Why Home Sharing Is Necessary in America

By Kealia Reynolds
Photo by Matt Jones

Roughly 2% of people aged 65 and older currently live in a household with someone other than a family member, a percentage that has stayed relatively consistent for decades, according to an analysis of US Census Bureau data by the Center for Retirement Research at Boston College. However, those numbers are expected to rise, driven by economic need (many Americans don’t have enough saved for retirement, and therefore are unable to pay off remaining mortgages) and demographic changes in society.

With home prices and the cost of living steadily increasing, many people are beginning to question whether they can afford and sustain their current living situation. That’s where the practice of home sharing comes in. We’ll dive into home sharing and its benefits, why people are choosing this housing option in the current real estate climate, and the need for home sharing throughout the country.

What is home sharing?

Home sharing is the exchange of housing between two unrelated people for mutual benefit in the home—similar to a business transaction. Typically, this looks like an older person with a spare room offering free or low-cost accommodation to another person (most likely one in need of affordable housing) in exchange for an agreed upon level of support. This support can range from platonic companionship and assistance around the home to paying rent that helps with a mortgage. You might recognize home sharing from The Golden Girls, where Blanche shares her home with Rose (a widow), Dorothy (a divorceé), and Sophia (a senior citizen without a place to live).

Though this is a traditional picture of what home sharing looks like, new home sharing opportunities are emerging through formal home share organizations and short-term rental sites like Airbnb.

Here is what home sharing is not. It is not a romantic partnership and it is not the same as a typical roommate situation. You might choose to live with a random roommate to cut costs, but there’s not typically a written agreement stating that you’ll complete chores just to have a roof over your head.

Photo by Andrey Krav

Nashville The Senate Commerce and Labor Committee in Tennessee recently passed a bill that overturned a Nashville city ordinance that allowed only 3% of properties city-wide to be non-owner-occupied home sharing rentals

Why do people participate in home sharing?

Rising housing costs have hit urban youth, single parents, low-wage workers, students, elderly people, and those with disabilities the hardest, with rent consistently eating up a large portion of monthly income year over year. Supplemental Poverty Measure (SPM) thresholds show that a family of four in 2015 needed about $1,400 in residual income, the income left after rent was paid, for necessities like food, clothing, medical care, and transportation. But data revealed that the median renter in the bottom quintile comes up well short of that figure, with just $476.

On top of that, housing costs have managed to increase due to high demand, outpacing income raises. According to a Forbes report, “In Seattle, based on the 2010 household income of $60,665, median rent took up about 36.8% of monthly earnings. By November 2016, household income had risen to $74,458, but with a median rent of $2,643, housing now consumed 42.6% of a month’s pay.” Families who pay more than 30% of their income for housing are considered cost-burdened and may find it difficult to afford essentials like food, clothing, medical care, and transportation.

According to the US Department of Housing and Urban Development, “An estimated 12 million renter and homeowner households now pay more than 50% of their annual incomes for housing. A family with one full-time worker earning the minimum wage cannot afford the local fair-market rent for a two-bedroom apartment anywhere in the United States.”

Additionally, cities with zoning ordinances that favor single-family housing effectively limit the pace and density of growth and primarily serve the wealthier members of the population who can afford single-family homes as opposed to apartments, condos, or townhomes.

Home sharing allows more and more cost-burdened individuals in the US to afford housing even though the cost of living continues to increase.

Home sharing is about the relationship, about the communication, and just making sure everybody is on the same page about when rent is due, what happens if you need to have your granddaughter come over and spend the night—those kinds of things. It’s really about communication.”

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According to Karen Heyward-West, director of home sharing at St. Ambrose Housing Aid Center in Baltimore, Maryland, a non-profit organization that creates equal housing opportunities for low- and moderate-income people, “On the seeker end, 90% of the time it’s about economics; it’s about [people] only having a certain amount of money that they can allocate toward their living expenses.”

When St. Ambrose started its home sharing program 30 years ago, the primary clients were homeowners who had either just retired or lost a spouse. These people wanted to remain in their homes within their community, but needed additional income to support themselves.

“Today, we’re seeing folks on a very fixed income—individuals who are underemployed who really can’t afford to go out and have their own lease or purchase their own home. And then we’re seeing a very big trend of youth who are aging out of foster care that decide to go into higher-paying jobs and are still trying to find themselves, but need housing,” says Heyward-West.

On a similar note, homeowners—especially seniors—may be increasingly likely to share their homes due to a lack of retirement savings. “More than half of all working-age households, and 43% of those in the top-third income bracket, haven’t saved enough to replace their income in retirement,” says Alicia H. Munnell, director of the Center for Retirement Research at Boston College.

What are the benefits of home sharing?

Though cost-sharing is the biggest advantage of home sharing, there are additional benefits that come with this practice.

