Planning — March 2014

My House Is Your House

A fresh look at home sharing.

By Anne Wyatt

When our father died in 1994, my sister and I inherited his legacy, including his home, a three-level faux Monterey colonial, built in the 1930s on a pine-covered hill overlooking Los Angeles. The location, view, and adjacent tennis court were ideal, but as the new home owners we did not value the empty rooms and large garden. The 3,000 square feet of living space with four bedrooms and two two-car garages was more than we wanted — a little spooky even. Unlike our father, neither of us could afford to pay the mortgage, and the effort to maintain the large, somewhat isolated home and garden seemed wasteful as well as burdensome.

The upshot was that we adapted the house to better suit our own lifestyles. A few new doors, an extra bathroom, and a Jacuzzi were easily added, and an unused formal living room became a fifth bedroom. A "room for rent" ad at a local university brought a lively bunch of professors and students to fill the empty bedrooms and share occasional meals and sunset soaks after tennis matches. The mortgage got paid, the home blossomed into a lively social space, and sharing reduced individual energy use. Neighbors affectionately referred to our colorful household as "the commune."

According to the 2010 Census, eight million households are nonfamily home sharers. Changing demographics suggest we may see a continuing uptick in nonfamily households (comprised roughly of nonfamily home sharers and persons living alone). At this same time, according to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, the nation's 10 million low-income renters face a shortfall of 5.1 million housing units. More troubling still, our supply of affordable units is shrinking.

Given ongoing fiscal constraints and the high cost of construction, we are not going to build our way out of this shortage; we must be smarter about working with existing infrastructure and housing units. Home sharing offers the benefits of affordable, sustainable, diverse housing, aligned with our new sharing economy. It could get millions of renters into affordable, decent, already existing homes and in some cases, assist the elderly to age in place.

Yet home sharing has its challenges. Doubters include policy makers, planners, the IRS, and neighbors. In some cases, zoning and home owners association rules make home sharing illegal. Covenants, conditions, and restrictions in towns like Harmony and Celebration, Florida, require that all members of a household must form a "single housekeeping unit," excluding unrelated sharers. Single-family residential restrictions can run house sharing afoul of local zoning ordinances, and the federal tax code makes reporting income and deducting expenses for shares challenging. Where home sharing is not actually against the rules, it is often rejected because of narrow social constructs of "family unit," "overcrowding," and potential noise and parking impacts, or it is simply neglected.

Forward-looking communities should recognize and leverage the rewards of home sharing and promote it.

Defining terms

Home sharing can be defined as common residence in a dwelling unit by unrelated persons (not family members). Generally, home sharers use common interior spaces (kitchen, bath, living room), but they have their own bedrooms. In some instances, home sharers may have separate interior spaces, with only shared exterior spaces or peripheral space (such as a garden area, laundry room, access ways, and parking).

Often the terms "roommate," "housemate," and "home sharer" are used interchangeably. One sharer or both sharers could own the home, or sharers could rent a home together, or a sharer could pay rent to the owner.

A point of ambiguity arises because of shared interior space. The 2010 Census defines a housing unit as "a house, an apartment, a mobile home, a group of rooms, or a single room that is occupied ... as separate living quarters ... those in which the occupants live and eat separately from any other persons in the building and which have direct access from the outside of the building or through a common hall."

Using a strict definition of home sharing, where kitchen and living area are shared, is problematic. Although there may be added social benefit from shared spaces, home shares with primarily private space may meet economic and sustainability objectives while minimizing risk or perceived risk.

Consider this example — a home share with no common interior space (except laundry): The home owner has the front of the house (bed, bath, living, kitchen); the renter lives in the back of the house (bed, bath, kitchenette, sitting area); each has a separate entry; and a hallway door separates the spaces.

Having the two living areas in one house is efficient, safe, and affordable. It works well for the two single residents in the house. While the home sharer says she would enjoy having more space and a full kitchen, she also says this: "I like the low rent and spend the extra money elsewhere." This home sharer of 20 years also enjoys the simplicity: "no legal entanglements." She has no obligations for utility accounts or mortgages and can leave with a month's notice.

