As demand for the roommate program grows, more strangers are moving in together

Carol Blakely, left, greets Katie Bailey, UVM speaker, at Blakey’s in St. George. Photo by Riley Robinson/VTDigger

Hiding among the trees on Forest Road in St. George, two strangers, aged 40, began sharing a house.

Carol Blakely, a retired teacher in her 60s and mother of four, once had a full house. But her children grew up and moved on, and her husband passed away, leaving only her 11-year-old French-Canadian cat named Poppy.

That was until last August when Katie Bailey, 32, moved in.

Blakely and Bailey became roommates through an increasingly popular program run by the nonprofit HomeShare Vermont, which screens and matches Vermonters (also known as “hosts”) who have stable housing but need housing. assistance – financial or otherwise – with “guests” who are looking for affordable housing.

With housing prices skyrocketing and housing options remaining scarce, HomeShare Vermont cannot find enough hosts to meet guest application demand.

“We typically have three to four times as many people looking for accommodation as people willing to share accommodation,” said Kirby Dunn, the organization’s executive director.

HomeShare Vermont currently serves Addison, Chittenden, Franklin, Grand Isle, Lamoille, Orange and Washington counties. The organization matches ‘hosts’ and ‘guests’ based on the candidates’ lifestyle, personal preferences and needs.

In an effort to entice new Burlington homeowners to become hosts through HomeShare Vermont, the Burlington City Council last month unanimously approved a one-year pilot program. The program awards $1,000 to 30 hosts over a 12-month period.

HomeShare Vermont is requesting $30,000 from the Burlington Housing Trust Fund to fund the program. The trust is expected to decide on the request in early December.

“We’re really trying to encourage more people to share their homes, especially, you know, with the economy down, that might be something people want to think about doing,” Dunn said.

Dunn said she’s recently noticed an increase in the number of younger applicants to become hosts.

At the same time, however, she said HomeShare competes with the short-term rental market, which has the potential to offer more lucrative returns to those who open their homes.

Barbara, seen at home last month, has been a HomeShare Vermont participant for 12 years. Photo by Riley Robinson/VTDigger

Blakely said she decided to apply to host not because she needed help or extra money, but because she thought it was “stupid” to have her house vacant when so many people need affordable housing.

“I mean, if Katie was my daughter, I honestly wouldn’t want her to go live with someone on Craigslist,” Blakely said.

Bailey struggled to find housing when he left Chicago for a nine-month teaching position at the University of Vermont. The most affordable option she could find online for a studio apartment that “wouldn’t look like it had bed bugs” would cost more than half of her after-tax income, she said. .

She learned about HomeShare Vermont through Teresa Mares, then acting chair of UVM’s anthropology department.

Mares said he’s seen graduate students and faculty struggle to get housing, especially if they have a limited amount of time to do so. Several years ago, before she got married and had children, Mares became interested in the roommate program due to the high cost of living in Chittenden County.

HomeShare Vermont allows hosts to charge up to $650 in monthly rent in Chittenden County and $550 elsewhere in the state.

In practice, however, many hosts charge significantly less. The average rent, which has risen 18% since 2018, was $340 for fiscal 2022, according to the agency.

In contrast, the median monthly rent in Vermont in 2021 was $1,115, according to census data.

There are no fees to apply to HomeShare Vermont. However, if a pair is successfully matched, both parties must pay a one-time fee between $60 and $500 depending on income.

On paper, Blakely and Bailey’s HomeShare deal is a purely financial exchange, with Bailey paying the maximum rent of $650. Blakely lives on the first floor while Bailey occupies the second, allowing the two to have their own space without feeling pressured to constantly socialize, something the two said to each other when they first met online.

Nonetheless, Bailey said she looked after Poppy, sometimes with the help of a neighbor, when Blakely went to visit her children.

In the few months that Blakely and Bailey shared a home, they visited an orchard together and shared meals. Blakely even introduced Bailey to the world of Vermont creams.

“It’s great to have a presence in the house,” said Blakely, who has lived alone for 15 years. “There are no expectations, but I know that if something happened or whatever, or if I was, I don’t know, sick for some reason, or broke my foot…there’s has someone around.”

In two-thirds of HomeShare Vermont arrangements, the guest provides some assistance to the host – which can include grocery shopping or taking the host’s pet to the vet, for example.

These couples often involve aging guests who need help with daily chores. Vermont has the second-highest median age — about 43 — in the nation, according to census data, and shortage of home care staff continues to be a problem.

Although HomeShare Vermont receives many calls from people in need of a nursing home or 24/7 care, Dunn said the organization’s program was not intended to meet this. type of intensive needs.

In Stowe, 63-year-old HomeShare guest Gretchen Mills pays zero rent in return for companionship and cooking meals for 89-year-old Hesterly Black.

Elizabeth, left, and Barbara have lived together for 12 years through the HomeShare Vermont program. Photo by Riley Robinson/VTDigger

The couple have lived together since September and plan to continue to do so throughout Black’s life, depending on his health.

Mills, who moved to Vermont earlier this year from Northern California, said she needed to minimize her housing costs so she could start a leadership development agency.

Black, meanwhile, had been considering applying to HomeShare “for quite a long time,” after one of her children brought her a brochure for the program several years ago.

She started having difficulty walking or, in her words, became less “frozen”.

“I’ve lived alone for quite a long time and at my age I was worried that if something actually happened to me, no one would know about it for quite a while,” Black said. HomeShare’s background check and interview process gave her the assurance she needed that she wasn’t letting a complete stranger into her home.

Elizabeth, left, and Barbara have lived together for 12 years through the HomeShare Vermont program. Photo by Riley Robinson/VTDigger

So far, she and Mills have lived together seamlessly, with Mills cooking most meals, including her favorite dish of pork with chutney sauce.

Although there were a few geographical splits, including Black raising an eyebrow at Mills’ morning avocado toast – which Black concluded was a California invention – the two enjoyed cooking and eating meals.

“A lot of times we do it together and we always eat together. So it’s just nice to have that kind of pace for a day,” Mills said.

In three months together, they introduced themselves to their families, took a day trip to Burlington, and made outings to a craft fair and Smuggler’s Notch.

Black’s three-bedroom house is filled with animals, including an African gray parrot, two dogs, a Gloster canary named Donald for the tuft of hair on its head, and a beta fish named Liberace because of its flowing fins.

Julian, Barbara and Elizabeth’s cat. Photo by Riley Robinson/VTDigger

“I have animals – I’ve always had animals – so Gretchen had to take care of them,” Black said with a mischievous grin.

Mills doesn’t seem to care. In fact, she said the moment she realized it was a perfect fit was when she was sitting in Black’s living room with the dogs sprawled across her lap, listening to Black and his daughter naming the species. birds flying to the feeders.

Living with Black, she said, “felt like home.”

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