Thursday, October 17, 2013

Baltimore group serves community through ‘matchmaking’ and eHarmony could learn a thing or two from the homesharing service offered by St. Ambrose Housing Aid Center in Baltimore: Even the most sophisticated computer algorithms can’t replace good old-fashioned matchmaking, in which professionals get to know clients one-on-one to decide who would make a good “fit.”

It’s a simple concept: There are homeowners who need help paying their mortgage or other expenses, or just want the company. And there are other people who need an affordable place to call home. Why not match them up?

“The idea of homesharing was ‘born’ in the 1970s as a product of the Gray Panthers movement, and St. Ambrose was among the first housing organizations to join, in 1988,” comments Rebecca Burrett Sheppard, director of the program for St. Ambrose and president of the national association for professionals in this arena. “‘The U.S. census had just shown that more than 35,000 widows and widowers were living alone in single-family dwellings in Baltimore, and homesharing was a way of allowing these older individuals to ‘age in place’ – helping them with both chores and income.”  

St. Ambrose, a NeighborWorks organization that is celebrating its 45th anniversary this year, has seen its homesharing program grow exponentially since those early years, fueled since the 2008 housing crisis by homeowners of all ages who need extra income and seekers who are desperate for an affordable rental option.  To date, the organization has made 1,651 matches, about 65-80 annually.

Odd couples can make good matches

An older white woman and younger black woman share a home, offering the benefits of diversity.
Increasing diversity in the neighborhoods
is often a side benefit of homesharing
Currently, slightly more than half of the participants are earning just 30 percent or less of the area median income, with 43 percent between the ages of 40 and 60 and 44 percent between 60 and 80. More than a third (37 percent) of the matches are intergenerational (with the provider and seeker more than 15 years apart in age). The largest age difference the program has seen so far is 37 years.

One such match is Austin Jones, 86, who now has a 28-year-old housemate.

“I moved to West Baltimore in 1982,” explains Jones. “I bought into a co-op and shared it with my cousin. When he died, it was ok, because I was working. But then I had to retire five or six years ago and my Social Security payments aren’t enough to pay all of my expenses. I’ve been in the St. Ambrose homesharing program ever since.”

Jones has had about five housemates over the course of the years, including two currently. John Pittman, the 28-year-old, moved in about a month ago when his roommate moved out and he couldn't afford to live on his own. Pittman says Jones offers both the affordable rent and privacy he needs, and plans to stay at least until he can pay off his debts.

“All of my housemates have worked out pretty well,” says Jones, adding that his most important criteria are tidiness, a history clean of serious crime and good health. (“I’m too old to be able to take care of anyone,” he explains.) “I give Annette (his St. Ambrose “matchmaker”) an A+. She always finds me good people.”

St. Ambrose staff personally interview every applicant for the program, conduct home visits, check criminal records, verify income and contact four personal references for each potential participant. After the counselor identifies a match, the homeowner and house-seeker meet and decide whether they have good chemistry. If it’s a go, the “matchmaker” helps the two structure a written agreement, stipulating the rent to be paid, how chores will be divided, the policy on guests, etc. Arrangements are always month-to-month, to allow maximum flexibility, and the staff keeps in touch for the first year to help work out any problems. (That’s another feature dating sites could benefit from – follow-up “troubleshooting”!) Although the average duration is 18-24 months, Sheppard says three St. Ambrose matches have been together since the 1990s. There are others, however, that last only a couple of months by design.

“It’s not a requirement, but we do see a lot of diverse pairings work out quite well,” says Sheppard, recalling a quadriplegic widower who welcomed an under-employed IT professional, and a chronically homeless 30-year-old who moved in with a 50-something social worker. “The possibilities are infinite.”

Lessons learned for others

Sheppard has become something of national expert on homesharing, and often consults with other organizations considering starting their own program. In fact, she recently returned from New Jersey, where another NeighborWorks organization is initiating one to help people still struggling to make ends meet following the devastation of Superstorm Sandy.

If you’re intrigued by the homesharing concept, here are a few tips from Sheppard:

1. Dedicate sufficient staff to the effort. To get the program off the ground properly, she recommends one full-time employee.
2. Learn from others when it comes to policies and procedures. Expertise and thoughtfulness are required to develop a success record.
3. Don’t skimp on marketing and outreach. Remember, Sheppard says, you have to identify and “cultivate” two separate customer segments: homeowners and seekers. St. Ambrose relies on tactics such as Craig’s List, public service announcements on local media and outreach to other organizations.
4. Don’t expect huge success in the first year. “These programs start slow, but grow exponentially,” she cautions. “Cultivating a client base can take a number of years, but if you’re successful, you’ll eventually be self-sustaining – a very good place to be.”