Under a strict definition of home sharing, this arrangement would not be a home share. Using the Census definition, this home share would be considered multiple units, although the actual home alteration includes only a door in the hallway.

Multiple units may violate zoning ordinances in a single-family residential neighborhood, and such a share would not be facilitated by some home-sharing organizations (there are both national and local groups — more on that below) even though it serves the needs of both residents, uses existing space and resources efficiently, provides affordable housing, and causes few if any negative problems for neighbors because both residents are quiet and there is adequate on-site parking.

Who benefits

Shared housing is a "community-focused solution that fosters social connectedness and creates mutually beneficially relationships. The shared housing model is particularly well-suited for supporting the elderly, veterans, single mothers, individuals in transition, and other vulnerable groups," according to Henry Cisneros, the former secretary of HUD, as quoted in the ALA Strategic Guide, Strategies for Scaling Shared Housing.

House sharing is clearly a useful option for vulnerable groups. It is also useful for those who seek to minimize housing-related environmental impacts, enjoy simple living and flexibility, and want to boost social connections. House-rich and cash-poor home owners can benefit as well.

Successful programs

Recognizing the benefits of shared housing, some communities already have set up home-sharing programs. The National Shared Housing Resource Center (www.nationalsharedhousing.org) lists 62 home-share programs in 22 states. About half of these programs assist seniors, some serve special needs populations, and other programs are open to all.

ElderHelp of San Diego is a nonprofit home-share program that matches elderly home owners with those in need of housing. Sharers have the option of paying rent, providing services to the elderly persons they live with, or some combination. According to their website, ElderHelp matched more than 50 seniors to help them safely stay in their homes in 2012, and it helped this same number of people of limited means to get housing at a low rate or for free.

HIP Housing in San Mateo, California, another nonprofit, has one of the largest home-share programs in the country, according to program director Laura Fanucchi. HIP home share, she says, matches as many as 350 individuals and oversees 750 matches a year. (Match oversight may continue for several years.)

Unlike ElderHelp, the HIP program aims to provide affordable housing to all persons in need. "Success is defined by being able to provide housing for people at the moment they need it," Fanucchi says. In other words, home sharing can be a success, even if it lasts only a short period.

Funding is the biggest challenge the HIP program faces, Fanucchi says. With affordable housing at a premium in the San Francisco Bay Area, the program has five times more people looking for rooms than rooms to offer. Reflecting high demand, one home sharer in San Luis Obispo, California, another of the least affordable housing markets in the nation, reports that she had 18 inquiries within one hour for a $700 room listed recently on Craigslist.

For-profit home-share matching programs, such as Portland's www.LetsShareHousing.com and www.SharedHousing.com, offer housemate listing services and a menu of offerings both for free and for a fee. According to Zoe Morrison of Let's Share Housing, the group has recently signed on a contractor and insurance specialists to consult with clients and facilitate safe shares.

What's out there

Many looking to share a house know they can log onto Craigslist, search an area of interest, click "housing" and then "rooms and shares" to post or find a place. A scan of the San Francisco Bay Area provided over 500 share posts on a recent day.

Posts range from "rento cuarto" ($520 in Hayward) to "shared suite in Le Chateau McMansion" ($1,100 in Redwood City).

While there are many mainstream options, matching services most often provide needed assistance to elderly and special needs populations less able to negotiate transactions. Programs are a one-stop shop assisting with the full range of requirements: qualifying suitable homes, matching and screening, providing rental agreement and house rules assistance, dispute resolution and mediation services, and follow-up.

Fanucchi sums up the HIP program value: It adds a level of security to transactions and a resource for backup.

Minimizing risk

"By far, the greatest obstacle to home sharing is fear," says Annamarie Pluhar, author of Sharing Housing: a Guidebook for Finding and Keeping Good Housemates and a home share consultant. Home sharing has risks, but many are more perceived than real. Even perceived risks pose challenges, however.

"Independence is the arrangement that is the least complicated and the easiest to manage," Pluhar says. So it is not surprising that many choose to live alone, missing the potential for connection and the other benefits that home sharing offers. People try to avoid the risks of complication and possibly the greater risks to personal security and privacy.

