Programs matching senior homeowners with roommates are growing in popularity across the country. Can a similar effort succeed in Hawaii?

When Honolulu announced new rules last year that limited vacation rentals in residential neighborhoods, Catharine Graham quickly found herself in financial trouble.

The 75-year-old retiree had long depended on renting out rooms in her home to supplement her Social Security income. She tried to find local roommates to replace her Airbnb earnings, but when somebody stiffed her on rent or rooms sat vacant for too long, she found herself scrambling to pay the bills.

“I would have to borrow money,” she said. “It was hard.”

Graham found an answer to her troubles earlier this year through Homesharing Hawaii, a nonprofit program that serves as a sophisticated matchmaking service, pairing seniors who have spare rooms with renters who can often provide companionship or assistance around the house in addition to rent.

Homesharing Hawaii program director Martha Ross says living with her 24-year-old niece has helped her stay up to speed on technology. (Courtesy: Homesharing Hawaii)

Homesharing Hawaii worked with Graham to find a stable renter for her space, a 25-year-old government worker whom Graham says she felt an instant connection with. The group also conducted a thorough background check process for both parties, which Graham said provided immense relief. 

“Usually, I’m so desperate I don’t even have time to vet,” Graham said. “That’s not a good place to be.”

Homesharing Hawaii — a program of the nonprofit Hawaii Intergenerational Network — is modeled after efforts in other parts of the United States to address social isolation and a lack of affordable housing through senior and intergenerational home-sharing.

But while a growing number of counties and cities on the mainland are investing in home-sharing programs, the Hawaii nonprofit has struggled to attract the number of homeowners it needs to get the program truly off the ground here.

Supporters of the effort say they are determined to persevere, because they see home-sharing as a cost-effective way of addressing challenges in the senior community that are expected to increase in coming years.

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“I frequently get calls from folks across the country who are looking to start a home-sharing program in the county that they’re in because they have this rising number of seniors that are becoming homeless,” said Luke Barnesmoore, director of strategy at Home Match, a California-based nonprofit that runs home-sharing programs in four counties in the state.

At the same time, Barnesmoore says, many counties have a growing population of seniors living alone who could benefit from the companionship or financial stability that comes from having a roommate.

“It’s kind of the perfect storm in terms of the different social drivers that would lead to home-sharing,” he said.

A Roommate By Any Other Name

Home-sharing is in many ways an old concept being marketed to a new audience. 

“The Golden Girls” cracks aside, roommates are usually thought of as a staple of college-era life. Not something to look forward to in retirement. 

That could change in the future.  

Barnesmoore has a lengthy list of worrisome statistics that he rattles off when explaining why San Francisco recently invested in expanding Home Match’s program in the city. The number of seniors in America is set to double between 2017 and 2035. The number of seniors who are homeless is expected to grow threefold — an increase Honolulu is already starting to see in its annual homeless Point in Time counts.

At the same time, health care providers and insurance companies are starting to pay attention to the mental and physical toll of living alone in old age. Social isolation can significantly increase the risk of developing dementia, Barnesmoore points out.

About 20% of seniors in Hawaii live alone — a figure that is likely to grow as the rest of the baby boom generation reaches retirement age. The state’s primary strategy for addressing the coming demographics shift is to support seniors in aging in place, but a shortage of both paid and family caregivers in the state will pose significant challenges for many people trying to live out their golden years alone.

Hawaii Intergenerational Network Board President Chuck Larson speaks to community members about Homesharing Hawaii in 2020. (Courtesy: Homesharing Hawaii/Martha Ross)

Although Homesharing Hawaii is the first group in Honolulu focused on senior roommate matching, it is not the only one to see home-sharing as a way of addressing retirement challenges.

Families frequently post rooms to rent on Craigslist at a reduced price in return for caregiving services or companionship for loved ones living on their own. Catholic Charities Hawaii owns a few homes where seniors live together, often temporarily, while they look for a permanent housing solution.

“We do want to encourage home-sharing for folks who do want to live with others or have a home that they want to share with somebody to lower the cost,” said Diane Terada, a division administrator at Catholic Charities.

