about it!

Written by: Diane Ronayne

Diane Ronayne spent her career moving information from source to user in print and digital media as a writer, editor, and photographer. She finally figured out that her work in this life is pollinating: connecting people with each other and with useful ideas. Since “home is where the heart is,” she thinks homesharing is a perfect topic for this “Heart & Soul of Living” issue of Smart Strategies for Successful Living.