Joseph Bell, a retired Public Relations Director at the New York Institute for the Education of the Blind—now called the NY Institute for Special Education—was walking down Hanson Place several years ago when a pamphlet on the ground caught his eye. Its subject was the home sharing program of the New York Foundation for Senior Citizens, a 28-year-old service that pairs hosts— for legal reasons they’re never called landlords or prime tenants—with guests, at least one of whom must be over the age of 60.
Bell describes the program as a godsend. “In late 2006 my doctor told me that I needed to think about moving to a first floor apartment because I could not keep climbing four flights of stairs,” Bell, now 81, recalls. “I’d been thinking about how I’d make the transition since I’d lived in the same sixroom apartment for 50 years. My wife had died and my three kids had flown the coop, so I called the social worker whose name was listed on the leaflet.”
Bell now lives on Ocean Avenue, in a spacious two-bedroom facing Prospect Park, that is leased to 42-year-old Direen Patterson. Although he’s only been there since April 1—his first, 18-month home share ended in March due to a conflict between the lessee and the building owner—he is clearly at home in his new surroundings. “First,” he begins, pointing to the kitchen counters, “this place is immaculate and from my first conversation with Ms. Patterson, I could see that she is an educated woman. That was a great start. Plus,” he grins, “I can bird watch from my window.”
Patterson is also pleased with the arrangement. A researcher at the Agency for Children’s Services, she admits that she spent three or four years thinking about whether to open her home to a stranger. “I knew that I wanted to give back and share some of what I have,” she says. “I’d done a lot of reading about elderly people who are lonely and looking for someone to be around. I’d lived alone my entire adult life and the feeling that I should do something stayed in my mind. I’d thought about foster care but I had to decide if I was ready to give up that much of myself. I mentioned this to my aunt and she suggested I call the Department for the Aging to see about home sharing with an elder.”
That was in the winter of 2008.
After applying to be a host, NYFSC social workers visited Patterson’s apartment, interviewed her, and did a home assessment. “They asked a lot of questions about my likes, dislikes, and communication style and then got into specifics, like if I’d let a guest use the phone. They asked about sharing the bathroom and whether the person could cook in the kitchen. They also asked if I preferred a man or a woman,” she says.
According to program director Linda Hoffman, 31 variables enter the mix after which a computer program called Quick Match determines on-paper compatibility. “Sometimes we get agreement on 31 out of 31 but that still doesn’t mean it will be a good match,” she says. In-person meetings between prospective home-sharers are required to tease out chemistry, and since the program is small—there have been 1400 matches since 1995, 246 of them in Brooklyn—close monitoring is provided, at least initially.
Once parties agree to share spaces—which range from apartments to private homes—a written license agreement is signed by the host, guest, and NYFSC staff. “It’s like a pre-nup,” Hoffman quips, “specifying such things as smoking policy, the amount the guest will pay as a household contribution, whether they can have overnight or other visitors, who is responsible for keeping the place clean and sanitary, and the amount of notice needed to undo the arrangement. If the guest is expected to help with chores, from taking out the garbage, to making small repairs, to shopping, that’s also spelled out. ”
Matches, Hoffman continues, can last anywhere from a few months to years, but when it works, the relationship makes it possible for elderly participants to “age in place.” While the average host is 67 and the average guest is 39, people like Bell and Patterson flip the typical. It’s a question of who requires what, when.
Meeting the Needs of Impoverished Seniors
By all accounts, New York City’s population is aging, and it is getting poorer as it does so. According to a March 2008 report released by Public Advocate Betsy Gotbaum, the 65-plus population is expected to increase from approximately 938,000 to 1.35 million by 2030. This would not be noteworthy were it not for the correlation between homelessness, poverty, and getting older.
According to the Public Advocate’s study, the average monthly rent for a one-bedroom is $1185 but average Social Security income is $1011. The $174 deficit comes before food, clothing, transportation and medical bills are factored in. Add in the more than 217,000 who are on city waiting lists for 17,000 units of federally-funded supportive housing for the elderly, and the magnitude of the crisis becomes evident.
These realities have made the NYFSC’s home sharing program increasingly appealing to hosts and guests alike. “At first, in the 1980s and early 1990s when we began the program, people didn’t understand either the idea or the appeal of living with a stranger,” Hoffman says. “They didn’t see how it could be a viable, affordable housing option.”
But viable and affordable it is. Indeed, the household contribution paid by guests ranges between $400-$1000 a month, and often includes phone use and utilities. Deals like this are rare, and as the Great Recession continues, it is not surprising that calls to the NYFSC have gone from a handful a week, to eight or nine a day. “Before the financial collapse people called us and, more often than not, expressed feelings of isolation and loneliness as their reasons for wanting to open their home or live with someone,” Hoffman says. “Now, it’s mostly financial concern that motivates them.”
The upshot is that some seemingly odd couples have found their lives entwined. There’s a 96-yearold Jewish widow sharing her Coney Island co-op with a 47-year-old African American survivor of domestic violence. There’s a homebound 80-something in Sheepshead Bay who has given a free room to a 46-year-old Sudanese refugee in exchange for companionship and help with cooking, cleaning, and shopping. And there’s a 26-year-old Hunter College student who pays $700 a month for a room in a five-bedroom Ditmas Park Victorian owned by a married couple in their 60s.
In the end it’s about reciprocity. “I get a good feeling from opening my home,” says Direen Patterson. “But it also helps me put a little money away and helps me stabilize my income.”
The New York Foundation for Senior Citizen’s Home Sharing program is located at 11 Park Place, New York, NY 10007; phone: 212.962.7559; www.nyfsc.org.
ContributorEleanor J. Bader
Eleanor J. Bader is a teacher, writer, and activist. She writes the monthly Stoking Fire column on rhrealitycheck.org, and also contributes to feministreview.org, ontheissuesmagazine.com, The Progressive and other progressive, feminist publications and blogs.