Ken Takeya, a homeowner in Kailua whose wife was diagnosed with dementia nearly 20 years ago, had never considered taking a roommate until his sister introduced him to a friend who was losing stable housing because of development and rising rents in Kakaako. Takeya now rents the room out at a discounted rate in return for caregiving assistance in the evenings for his wife — an arrangement that he says has been a real boon.

Homesharing Hawaii is only open to people who are able to live independently. While household chores may be part of the rental arrangement, the group is clear that caregiving services is not a part of what they arrange. But even just having someone around in case of a fall can help keep people in their homes for longer.

Getting homeowners excited about the benefits of sharing their space — and assuring them that the process of getting matched with a renter is safe and easy — has been a challenge for Homesharing Hawaii.

Less than 3% of senior homeowners and 5% of senior renters in the state currently live with people outside of their family.

Convincing Homeowners

Homesharing Hawaii’s first problem was really one of timing. The nonprofit launched in March 2020 — about a week before the state’s first Covid-19 restrictions were put into place. The pandemic was a tough time to persuade people, especially seniors, to open their homes to a stranger. 

The first match the nonprofit made was actually a family affair: Ross went through the program before renting a room to a niece from the mainland whom she had only met a few times. 

“I kept getting the question, ‘Well have you done this?’” Ross said. “So we went through the whole process.” 

Ross says she tries to liken the home-sharing process to the “old-fashioned concept” of having a boarder in your home, as opposed to having a roommate. 

“That resonates with some people, because it’s a little scary to bring a stranger into your home,” she said. 

In addition to background and reference checks, the group also conducts interviews to identify personal characteristics and needs for both parties. When people are introduced for a possible match, someone from Homesharing Hawaii is present. The nonprofit also does the follow-up with both parties to avoid the awkwardness of having to turn people down themselves.

IHS Outreach Navigation Program Coordinator David Warman stops to speak to a gentleman that said he felt sick. Warman called C.O.R.E to let them know that there was a person in need of help.
IHS Outreach Navigation Program Coordinator David Warman stops to talk to a homeless man in 2022. The state saw a sharp increase in the number of homeless seniors in this year’s annual Point in Time count. (Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2022)

“They’re never obligated to go with the first, second or third person we suggest,” said Melody Heidel, Homesharing Hawaii’s lead navigator. “We keep everything private and all communication goes through us up until the point where we make a good match.” 

The nonprofit also suggests that matches do a two-week trial together before making a longer commitment. 

Even with all the safeguards in place, the number of people seeking rentals far outnumbers the homes in the program. Ross and Heidel have been told that to have a successful program, they need about 100 active homes in the program. They currently have 19 active homeowners and 46 home seekers. 

Signing up for the program is currently free for participants. The group is currently operating with a combination of grants, private donations and volunteer labor. Ross estimates the nonprofit would need about $400,000 a year to fully staff a successful program. 

Having enough staff is key, Barnesmoore said.

“It’s really hard without proper staffing to be focused on outreach, and the outreach needs to be multi-tiered,” he said.

To grow home-sharing efforts in Marin County, where Home Match launched its first program in 2012, the group developed relationships with business leaders, senior centers, faith-based communities, trying to leverage any opportunity where a trusted community member could give a “warm referral” and endorse the program.

Home Match also developed relationships with local planning departments and city organizations so that they could present with them at county fairs and events to add a layer of legitimacy to the outreach.

“If there’s a group that works with seniors, we have a relationship with them,” Barnesmoore said.

Even with all the outreach, Home Match is not expected to be a high-volume housing solution. The nonprofit made 21 matches last year in Marin County and is on track to make 25 to 30 in the coming year. In San Francisco, six full-time staff members are expected to make about 60 matches a year.

But Barnesmoore says it’s important to keep in mind that these matches are expanding housing in communities using existing infrastructure — and the cost of building new housing is far higher.

“This program is community helping community,” Ross said. “We’ve got to make this happen and I believe it will take off.”

Civil Beat’s community health coverage is supported by the Atherton Family Foundation, Swayne Family Fund of Hawaii Community Foundation, the Cooke Foundation and Papa Ola Lokahi.

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