Brother, can you spare a room? Let’s help match seniors with places to live

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Craig Chance, the executive director of the Housing Authority of Thurston County, recounts this story about an elderly woman who applied for a rent subsidy:

“The client was spending about 85% of her income on rent. She was a classic example of someone living solely on a modest Social Security income. The client told me that before she received the Housing Choice Voucher rental assistance she knew it was just a matter of time before she was ‘renting someone’s garage.’ ... She shared with me that after receiving the news of the rental voucher, she cried tears of joy for two days.”

The rental voucher, a federally financed benefit, means she will pay just 30 percent of her income in rent, and the federal government will pay the rest.

She is very lucky. Chance says that nationally, only about 25 percent of low-income people who are eligible receive the subsidy. There is a lottery to get on the local waiting list; once on it, the typical wait is two to three years. The last time the general lottery was held, the waiting list was open for 2 weeks and there were 2,412 applicants. The lottery placed 1,000 households on the list. Those who don’t “win” the lottery are out of luck.

This shortage of federal housing help is now colliding head-on with the “silver tsunami” of aging baby boomers. According to Chance, more than half of new retirees will have no income other than Social Security. For most, it wasn’t profligate spending or lack of planning that led to this outcome; it’s the result of a lifetime of low-wage jobs, unpaid care-giving for family members, illness or disability, and a lack of pension benefits. Nationally, poverty rates for seniors are growing.

A tight housing market and rising rents make this problem immeasurably worse. Evidence of the growing crisis appears in the lobby of the Olympia Senior Center, where staff witness a small but growing number of homeless elders spending their days. Some are guests at the Interfaith Works shelter, which closes during the day. Some sleep in their cars. Another sleeps on her daughter’s couch, but feels obliged to be out of the house during the day.

Seeing this, the Senior Center launched a program to help match people with spare bedrooms to people who need low rent. People on either side of this equation may be in need; some homeowners need extra income to stay in their houses, just as others need to move out of apartments they can no longer afford. The program also helps people find roommates with whom they can share an apartment. So far they have nine successful matches, which they define as people still living together after six months.

Some of these arrangements include trading part of the rent for doing chores such as yard work. This helps get around covenants that prohibit house-sharing but do permit having a live-in caregiver. The partnerships also can cross lines of age, as some elders appreciate having a younger, more active roommate who’s not home all the time.

Still, these are difficult matches to make. “It’s like the ultimate dating service,” notes Senior Center Executive Director Eileen McKenzie- Sullivan.

Mallory Lowell, a Senior Center social worker, recently met with a woman who recently lost a loved one and now has only $25 a month beyond what she pays in rent. She is desperately trying to avoid eviction, and Lowell says “it’s hard to know if I can place her in time.” Lowell says she was surprised that this person left their meeting feeling more optimistic, even without assurance of a solution.

“People are often so grateful just to be heard,” she said.

To respond to this growing need, Thurston Thrives, the county’s all-purpose social and health services planning agency, has convened the Silver Team, whose aim is specifically to increase the availability of truly affordable elder housing. It is planning a daylong conference in late fall to bring together funders, developers, local governments and nonprofits to see what they can do.

In the meantime, the Senior Center is hosting a Homeshare Provider Forum from 2 to 3:30 p.m. Sept. 10 at The Olympia Center to encourage more homeowners or renters who have spare bedrooms to make them available. “We always have more people looking for a room than people willing to provide a room,” says Dolores Blueford, the outreach director for the shared housing program.

McKenzie-Sullivan acknowledges that the Shared Housing Program is just one small piece in the very large puzzle of the housing picture. But if you have a spare bedroom – and even if you don’t – it’s worth thinking about how big that puzzle piece looks to the woman with just $25 a month beyond the price of her rent.