Shared Housing Offers Economic And Social Perks
By Jean-Michel Giraud, President & CEO, Friendship Place
The National Alliance to End Homelessness is looking more closely at Shared Housing for single adults this year. NAEH organized a webinar on the topic in July in addition to including it in several workshops during its annual conference in Washington, DC.
I had the privilege to intervene both on the webinar and at a conference workshop.
Shared Housing shows very positive trends in the plight to bring single adults out of crisis homelessness. The observations in this blog are derived mostly from the work of the Home Now team at Friendship Place. Home Now is a rapid rehousing program for 210 single adults funded by the District of Columbia.
Observations point to the fact that Shared Housing (i.e. living space that is shared by single adults looking for increased affordability) is quickly coming to its own as a service model. Creating shared households and sustaining them is not simply about housing but takes careful planning, know-how, and a sound understanding of rehabilitation practices and community engagement. In other words, it has been elevated to a best practice.
Interestingly, the model seems to appeal not only to residents, who secure cheaper living situations through it, but also to landlords who see it as a practical way to increase utilization on some of their units.
At this stage, shared households account for 80 percent of the annual housing placements through Home Now. Program statistics also show that participants are paying only 30 to 50 percent of the average cost of a one-bedroom apartment, representing a real cost-savings to the individual. This is good news for participants and for the funding source in a city where competition for rental units is fierce, with an additional 800 people moving to DC every month on average.
As additional background, in 2015, the rental housing vacancy rate for DC was lower than the national average (5.4 percent vs. 6.7 percen) and the current HUD fair market rents for studios and one-bedroom apartments are high ($1,307/month and $1,402/month, respectively). On top of this, salaries for folks around the High-School and GED level have stagnated in the last several years while they have increased for people who have at least a bachelor’s degree, giving this group an edge on the rental market.
All this makes the need to develop alternative programming able to meet the needs of people living on very low income even greater in a destination city like DC.
So how does this work?
Starting with the application process, Shared Housing allows participants to secure housing in a matter of days, as few as 2 to 3 days, compared to two weeks or more, on average, for individual living situations. Fees are often waived and background checks are generally less involved. This is important because many people who have lived in homelessness have charges on their records (ex: loitering) which cause some rental management companies to disqualify them.
For some landlords, leasing out rooms in a single house has some appeal. They may find that renting a large house is more cumbersome because of the rent the property needs to bring on the open market.
A house does tend to bring more on the open market when it is leased room by room.
Leasing is individual and arranged between the landlord and each tenant. We find that this is less cumbersome for the organization and better for the tenant who deals directly with the landlord, with each party responsible directly to the other. It is easy to see that the organization would be burdened by the high number of units it would need to manage if leases were taken out in its name but even more importantly, sheltering the new tenants from dealing with their landlords would take away the opportunity to grow and assume a new set of responsibilities inherent to maintaining the new living situation.
Having separate leases also protects the other housemates when one of the tenants leaves the shared household. The remaining residents do not have to cover the additional rent. The owner has to absorb this cost as he or she looks for a new tenant. This is key for people who are on fixed income or low wages. It helps ensure that the household stays stable during transitions.
Another advantage we have seen is the possibility of short-term leasing for people who are only interested in bridging a gap on their way to their own living situations. Many landlords agree to 6-month leases for instance.
After the participants move in, our housing specialist helps the new residents understand their rights and responsibilities. The specialist also interacts with landlord groups to build ties and expand the landlord network.
Rapid Rehousing is more effective when it is paired up with job placement services using an Employment First approach since securing income quickly impacts on housing sustainability. For this reason, the team also includes a job specialist.
Shared households offer both economic and social advantages. Social support comes in the form of similar life experience with homelessness among the new housemates. The feeling that everybody has “been there” is important and can help people get grounded.
Of course, some households can include members who have not been homeless before, but, for those who have, the emotional support the shared life experience brings is important on the way to rebuilding their lives.
From this stage, some households actually develop into families of choice or family-like units for people who are looking for longer term emotional support from one another. These relationships can be especially valuable to allow long-term stabilization and sustainability when you consider the fact that the households are set up in a fast-moving rapid-rehousing system. The new longer-term relationships are a great way to offset the fast-paced and early ending service cycle as they provide built-in support.
Some areas need to be examined closely as households are established. For instance, former and current ties to the street can bring new challenges and should be discussed by household members so expectations are clear around visitors and personal habits. This part of the work is manageable with the right support and should not discourage anybody from trying the model. More importantly, housemates need to be empowered to make decisions on admitting new members into the household and the principle that the household is self-run, not run by staff, is key.
The debate has been centered a lot around the fact that, in most urban centers, people cannot afford to rent their own apartments on low wages. Shared Housing gives us an opportunity to shift the conversation to a new level and to get to a solution by helping us redefine what a living situation is as a system.
Shared Housing can also be used to lower long-term occupancy in urban shelters as residents who are familiar with one another are encouraged to share living situations in the community. Based on affinity and common experience, small groups of shelter residents may get just the help they need to exit these facilities as they commit to living together for six months to a year.
We may not be able to fight the market tide but we can help our participants adjust their expectations in order to help them secure sound living situations in a quicker and more sustainable way.
Shared Housing offers just this possibility.
About the author: A leading voice in the effort to combat homelessness with innovative solutions, Jean Michel has been been a contributor for the Huffington Post for since 2012.