Lack of affordable housing is a serious issue across Oregon and evident in coastal areas like Lincoln County, where the cost of housing is rising much faster than family income. While there is no single solution to this massive problem, one Portland-based organization offers a creative and cost-effective alternative to traditional housing.
Home Share Oregon (HSO) has a mission to lessen the housing crisis in Oregon by encouraging and incentivizing homeowners to become a part of the solution — one bedroom at a time.
Tess Fields, executive director of HSO, said the housing crisis in Oregon reflects what is happening all across the country. “There is no state left where a person who makes minimum wage can afford an apartment,” she said. Though there are many organizations that offer some remedies, the gravity of the housing crisis is outpacing efforts to alleviate the problem.
“We looked at the most recent census and found there were 1.5 million under-occupied homes,” said Fields. “We thought if we could get just 2 percent participation, we would have 30,000 people housed affordably.”
By putting together homeowners with spare bedrooms and renters, homesharing tackles two problems at once: assisting middle class people who may face mortgage debt, maintenance costs and increasing property taxes to hold on to their homes while extending vacant bedrooms to those who might otherwise fall into homelessness.
“Our data shows that one in three homeowners are mortgage burdened,” Fields said. “And for those people who need a safe place to live, we looked at how we could begin to match them up.”
Home Share Oregon uses an innovative, analytical technology to match homeowners and renters — like a combination of Airbnb and Match.com, explained Fields. Participants fill out an extensive profile about their likes, dislikes, personality traits, wants and needs. “It is like a dating app on steroids,” Fields said.
A computer algorithm then matches up roommates on compatibility and preferences based on what they entered in their profiles. For example, a person might not want to live with someone who smokes or is allergic to cats. Or they might prefer a roommate who is handy at making home repairs.
James Dirksen, a member of the HSO board of directors, said homeowners should be as honest and restrictive as they are comfortable with when filling out their profile. “With every click, they can get closer and closer to finding a good fit for them,” he said. “This technology is very efficient at matching people.”
Homeowners may choose to rent a spare room for additional monthly income or may take reduced rent for chores, depending on their needs. “These are people who can pay rent,” said Dirksen of those renters participating in the program. “They just can’t afford high rents.”
As part of the program, Home Share Oregon offers secure messaging, background screens on applicants and provides an online, legal lease agreement. They also provide free insurance for homeowners and renters who qualify.
“It is a smooth and secure process and prompts people to think through the process,” said Fields. “Any kinks are worked out before a person moves in.”
Fields said part of the goal of her organization is to make homesharing a cultural norm. “It was very common decades ago when we had boarding houses,” she said. “And even when people are in college, they often take a random number off a flyer to find a roommate. But as we get older, it seems so strange. We’ve put a stigma on intergenerational living. We need to ask how we shift the normal and make this a positive thing.”
Wendy Ludwig, a small business advisor for the Small Business Development Center at Oregon Coast Community College, is a local advocate for the program and agreed with Fields. “It’s still considered a little unusual for working adults to live with their parents, let alone with unrelated roommates,” said Ludwig. “We need to change this and make homesharing an accepted, normal and healthy way to live.”
Research shows homesharing has many positive health and housing benefits as well. Many people choose to live in non-traditional homesharing arrangements to reduce the personal costs of rent during emergencies, to meet caretaking needs, or simply in search of social support.
“Many people live alone these days, and we can all benefit from these kinds of day-to-day connections and companionship,” Ludwig said. “Social isolation and feelings of loneliness are common. Homesharing could help to alleviate that and improve mental health by increasing people’s social connections.”
Fields said HSO will begin asking Oregon counties to adopt new public policies, such as property tax abatements, to incentivize the program.
“I think if Lincoln County would consider giving homeowners a financial incentive to share their home by providing a modest property tax discount, that could only help to encourage homesharing as part of the solution to our housing crisis,” said Ludwig.
Home Share Oregon is a not-for-profit organization funded by grant money and donations. “The donations we receive pay for Oregonians to participate in this program for free,” said Fields. The goal is to continue raising money to provide all HSO services at no cost to low-income participants, but in the future, higher-earning homeowners may pay a small service fee.
“As we roll out the program and more and more people participate, we anticipate these numbers shifting, but this will most likely not be for another year or so,” said Fields. “It’s easy, accessible, secure and free.”
Dirksen, who has been renting out a spare room in his home for more than 10 years, encourages people to give homesharing a try. “Home Share Oregon is out there helping people practically, quickly and safely get into better situations,” he said.
Fields said HSO is not just an organization, it is a movement. “We encourage all Oregonians to join us in our effort to expand affordable housing, provide support for seniors and families who may be mortgage cost burdened, and prevent homelessness before it starts,” she said.
Go to homeshareoregon.org for more information.