Lower cost of living

For seniors and low-income residents opening up their homes, an additional monthly income can help them make ends meet. According to Heyward-West, “There are a good number of homeowners who actually need the additional income so they can remain in their homes within the communities that they’re familiar with.”

Home sharing prices vary based on location. At St. Ambrose, basic rent for home sharers typically starts at $500. Through the Shared Housing Center, Inc., home share program in Dallas, Texas, rent is between $400 and $500 a month. Compare these costs to the average rent prices across the country, which are about $1,231 per month (before utilities).

One home sharing program provided by St. Ambrose works with homeless youth, ages 18–24, and puts them in host homes. Unlike the other home sharing programs it provides, St. Ambrose actually has the funds to pay the host home provider a monthly stipend for up to three months at a time.

“Those are individual homeowners that don’t mind housing a young person for up to three months until they kind of get themselves together so they can go out there and get their own lease or return back home,” says Heyward-West.

Assistance around the home

If homeowners need help around the house, they can reduce rent for services like yard work, grocery shopping, or transportation. Note that some home sharing programs won’t allow this bartering in a formal contract, so the arrangement would be up to a homeowner and the house seeker to decide on their own time.


One of the more obvious benefits of home sharing is knowing that the home provider will not be living alone. “If an emergency should arise, there is someone who can assist if just to call an emergency service or family member,” says Maria Machado, executive director of the Shared Housing Center in Dallas.

According to projections by the Joint Center for Housing Studies, the number of people living alone over the age of 75 is set to nearly double from 6.9 million in 2015 to 13.4 million in 2035. Women will make up nearly 75% of this group. For many seniors, having someone to interact with on a daily basis is much more valuable than the extra income or assistance that comes with home sharing.

According to Machado, “One of the trends we see is that the parties involved become family—we had a young woman who lived with an elderly woman for 18 months but got married and moved. But we heard that she flew her up for the holidays!”

Machado describes another instance when a young man shared a home with an elderly woman for eight years. He took her to church, bingo, and even traveled to Alaska with her for a bucket list trip. When she passed away, he gave the eulogy even though she had three grown children.

Photo by peeterv

Baltimore Home sharing programs, like the ones through St. Ambrose Housing Aid Center, in Baltimore, MD, create and maintain equal housing opportunities for low- and moderate-income individuals

How does home sharing work?

Home sharing programs vary in terms of how they operate, but there are a few characteristics they all have in common.

  • The goal of matching or facilitating a housing arrangement based on preference, interest, and affordability
  • An application for the home provider and the home seeker
  • An in-person interview for both parties—this helps facilitate whether both individuals would be a good match for each other
  • A home visit to ensure the house is up to code and safe for move-in
  • Reference checks to establish trust
  • A home share agreement that spells out rent and certain restrictions, like when guests are welcome and whether smoking or pets are allowed. This agreement includes acceptable reasons for terminating the home share, like not paying rent on time or breaking a restriction. Most agreements also outline how much notice a participant should give before withdrawing from the program (30 days is typical).

Just like the terms of a home share may vary, staff involvement on the part of home sharing agencies can also vary. For example, an agency can choose to run background checks on home sharers or give that task to the homeowners. Some agencies can also help negotiate a home share agreement while others will just provide guidelines for the home sharing individuals to figure out on their own.

According to Machado, “The two parties tend to meet at our offices for a first visit/interview. Then they will meet at the home and decide [on living together] soon after that.”

In Baltimore, Heyward-West recruits homeowners through advertisements in local newspapers, leaflets, door knocking, and announcements on the St. Ambrose website, in addition to partnerships with different banks and realtors and a close relationship with the Baltimore Department of Aging.

To determine if home sharers are qualified, St. Ambrose runs background checks, verifies proof of income, and requests character references on both the homeowner and home sharer. During a full interview with the home sharer, Heyward-West determines what the person likes and dislikes, if they have any hobbies, or if they’re in recovery for either drugs or alcohol.

“We want to find out as much as we can about you so when we try to market you to the homeowner, we can share your full story and, likewise, we can share your [the homeowner’s] story with the home seeker. Because it’s all about the match,” says Heyward-West.

In Dallas at the Shared Housing Center, Machado says her staff drops off a welcome basket of bedding, towels, and toiletries after two parties move in together, and then checks in after 10 days to see how the arrangement is going.

“Home sharing is about the relationship, about the communication, and just making sure everybody is on the same page about when rent is due, what happens if you need to have your granddaughter come over and spend the night—those kinds of things. It’s really about communication,” maintains Heyward-West.

The need for home sharing

The high cost of living doesn’t just affect the groups previously mentioned—a lot of people are feeling the burden of rising housing prices and are coming up with ways to reduce the severity of exorbitant costs.

