Rethinking cohabitation

There are many ways to share housing. Changing how we think about living together could have benefits for all of us.

Annamarie Pluhar is executive director and founder of Sharing Housing, Inc., a nonprofit organization promoting shared housing as a viable and enjoyable answer to the joint crises of housing affordability and loneliness facing our society through education and advocacy. To read excerpts from the forum on housing to which Pluhar is responding, see "Crushing the housing crisis" [Voices Live! Forum, April 10].

BRATTLEBORO-It was enlightening to hear Rep. Becca Balint describe the omnibus housing bill she is working on with her fellow congressional representatives. It is shocking to hear of a half-a-trillion-dollar price tag! but it is so appropriate - housing is a basic need.

Almost at the close of the talk, Windham Regional Commission Executive Director Chris Campany says, "Younger workers [...] are only going to rent a room in a house for so long, in your late 20s, early 30s, before you say, 'I probably need to do something different.'"

I feel strongly that sharing housing is not just for younger people.

We need a paradigm shift. People can live together at all stages of life. Where did we get the idea that if you are single you have to live alone?

The loneliness that living alone engenders is deeply painful. It strikes the same part of the brain as being hungry or thirsty. We are wired to be connected, and we have a crisis of social isolation.

Researchers have figured that social isolation and loneliness in seniors costs Medicare $6.7 billion each year. Currently, almost 20% of all households in Windham County are occupied by seniors living alone.

That's a lot of empty bedrooms. What does it take to help those seniors who are on their own to open up their homes and hearts to living with others?

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Here at Sharing Housing, Inc., we are trying to figure this out. The day after the Zoom session with Becca, I wrote to her and asked her to put money in the bill to:

• Identify the legal barriers that inhibit this option and how to address them. (How do I get rid of a bad housemate? Will I lose my benefits? What are the rent lease arrangements?)

• Determine what it takes to message to normalize this option.

• Perform rigorous quantitative and qualitative research in the benefits for home sharers.

Many efforts to encourage shared housing have failed for lack of funding.

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Scant monies are available for this effort because shared housing is a hybrid solution and doesn't fit neatly into current priorities.

Housing funding is typically either for brick-and-mortar projects or addressing homelessness. As a solution for social isolation, the model has to be proven in order for funders in the social arena to invest.

With a small grant from Senior Solutions, using American Rescue Plan Act funds, we have created a pilot program we call SHIFT - Shared Housing Incentives for Taking Action.

This program is intended to teach Windham and Windsor County homeowners how to find a good housemate, and to support them in the process. We continue to look for funding to build it out.

* * *

There are so many bedrooms that are not being used! There are so many people for whom life could be less difficult if they had one or two home-mates.

Our definition of a "home-mate" is a person you like and respect whose ways of living at home are compatible enough that everyone is comfortable.

As Kirby Dunn, the former executive director of HomeShare Vermont, said in The New York Times in 2008, "When you look at the data on people living alone, they tend to die younger and be sicker."

Dunn cited surveys where "people say they're happier, sleeping and eating better, and feel safer in their homes with someone around."

"If I sold you that as a drug, you'd pay thousands of dollars," he said.

We should promote and celebrate these unique and potentially life-enhancing relationships.

This Voices Viewpoint was submitted to The Commons.

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