The successful sharing of home spaces takes skill, effort, ongoing management, and occasional negotiation. Lease agreements must spell out financial arrangements including rents, deposits, and bill sharing. House rules need to spell out cleaning tasks, pet rules, acceptable noise levels, standards for sharing personal items, guest privileges, smoking, and parking allocations. All this can be challenging even for the most capable.

While common living areas can bring social benefit for some, others with different goals — reducing their environmental impact, for example — may find that less shared space may best meet their own needs. Some may feel safe only with private living spaces. Given these realities, shares of both types should be considered and provided for.

Even with all these considerations, creating comfortable, safe, efficient spaces for home sharing is not difficult. Separate, well-planned spaces allow people to come together when they want to and avoid it when they do not. Where the existing dwelling layout provides a couple of entry areas and a few bedrooms with attached bathrooms, separate living areas may be created simply by putting a lock on a door or a door across a hallway, or by installing an interior divider.

Many of those who do not cook can be well served by a kitchenette with a microwave and mini-fridge, both of which can be purchased for under $200 and fit into small rooms and even closets. In many situations, comfortable, safe, affordable shared housing can be created for less than one month's rent.

Planners' role

Physical preparation of home spaces for shares. Not all homes are well set up for sharing, but many can be made so with simple steps. Planners can help home owners by providing information on conversion of existing residences to efficient shared residences. They can provide guidance on building and permitting codes. Upfront cost-assistance programs and design and permitting assistance can help facilitate shares.

Making the case for home shares. Planners can take the lead in reframing the public perspective: Get over "juvenile" and "commune" and think "choice" and "smart."

Zoning and allowing shares by right in RSF neighborhoods. Planners can draft and promote policy to allow nonfamily roommates by right, as in California. Restrictions against home sharers in CC&Rs, still common in Florida and other states, are discriminatory.

Definitions and policy implications. It's possible to include the definition of home share in housing elements and affordable housing action plans, and to expand the accepted definition of home share to include shares with common space and shares with little or no inside common area. For example: "A home share is a common residence in a dwelling unit by unrelated persons (not family members). Home shares include situations with common living areas in a single unit and situations with separate living areas within a single housing unit."

An operable door between living areas may make the single unit a home share. A permanent wall between living areas, on the other hand, may qualify the set-up as two units.

Overcrowding. Flip the common thinking and consider the costs of too few people in a house (community infrastructure costs, lack of affordable housing, health and pollution costs of long commutes to work) side by side with the impacts of overcrowding.

Start home share programs in areas where there are none: Provide training and informational programs to help potential home sharers manage expectations, clarify goals, and overcome fears; provide matching assistance services, security screenings, deposit pools, mediation and dispute resolution services; provide lease and house rules forms; provide guidelines on codes relevant to shares; and provide follow-up monitoring to communicate, promote, and replicate success.

More study. Analyzing demographics and housing preferences will clarify who is most likely to benefit from home sharing: singles, the elderly, women, young people? Then it is a matter of providing a path.

Anecdotal evidence suggests that many people seek ways to provide housing for others while helping themselves, but they may need help figuring out how to do so. For them, offering up a spare bedroom to a low-income renter may be a token way to pitch in, like pounding nails on a Habitat house or planting a victory garden.

"People start thinking about home sharing for economic reasons but stay with it for social reasons," Pluhar says. Like millions of others, my sister and I stumbled into the new sharing economy before it had a name, and we enjoyed multiple benefits. As we collectively shift from an outdated emphasis on ownership to a new model of access and aim to provide decent housing for the millions who need it, home sharing can be a practical tool in the box.

Anne Wyatt is a housing policy planner, freelance writer, and former policy maker living in San Luis Obispo, California. She is publishing her first book, Downward Mobility: Revisiting Shelter, in 2014. Reach her at a.reneewyatt@gmail.com.

Resources

www.SharingHousing.com

www.LetsShareHousing.com

http://nationalsharedhousing.org

ALA Strategic Guide, Strategies for Scaling Shared Housing:www.alaseniorliving.org/files/attachments/HIGH%20Res%20ALA%20Strategic%20Guide.pdf