When Gayle MacDonald decided to look for someone to share her home, she didn’t want it to be like another roommate situation she’d had before where everything was separate but under one roof. She wanted to be able to share not just her house, but her home. Also, she was retired and she wouldn’t be able to stay in her home without financial help. That’s something that Home Share Oregon is trying to address. They run Silvernest.com for the state, which matches up seniors looking for housing with those who have a spare bedroom to rent. Tess Fields, director of Home Share, estimates that there are a million homes in Oregon with a spare bedroom, and many of those could house people who have few if any other option for affordable housing. Fields and MacDonald join us to tell us more about this model and how its working in Oregon.
Note: The following transcript was computer generated and edited by a volunteer.
Dave Miller: This is Think Out Loud on OPB. I’m Dave Miller. The housing shortage in Oregon is big enough that no single initiative is going to solve it, it’s going to take many efforts at once. We heard about one new approach yesterday, the nonprofit in Eugene that plans to build its own affordable manufactured homes. We’re going to explore another approach today, one focused specifically on housing affordability for older Oregonians. Home Share Oregon is running Silvernest.com for the state. The site matches up seniors looking for housing with those who have a spare bedroom to rent because there are many such seniors and many empty bedrooms. Tess Fields is the Executive Director of Home Share Oregon. Gayle MacDonald is a retired massage therapist who found a roommate through this service. They both join me now. It’s good to have both of you on Think Out Loud.
Tess Fields: Thank you.
Gayle MacDonald: Happy to be here.
Miller: Tess Fields, first. Why did you decide to focus on this particular piece of the housing picture?
Fields: As we were stepping into this space and seeing increasing numbers of people who were at risk of displacement as a result of the lack of affordable housing, we began to ask ourselves, what isn’t being done? There’s a lot of people out there working really hard to build more units, hotels are being renovated, etc. and one of the things that we came across was home sharing and we did some research and learned that there’s 1.5 million owner occupied homes across the state of Oregon that have a spare bedroom and we felt that if just 2% of those homeowners decided to rent a spare bedroom, we could house 30,000 people affordably with no new infrastructure. We also learned that one out of every three homeowners are in fact mortgage burdened, meaning that they’re spending more than 30% of their income on their housing needs. And this really contributes to social problems that we see down the road. When you’re housing or mortgage burdened, you can’t afford as good of health insurance, you can’t afford to save for your kid’s college education, you can’t afford to save for your own retirement. And so we asked ourselves if we could start matching these populations, then we could kill two birds with one stone, we could create financial resilience for at risk homeowners. And then we could also expand access to housing for people who can afford $700 a month or $800 a month, which is typically what a home share issue is, as opposed to $1700 a month for a one bedroom apartment. And so how can we expand housing, frankly, by putting to work under-utilized housing inventory across the state of Oregon in spare bedrooms?
Miller: On a really basic level, this doesn’t sound new, people have had roommates for a very, very long time. What do you think is novel about what we’re talking about?
Fields: It’s really about bringing back into, when you’re middle aged or older, what we all did when we were younger, you’re right, we home shared, and back prior to World War II, we had boarding houses and things like that. But American culture sort of moved away from that, we’re expected to have roommates when we’re young. We were living with multiple people when we were in college, etcetera, but when we get married or partner up and buy a home, that cultural expectation does a real shift. And there’s actually a stigma kind of associated if one chooses to home share as a homeowner. So I think what’s innovative and novel about it is really sort of adjusting the cultural norm in terms of, once we were aged, to put to work this, seeing a spare bedroom as housing inventory as opposed to just a spare bedroom.
Miller: A place to just keep some of your extra stuff?
Fields: Right, right. As opposed to putting homeowners at ease in terms of some of the steps that need to be put into place to make sure that they can move forward with this decision confidently and securely.
Miller: Gayle MacDonald, how long have you owned your home?
MacDonald: Well, I’ve lived in this home for 15 years as a renter, but recently my friends who owned the house, they had purchased it for their mother, were ready to sell and they offered me a great deal. So I’ve only been the owner since April 15.
Miller: But for the last 15 years, when you were living there, were you often sharing the house with other people?
