Retirement insecurity and rising housing costs prompt more older adults to move in together
By Soo Youn For The Washington Post
Jodi Raffa has been searching for a roommate for over a year. Her husband passed away five years ago, and compounding her loss was a 75 percent reduction in her household income.
The 76-year-old lives in a sunny three-bedroom, two-bathroom home overlooking a lake in a 55-and-over community in Groveland, Fla. The sunsets from her back porch are “stunning.” However, the homeowners association fees just went up again and inflation has left her “flabbergasted.”
“I live on a very strict budget and am not able to indulge in any extras at all,” said Raffa, who worked in administrative jobs before she and her late husband retired in 2010. Raffa now views that move as a “hasty decision” in light of her financial circumstances. “I am a worrier and a planner, so logic suggested getting a roommate.”
When she takes out ads specifying women over 55, she gets responses mostly from men in their 60s or adults in their 20s, 30s or 40s. Raffa hopes for an easier way to find and vet potential sharers of her home. “I’m very frustrated,” she said.
Like so many boomers, Raffa wants to continue to live in her house and find a job working remotely, either in data entry or editing. Faced with escalating home prices and rents in tight housing markets, as well as careers or earnings curtailed by age or the pandemic, some boomers are looking to share their homes. Enter the boommates.
“With the boomers aging, you see higher and higher numbers in shared housing,” said Rodney Harrell, vice president of family, home and community at AARP, pointing out that boomers are more open than previous generations to trying alternative solutions to the traditional aging trajectory.
In an 1987 interview with NPR, the late Betty White noted that the four women who lived together in “The Golden Girls” did so for social reasons rather than financial necessity. “All that I think we have accomplished is to show that there is an alternative lifestyle,” White told “Fresh Air” about the success of the show. “If you notice, ‘The Golden Girls’ are not together for economic reasons. They’re together for sociological reasons. It combats the loneliness.”
Four decades later, the idea of housemates late into adulthood is experiencing a revival, but with financial factors front and center. As boomers live longer and retire without the financial safety net of employer-sponsored pensions, covering the rising costs of food, housing and insurance become major considerations. Linda Hoffman, president and CEO of the New York Foundation for Senior Citizens, which runs a home-sharing program, noted an increasing number of applications as finances become more of a stressor.
“When we started the home-sharing program in 1981, relieving feelings of isolation and loneliness was the primary need,” Hoffman said. “Now, an affordable place to live is the number one need. Hosts need help in meeting their housing expenses.” Even for housemates who entered into the arrangement for social reasons, the extra money has become more important as their financial picture changed with the pandemic.
Debbi Campbell, 70, a retired copywriter, met Loretta Halter, a retired manager from the Kroger grocery chain, in 2018 at a Czech cultural event in New York City. Campbell was mourning the loss of her live-in boyfriend of almost 20 years to cancer. Halter had moved to New York City from Appling, Ga., several years earlier. She had used the NYFSC home-sharing program earlier to find an affordable apartment but was unhappy in her situation, which is when she decided to become housemates with Campbell.
The two went through the NYFSC program to handle the background checks, vetting and administrative details before Halter moved into Campbell’s rent-stabilized one-bedroom apartment in Greenwich Village. Before the pandemic, the two lived somewhat separate lives. Campbell lived mostly in the bedroom and Halter lived mostly in the living room. But when the city shut down, they developed a strong friendship.
“First, we started with the crossword and the jigsaw puzzles, and the TV, and it turned out well,” Campbell said. The ease of the later-in-life roommate-as-friend experience surprised her. “I mean, I’m one of those people who’s spent a good time of my life in therapy, mostly complaining about people I knew.”
After initially being furloughed from her job as a long-term temp at the Department of Education in March 2020, Campbell retired in October 2020, at 68, more than a year earlier than she expected. She also opted to take Social Security benefits at that time, instead of waiting until 70 as she had planned.
“I had not been desperate over money, but having a pandemic come, suddenly you have company where you wouldn’t have. And suddenly there is extra money for you from home sharing, which I wouldn’t have had. It was just a bonanza. I feel like the luckiest person of the pandemic,” she said.
