More college students in the U.S. are having trouble finding stable housing.
About 43% of students at four-year universities experienced housing insecurity in 2020, according to a survey by Temple University.
At the same time, more senior citizens are struggling to make ends meet, and one out of every four adults over the age of 60 is living alone.
So with younger and older generations in a bind, why not have them live together?
It's not a new concept, but it hasn't been widely investigated or normalized in the U.S. But the trend is rising globally, and a couple of American programs are picking up steam, including one in Southern California called HomeShare OC.
Natalie Ho, 19, is a participant. She attends Irvine Valley College and studies psychology.
“I pay $300 a month for my room, which is pretty affordable for me,” she says.
Ho lives with homeowner Arlene Casimiro, who's 89 years old and a long-time widow in Dana Point, California.
“I don't dislike Natalie at all,” Casimiro says. “She is a nice, bubbly personality and she shares with me when she's going in and out, which is good to know.”
Carrie Buck, executive director of Homeless Intervention Services of Orange County, says the success of these roommates sounds similar to others she’s matched since starting HomeShare OC right before COVID-19 began.
The pandemic slowed down her efforts at first, but now she’s seeing more interest in the program. The rent students pay maxes out at $500 a month.
Students and homeowners sign up online and then Buck contacts both parties to start working on a relationship.
“It takes a lot of trust to get to actually moving in together. So that's where our job really comes in to find out what each of them have interests in and then start that matching process,” she says. “And then we introduce them to each other by phone and by Zoom and then in person, and then they finally make that decision if they're going to move in together.”
Most of what is known about the benefits of programs like these is anecdotal.
Ho, for example, says she had always wanted to live by the beach and was able to check that off her bucket list this semester by moving in with Casimiro. The cost savings has also been a lifesaver. Other rooms for rent nearby typically cost four or five times more.
“I do not feel like I'm missing out on anything as a college student by doing this, because it doesn't stop me from, like, going out … to parties,” Ho says. “It hasn't stopped me from anything except for student debt.”
In addition to the cost savings, another benefit is companionship. Seniors who live alone enjoy it and increasingly, so do the college students, Buck says.
“Our college students experience a lot of loneliness when they're moving off to college, they're going to school,” Buck says. “You don't necessarily think about it, but that really has been a key driver in students signing up for us.”
On the flip side, there are some cons.
Ernest Gonzales, director of the Center for Health and Aging Innovation at New York University, runs a similar program on the East Coast. He says one pitfall is ageism when it comes to recruiting older adults.
“The good news is that we have hundreds of students interested in the program,” Gonzales says. “The bad news is that not too many older adults are aware of this opportunity, or they have their own reservations of having a roommate, nonetheless, a younger roommate.”
Gonzales says that he's been eyeballing the ratio for some time and it appears that for every one student interested in the program, they would need approximately 15 older adults to maximize the match based on preferences like location, pets and smoking. But so far, it's been difficult to meet that.
Buck says her program faces similar challenges.
“But we're also meeting some successes with individual conversations, getting out into the community and talking to different groups like women's clubs, Rotaries, Kiwanis Clubs, all of those different groups that we get in front of and talk to,” she says. “We typically will find one or two people … that are interested.”
Gonzales also says public policies have been a barrier.
“There [are] so many low-income older adults that can benefit from this program, but they're living in public housing and or on means-tested public benefits that are income based,” he says. “Receiving income from a graduate student for shared housing may jeopardize the eligibility of receiving public benefits. So we are careful during the recruitment process.”
Buck says that hasn’t been as much of a problem in Orange County, but they do have one homeowner with a reverse mortgage who is not allowed to charge rent.
It ends up working out OK, she says, because the college students also provide 5 hours of time every week to the homeowner as part of their stay. They help out with tasks like watering plants, running to the grocery store or walking the dog.
“They negotiate that out,” she says.
Southern California is one of the most expensive places to live in the U.S. and homelessness is a huge, growing problem. That reality makes solutions like home sharing seem even more urgent, Buck says.
“I think it's incredibly urgent. During the pandemic, at our local college, which is very near to our city, the security guards actually opened a parking lot at the university so that students that were homeless could stay in their cars and be safe,” she says. “As the pandemic has gone away, the number of homelessness now is starting to increase because all of our benefits have now gone away.”
In the last few weeks, Buck says the program went from 100 people per month looking for shelter to around 400.
“It is really astronomical,” she says. “Right now, we can't meet the need of the college students that are contacting us. So it is incredibly imperative that we get out and speak to our homeowners and get in touch with them, communicate with them and talk about the great need that we have that they could help with and help get these college students in a safe space so that they can finish their college degree.”
This segment aired on November 22, 2022.