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In Our View: Sharing a home could help seniors, renters

The Columbian
Published: March 5, 2024, 6:03am

It is an ambitious idea, and one that generates questions. But it also is a creative plan for mitigating Clark County’s housing shortage and a proposal that warrants discussion.

As detailed recently in The Columbian, an organization called HomeShare Clark County, WA is promoting a program to pair seniors who own homes with renters in need of a place to live.

As Deanna Eichler, co-chair of the group, explains: “In the ’20s and ’30s, housing a boarder in your home wasn’t unusual. How do we make it safe and culturally acceptable?”

Those are, indeed, the primary questions. And the program also leads to an examination of how cultural norms have altered over the years and how those changes have contributed to a housing crisis and increased homelessness.

According to a survey last year by Pew Research Center, approximately 27 percent of Americans age 60 and older live alone. That rate is similar to Canada and Europe, but much higher than in the rest of the world. As the New York Times reported: “Much of the disparity comes down to economics — it’s simply not financially feasible for most to live alone in poorer nations. . . . Cultural factors also play a role; the prevailing nuclear family arrangement in the United States is naturally dwindling down to two or one after children have left the nest.”

There can be drawbacks to that financial independence. Living alone, research shows, increases the risk of depression by 42 percent; it also results in a 36 percent increase in risk of cardiovascular death. As one researcher told the New York Times: “It’s paradoxical that the more we live in concentrated populations in big cities, the more people are living alone. Social isolation is a global problem.”

Interestingly, an analysis of Census data shows that the rate of multigenerational households in the U.S. has increased over the past five decades, after years of decline. Researchers credit that increase largely to an influx of immigrants from regions where it is common for grandparents to share a home with their children and grandchildren.

For Americans of European descent, however, it has become more desirable for seniors to age in place, remaining in their homes as long as they are able rather than moving in with family members. As a study from the University of Southern California surmised: “For many people, maintaining a sense of independence is essential, as it enables older adults to improve quality of life. Aging in place allows older adults to retain a high level of control over their lives, as they can continue to live in familiar spaces.”

With seniors remaining in place and life expectancy increasing, housing availability for younger adults — or older renters — is limited.

All of which makes a compelling argument for the idea behind HomeShare. “It’s a reciprocal arrangement to put people who have space to share with people who are seeking a more affordable place,” the organization’s Eichler said. “We’re fighting to release all this affordable housing that’s already distributed throughout Clark County.”

But caution is warranted. Welcoming a boarder into your home and ensuring that rental agreements are followed can be daunting for potential landlords. HomeShare seeks to pair compatible housemates and requires background checks.

One small organization cannot solve Clark County’s lack of housing or its increase in homelessness. But it can help drive conversations about how Americans view aging and the cultural norms that surround our ideas about housing.