While the dozen home sharers interviewed for this article insisted their parents would have found the idea outlandish, having housemates later in life seems to be finding more acceptance. In 2021, 70 percent of adults over 50 reported being open to sharing their home with a family member who was not a spouse, 51 percent said they would be willing to share with a friend and 6 percent would share a home with a stranger, according to a survey from AARP. Of those who reported they would not share their home at all, 23 percent said they would change their mind if they needed extra income.
“The majority of people considering home sharing with a friend or family member tells me that there’s an opportunity there for more people to take advantage of that excess housing stock that we already have within our own homes, and that perhaps meet your needs, and those of a friend or neighbor,” Harrell said. “Or maybe companionship that may help with costs, such as caregiving. There’s just so much advantage there. And we’re just not necessarily taking advantage of it. It’s nowhere near its potential.”
The growing interest in home sharing, especially for those boomers who are house-rich and cash-poor in expensive housing markets, is being cultivated by nonprofit and commercial programs as well as municipalities. Since 2015, New York, Seattle, Denver, Tucson, Northern California and the metro Washington area all have established or are launching programs.
“From what we’ve seen, attitudes are loosening toward home sharing,” Riley Gibson, president of Denver-based home sharing service Silvernest, which pairs older adults with housemates. The service is particularly active in tighter housing markets such as San Francisco, Phoenix, Tampa, Miami and Los Angeles. Silvernest recently partnered with Montgomery County in Maryland to start a pilot program and plans to launch in a few more cities later this year.
Renters and homeowners can fill out profiles on the site, which supports services including lease templates, insurance and background checks. A similar service, Boston-based Nesterly, matches older adults with younger ones to promote intergenerational home shares. Senior Homeshares, another service, has enrolled nearly 70,000 members across the country since its inception in 2015.
Even before the pandemic, demographics were shifting toward nonfamily households. In 1960, 85 percent of households were composed of families, according to the Population Reference Bureau. By 2017, that figure had fallen to 65 percent of households.
As Americans continue to age, Harrell and others expect growing demand for more housing options. “As a society, we’ve been building and thinking about younger families and building housing and communities for younger people,” he said.
“But that need has been shifting as community leaders, builders and designers” are “starting to think more and more about what happens to us as we age. And covid has given momentum to those conversations,” Harrell said.
For Kim Bolding, 61, home sharing enabled her to stay in the five-bedroom Colorado Springs home where she had raised her biological, adopted and foster children after being diagnosed with a form of muscular dystrophy in 2012.
Bolding, a former social worker, was able to keep working from home until 2017. But after she was forced to go on Social Security disability, the payments weren’t enough to keep up with her housing costs. “I did not want to have to go into just affiliate-type living. I wanted to keep my home,” she said.
First, a longtime neighbor moved in downstairs, where he could have his own bathroom. With the help of Denver-based nonprofit Sunshine Home Share Colorado, Bolding found two more housemates. Since then, she has mostly lived with three other housemates at a time: two men on one floor sharing a bathroom and a woman on her floor. “It’s allowing me to be able to maintain my own individuality. I can say what I want when I set my own needs and rules,” she said.
All of the housemates are on disability, but collectively able to live independently. Bolding is able to host her adult children when they visit, but they don’t feel obligated to move in with her to manage her illness. Instead, she is building a new community with her housemates, holding regular dinners together.
“We run it like a family and we have space for others,” Bolding said. Having housemates is “a great alternative to being stuck in some place where you don’t have a lot of choices: who your neighbors are, who you interact with, or you lose a lot of autonomy and that’s part of the problem with aging,” she added.
Bolding has already had several housemates who have moved out because of a change in their fortunes. Two have received government-subsidized housing, one has gotten married and another inherited a house and cars from an uncle who recently passed away. She thinks of her house as a harbinger of good luck and said she has received many calls asking for information or guidance on doing something similar.
“It’s becoming more and more popular, especially for my age group for people in similar situations. We need each other. We get blessed and they get blessed,” Bolding said.