MacDonald: I was always sharing the house with other people, first with my friend’s mother and then when she had to move because of health reasons, the person who was cleaning house for her needed a room to rent and so she rented the master bedroom there.
Miller: So you’re used to this at this point, living with other people, perhaps not necessarily strangers at first, but not necessarily friends or family either. What were those different relationships like for you?
MacDonald: With my friend’s mother, I had been sort of like a peripheral part of the family, so that was easy peasy, moving in with her, and then moving, having somebody else then move in with me, it’s different because then I was the established person and she was the new person and so there’s a, just to figuring out like, what’s this going to look like and we hadn’t talked about it ahead of time. It just was sort of like, oh, okay, I have a spare room, why don’t you rent the spare room? Whereas, now with the home share thing, I thought things through ahead of time. I’ve done this a few times now and because of the platform, because of the application we had to put in, the questions that we had to think about which were awesome questions. Both my present roommate and I, we had to think through some things which was really, really helpful.
Miller: What were some of the things in the process of matching, the questions you’re talking about, that you found to be most helpful?
MacDonald: Oh well it was a year ago or so that I put in my application. And so COVID was still an issue and there were quite a few COVID questions about what my expectations would be in terms of having her guests over and her masking procedures, that kind of thing. And we matched up with that. There was one about guns that always sticks in my mind because that’s really an issue for me. And I probably wouldn’t have had, maybe the moxie, to say to somebody straight out, it’s just like I am not, I don’t want to live with guns.
Miller: But you didn’t have to ask that because that was already one of the questions to help people sort out compatibility?
Miller: What else in terms of mutual, do we want to live together, kinds of questions?
MacDonald: I don’t remember, and Tess maybe can say what the questions were, but I was able to suss out that Brenda, who was my match, she was into nursing, she was into photography. We were into alternative kinds of things, like I’m a massage therapist. So we were into, we had a commonality, a foundation that we could build a friendship on and that has come to be.
Miller: What were you looking for overall? I mean there’s these nitty gritty questions of compatibility, but what were you looking for overall in terms of the level of relationship you’d have with the person you’re going to be sharing your home with?
MacDonald: I put out an intention that I wanted to home share. Like literally I wanted to share my home as opposed to my last roommate where we had everything divided. Like this is your cupboard and this is my cupboard and this is my part of the house and this is your part of the house.
Miller: Living with a tenant, it seems like before, but you wanted to share the home to have a companion?
MacDonald: Yeah, literally to share the kitchen, to cook together, to shop together, to eat together, sometimes. So we both have dogs, that was a crucial thing, that our dogs got along, and we walk our dogs together and so we we home share and we actually life share, I would say.
Miller: Tess Fields, what happened when you initially put an ad out for this matching service for home sharing?
Fields: We were really interested in launching an organization that could scale statewide, and that meant keeping people empowered to be able to participate in this process fairly independently. And we were met with a lot of skepticism. People were, we received feedback like, people wouldn’t do this, they don’t want strangers moving into their house, etcetera. And we didn’t know what the response would be. We just wanted to try, because again, we were coming at this from the perspective of, a spare bedroom is underutilized housing inventory, and there’s so many people out there who are living in homes that can’t afford to pay the mortgage on their own and they’re making great sacrifices to stay in their homes and they need some assistance. So we launched the program and had a website and then I decided we needed to market the program and let Oregonians know that this was a service that they could log onto at homeshareoregon.org. It was a free service, a secure service. And so we cut two television commercials and a radio ad to raise some dollars and got our ads up on the air and we immediately were just overwhelmed with the response. It was as though a tsunami hit. There were hundreds and hundreds of phone calls and emails that came in from, what I consider all 36 counties across the state. People who really wanted to home share, didn’t completely have the confidence to do it on their own, had a lot of questions, wanted to be more educated on the process and also people, housemates, these were folks that were massage therapists or whatever and they were looking for an affordable place to live. We all know that in the urban centers, specifically, across the state of Oregon, a one bedroom, one bath apartment is around $1,500 a month. And that doesn’t include first and last and a security deposit. So oftentimes people have to come up with $4-$5,000 just to get into an apartment. And so it was, the response was overwhelming. It’s still overwhelming. Many, many people are interested in home sharing. Many homeowners are interested in home sharing, helping them to navigate the process is what we do and what we do well, and really encouraging people and providing them with the resources that they need, as Gayle articulated, to think through the process so that it can be a successful experience for folks, so that any issues that might arise have already been somewhat addressed and discussed, prior to somebody moving in.