Airbnb, most popular for its short-term vacation rentals, is becoming more of a mass market means to home sharing. The company has recently started supporting the creation of Home Sharing Clubs to help hosts come together to advocate fair home sharing laws in their communities. With more than 100 clubs operating in communities around the world, this growing network is leading the way in demonstrating how home sharing benefits neighborhoods across the globe.

In the US, seniors are Airbnb’s fastest-growing demographic of hosts with 62,000 hosts over the age of 60 currently comprising 13% of all Airbnbs in the country.

Bill Hueffner, a homeowner in Portland, Oregon, started renting out his three-bedroom guest house two years ago on Airbnb for short- and long-term tenants. Skeptical at first, Bill is now an avid proponent of the home sharing process.

“It gives me that much more flexibility and the income is really good. I’m making twice what I would make [if I had a renter on a lease] and only renting out the place 65–75% of the time. It’s been really good.”

More than the additional income, Bill praises the companionship aspect of Airbnb. “We’ve never had a (knock on wood) bad experience with anybody. There are quality people that come and stay. I think because Airbnb has you rate how you are as a guest and how you are as a host—I think that’s helpful because it makes you want to do extra things for the people that come out there. So, we try to over-communicate if there’s anything we can prepare for them in advance. It’s become a really nice thing.”

While Airbnbs and other home sharing opportunities seem like a logical solution to those who can’t afford their home or need assistance and companionship, there are some states that are putting restrictions on home sharing because they believe it’s a source of high housing costs.

The Tennessee State Senate passed an ordinance that allows only 3% of properties city-wide to be non-owner-occupied home sharing rentals (The Senate Commerce and Labor Committee in Tennessee  recently passed a bill that overturns this ordinance). And in San Francisco, Airbnb and HomeAway are forced to turn homeowners over to the police if they list their homes for rent on their websites.

Like Nashville and San Francisco, other cities are seeking to regulate Airbnb rentals because they believe home sharing will increase city rental rates and hurt the tourism industry. Proponents of home sharing argue that there’s not enough research to determine this correlation and that home sharing unlocks economic opportunity for middle-class families, seniors living on fixed incomes, and growing ranks of part-time and freelance workers.

In fact, local regulations—not home sharing—play a huge role in why housing costs are so expensive. Cities often make it difficult to build new housing with complicated building permits and regulations, costly delays, and hefty fees whenever a developer seeks permission to build. The National Association of Home Builders reported a 30% increase in the cost of complying with regulations just in the past five years.

And any construction that is completed usually prices out local citizens. According to CoreLogic, “An analysis of home values in the country’s 100 largest metropolitan areas based on housing stock indicates 40% of metropolitan areas had an overvalued housing market as of April 2018.” In this case, overvalued means that homes are priced at least 10% higher than the long-term standard, and local incomes aren’t expected to support those prices.

In the midst of an affordable housing crisis in this country, home sharing opportunities, like Airbnb and other more traditional home share programs, can provide those struggling to find shelter with a safe place to live.

“At the end of the day, it’s about an affordable place where someone can call home,” says Heyward-West.

Photo by Ragnar Vorel

San Francisco Airbnb and HomeAway are forced to turn homeowners in San Francisco, CA, over to the cops if they list their homes for rent on their websites

How to find a home share

There are many home share programs throughout the US, though not every state has one. If you’re a home sharer or know someone looking for home sharing resources, here are a few we recommend:

The National Shared Housing Resource Center

This clearinghouse provides home sharing information, referrals to local agencies, and guidelines on finding a housemate. It also houses a directory for state-by-state listings of home share programs.

The Golden Girls Network

This site has a national database of 1,500 members (most between the ages of 50 and 70). Members create a detailed profile and then search the database for a potential roommate. Though matches are typically between two people, there are some multiple-housemate listings. The Golden Girls Network charges a $39 fee for six months’ access to the site.

Senior HomeShares

This national online matching database is free and provides over 600 members with a matching system modeled on online dating sites. It offers user-friendly features that make it easier and more comfortable for someone to find a roommate. For example, it allows members to add a “helper” to their account (this can be a friend or family member) to assist in filling out their profile and going through “match” emails.


Though this site charges a fee for homeowners and renters, those looking to find a home can search for free. Similar to Senior HomeShares, Silvernest uses a matching tool to help users find a compatible housemate. It verifies users by checking IDs and providing background checks of potential housemates to homeowners. This service is fairly new and is mainly used in Colorado, California, and Florida.


This app currently operates only in Boston and matches college students with boomers who are willing to open their homes up to renters. Millennials can benefit from lower rental rates in exchange for helping the homeowner out with agreed-upon tasks.

Regional housing agencies

Search for local housing authorities or housing coalitions that provide services like rental assistance, counseling, and so forth. Most of these programs will offer home share match-up services, information on home sharing, or home share referrals.

Local office on aging

Many states offer services and information for seniors. For example, North Carolina offers a Division of Aging and Adult Services that can help home sharers and homeowners looking to participate in this process.

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