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Deborah Graves felt confident and hopeful while driving to the matchmaking session on Siesta Key several years ago.
A U.S. Air Force veteran and former corporate information technology specialist, her background was perfect for the HomeShare Sarasota program.
“I just wanted a temporary living situation until I could find something to buy,” said Graves, now 62.
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The home was large and clean, with a room and bathroom just for her. Just as important, the homeowner – a widow in her 80s looking for companionship – was kind and respectful, her terms flexible and the rent reasonable.
The two hit it off — chatting long after the woman’s daughter and the HomeShare matchmaker left.
HomeShare Sarasota pairs homeowners who have extra space with renters searching for an affordable place to live. This type of matchmaking could help hundreds if not thousands of other Sarasota residents, say advocates, amid a major housing crisis and an “epidemic” of loneliness impacting older Americans.
Started in 2018 as a pilot project with the Senior Friendship Centers to match older homeowners with young professionals, it was later expanded to include older renters, too. Since then, the demand has soared.
Now managed by the nonprofit Sarasota Housing Financing Corporation, HomeShare Sarasota is being inundated with calls by renters – particularly seniors – as they increasingly get priced out of the market, says coordinator Ruth Shaulis.
But the program’s biggest challenge lies on the other side of the match – finding homeowners willing to join.
“My thought is that many of them might not know this is an option,” Shaulis said.
More need for senior housing than ever
In Sarasota County, there are more than 26,000 owner-occupied households with people over the age of 65 living alone. More than half of those are 75 and older, according to the Shimberg Center for Housing Studies at the University of Florida.
As for renters, more than 8,500 of them are over the age of 65 living alone, more than half over the age of 75.
It’s those two groups that Shauls is trying to pair.
She works hard to match compatible personalities and interests. But her efforts were stalled during lockdowns and health concerns at the start of COVID-19 pandemic. In the past year, she’s managed to make only one match.
But in that time – with local rents climbing by almost 50%, the highest rate in the nation – calls from renters doubled, almost all of them from seniors, she said.
Homesharing benefits go beyond money
The program, Shaulis notes, not only helps renters. It’s beneficial to homeowners, too. Besides providing extra income, having a trusted person close by can be crucial in the case of health emergencies.
What happened next in Graves’ match underscores her point.
After Graves moved in, the two women at times enjoyed meals or social outings between Graves’ work with two nonprofits – including one helping local women veterans facing homelessness.
But within weeks, Graves noticed the woman’s memory slipping. She forgot to pay the utility bills. Other signs of early dementia and physical health issues surfaced.
“I just committed it to prayer at first and then I contacted the daughter I had met during the interview before my moving in,” she said.
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The daughter, who lived out of state, notified other relatives and later – expressing gratitude to Graves for her thoughtful attention – they obtained specialized care for their mother, eventually moving her to an assisted living facility.
For housing advocates, Graves’ case is a prime example not only of how HomeShare benefits both sides but also how it addresses two overlapping crises that especially affect seniors.
One is affordable housing. The other is what numerous studies have called an “epidemic” of loneliness and social isolation among older Americans, exacerbated when spouses die and older children live far away.
Studies link loneliness among seniors to higher propensities for illness and early death, the dangers to their health considered as grave as smoking cigarettes.
The intangible benefits of homesharing
One local expert on homesharing is Sarasota resident Louise Machinist – one of the authors of the book “My House Our House: Living Far Better for Far Less in a Cooperative Household.” In the book, she and her two co-authors outline their experiences co-owning and sharing a house in the Pittsburgh area.
While they were friends and co-investors – and not renter-owners as in HomeShare – she said many of the issues they grappled with pertain to both groups. That includes everything from dividing household responsibilities to settling legal arrangements and balancing privacy with a sense of community and fun.
“There are so many advantages, many of them intangible,” said Machinist, 75, a retired clinical psychologist. “It doesn’t all have to do with finances, like having people to interact with and having people if you’re in trouble to sound the alarm and be there for you.”
For many Sarasota seniors, the clock is ticking
After leaving the Siesta Key home, Graves was soon in search of another place to live. She had secured a VA home loan, but found that sellers, flush with cash and conventional offers in a white-hot market, weren’t interested.
Graves is now back on the list at HomeShare Sarasota, staying with family and friends while holding out for another match.
“Just until I can find the right property to purchase,” she said.
Meanwhile, Shaulis needs homeowners willing to try something new.
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“It’s a needle in a haystack,” she said. “We have all these homes with all these empty bedrooms and bathrooms, and I need to find … those people willing to give homesharing a try.”
For so many seniors priced out of their rentals, the clock is ticking. And a good match, Shaulis said, can take time — something that callers don’t have.
“Unfortunately,” Shaulis said, “people who call me are desperate.”
How HomeShare Sarasota Works
HomeShare provides background and reference checks for both renter and homeowner, a home inspection and facilitates meetings between the parties to discern compatibility. Once a match is made, rent is agreed upon and a lease is signed. HomeShare follows up to ensure both parties continue to be comfortable with the match.
For more information about HomeShare Sarasota, go to sarasotahousing501c3.org or call 941-361-6210, ext. 197.
For more information about the national co-housing movement, visit The Cohousing Association of the United States at cohousing.org.
This story comes from a partnership between the Sarasota Herald-Tribune and the Community Foundation of Sarasota County. Saundra Amrhein covers the Season of Sharing campaign, along with issues surrounding housing, utilities, child care and transportation in the area. She can be reached at [email protected].