Miller: There are plenty of other, both dedicated websites for finding roommates on also places like Craigslist. What’s different about Silvernet or Home Share Oregon?
Fields: Well, the difference I think is really the direct contact and support that people have access to through Home Share Oregon and the fact that when you go through Home Share Oregon, the technology application for compatibility matching is free. It doesn’t cost anything, but in addition to that, the technology provides not only compatibility matching, where you’re not overwhelmed with all of these people, say you go up on Craigslist and all of a sudden you get 100 people that are asking, can I move in, can I move in, with no screening? What happens is it makes it manageable, the people that are responding makes it manageable and it weeds people out that you wouldn’t necessarily be able to get along with. And so it asked very specific questions, smoking versus nonsmoking, alcohol, no alcohol. What’s your lifestyle like, do you have a lot of guests over or are you a more quiet person?
Miller: Are you a dog person or a cat person?
Fields: Cat person and as Gayle articulated, she had an intent, she really wanted to home share or life share. Other people are more interested in a tenant relationship. And so those questions are asked. Do you want just a tenant kind of experience? Are you looking to really share your home with someone? These are expectations that are really critical to address prior to making any kinds of decisions and then the communication is secure. So you’re not providing your personal email, your personal phone number, all of these things as you’re initially communicating with folks, you’re going through a secure portal. And then in addition, we offer free background screens. And so, and this is really important, not just for homeowners, but also for housemates that are moving into somebody’s home, people want to know that they’re safe and that there’s not a criminal background and so on and so on and so forth. There’s also examples of rental and lease agreements that are unique to the home sharing experience. So it’s not just about, you pay your rent on this month and, and trash and utilities are covered. And this is, this is a six month lease or 12 month lease. It really comes down to, these are the common areas of the house, these are the quiet areas of the house, and you’re agreeing to some rules prior to the experience so that expectations are managed. Are you going to have your own cupboard or are we going to be sharing food. All of those things can be placed into the home sharing agreement so that people have clear expectations and can count on what their lifestyle is going to be like once they enter into this agreement.
Miller: Gayle MacDonald, we got a comment on facebook from Christina Elliott who wrote: “Co-housing for seniors may be the only way many can survive their elder years with any measure of financial security.” You were talking about the emotional connection that this situation with Brenda has led to for you, that you’re not just sharing a home, that you’re sharing a life as you put it. But what about financially, what has this arrangement meant for you?
MacDonald: Well, it’s meant that I could stay in this house that I’ve been in for a long time in an area that I love. When you think about it, it’s not true for me in particular, but women who are living on minimal Social Security, say $1400, that’s not very much money to pay rent and food and health insurance, etcetera. And so I’m kind of like, kind of at the periphery of that, but not totally into it. But I know a lot of women who, because of child rearing, they were not in the Social Security system for many, many years and they think that they’re going to stay married forever and then something goes pear-shaped as the British say. And so they end up being on their own without the resources that they need.
Miller: What advice would you give to people who maybe haven’t been or had roommates for 40 years, maybe they’ve never had roommates, but now for the whole wide variety of reasons that you and Tess Fields have been talking about now, they’re considering it. What advice would you give them for how to proceed?
MacDonald: Apply. Just because you apply, doesn’t mean you have to keep going. Then you’re going to meet up with the person and you’re gonna show them the house or maybe you just want to have tea with them. I remember meeting one lady, and I just knew, it’s just like I wanted somebody that I could really communicate well with, and that was really lively. So on a personality level, we just weren’t a match, but I wouldn’t have known that until we actually physically got together. So it’s just like, well, take each step, just do one step and then decide if you want to keep going. And then make a lease for six months, and if it’s not working, then it’s not working, and that’s part of the expectations.
Miller: Tess Fields, you started by saying that we need to adjust the social norms, that in our society, it’s expected or at least very common for young people, people in college, people soon after to live with other people. And then there’s this notion of the American dream that’s more separate, that we all go our own ways and we all live in our own homes. Financially, that is just not possible for many people right now, including many older people. But as you noted, the cultural norm is still there or the taboo against this or the hesitation. How do you change that?
Fields: I think it comes through education and, and that’s why I appreciate being on your show so much is, and Gayle can speak to this too, when she originally was like, I need to home share so that I can own this home and have a safe place to live in my senior years, her family and friends met, had skepticism, that you shouldn’t do that. You’re gonna have a stranger in your house, like that’s not, so on and so forth. And so that’s the kind of feedback I think that a lot of people receive, there’s a lot of trepidation and what we have to do is to educate the public, reach out to people, show them the appropriate process to do this so that those concerns are mitigated and neutralized. And so that eventually the question becomes, why would you do that? The question becomes, why wouldn’t you do that? You could be making another 1000 bucks a month, you’re not in your house by yourself all the time, you’re doing the community a service by expanding access to housing in an affordable way. Why, why would, why would you sit in a three bedroom house by yourself? So, you it’s really about meeting people’s concerns, educating them, providing them with the tools that they need so that those concerns are addressed and they feel confident and then the more people who choose to home share, like Gayle, getting their voices out there and sharing their stories.
Miller: Tess Fields, just briefly before we have to say goodbye, how much can this scale, I mean, what are your biggest dreams in terms of how common this could become in Oregon or around the country?
Fields: We do have a dream and that’s, as I articulated earlier, there’s 1.5 million owner occupied homes across the state of Oregon that have a spare bedroom available. And when you think about building affordable housing, you’re talking about, it’s $350 to $400,000 per door when you’re building an independent living structure or an apartment building. And then you’ve got to do additional infrastructure development, so you’ve got to get sewer in, you’ve got to get water in, you’ve got to build the school, you’ve got to build a fire station down the road, etcetera. With home sharing, the infrastructure is already there, all of those things are already taken care of, so not just from a housing perspective, but from a climate perspective, from a community building perspective, the possibilities and the promises of shared living space are exponential and can have wonderful, wonderful consequences in so many did different areas across the country. So my dream is that, again that these 1.5 million homeowners basically choose to rent a spare bedroom, whether it’s to a student or another senior or whatever, because in my mind, for every single person that chooses to home share, that reduces the need for an apartment and it opens up an apartment for somebody who might not be conducive to home sharing and who can’t home share, for whatever reason. So it’s really about expanding inventory for housing by making home sharing a part of all of the solutions that we have going on, a piece of the big puzzle, when it comes to the housing crisis.
Miller: Tess Fields and Gayle MacDonald, thanks very much.
Fields: Thank you. Thanks, Gayle.
Gayle MacDonald: Thanks, Tess
Dave Miller: Bye-bye. Tess Fields is the Executive Director of Home Share Oregon. Gayle MacDonald is a retired massage therapist who used Home Share Oregon to find a roommate or life mate, as she might put it. Tomorrow on the show, it has been 10 years since the Elwha Dam in northwestern Washington was taken down. We’ll hear how salmon have responded when we get an update from a long time fish biologist and habitat manager for the Lower Elwha Klallam tribe. Our production staff includes Elizabeth Castillo, Julie Sabatier, Rolie Hernandez, Lucy Suppah, Senior Producer Allison Frost and managing producer, Sheraz Sadiq. Nalin Silva engineers the show, our technical director is Steven Kray and our executive producer is Sage Van Wing. If you don’t want to miss a single one of our shows, you can listen on the NPR one app, on Apple Podcasts or wherever you like to get your podcasts. There’s also our nightly rebroadcast at 8pm. Thanks very much for tuning in to Think Out Loud on OPB and KLCC. I’m Dave Miller, we’ll be back tomorrow.
Think Out Loud is supported by Steve and Jan Oliva, the Rose E. Tucker Charitable Trust, Ray and Marilyn Johnson and the Susan Hammer Fund of the Oregon Community Foundation.
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