As demand for Vermont home share program grows, more strangers move in together

  • Carol Blakely, left, hosts Katie Bailey, a UVM lecturer, at Blakely's home in St. George, seen here Oct. 25, 2022. Photo by Riley Robinson/VTDigger VTDigger — Riley Robinson

Published: 11/26/2022 10:18:02 PM
Modified: 11/26/2022 10:15:36 PM

Hidden among the trees of Forest Road in St. George, Vt., two strangers, 40 years apart in age, began sharing a home.

Carol Blakely, a retired teacher in her 70s and mother of four, once had a house full of people. But her children grew up and moved out, and her husband died, leaving only her 11-year-old French-Canadian cat named Poppy.

That was until last August, when Katie Bailey, 32, moved in.

Blakely and Bailey became housemates through an increasingly popular program run by the nonprofit HomeShare Vermont, which screens and pairs Vermonters (also known as “hosts”) who have stable housing but need assistance — financial or otherwise — with “guests” who are searching for affordable housing.

As housing prices skyrocket and living options remain scarce, HomeShare Vermont can’t find enough hosts to meet the demand of guest applications.

“We typically have three to four times as many people looking for housing as we have people willing to share their homes,” said Kirby Dunn, the organization’s executive director.

HomeShare Vermont currently serves Addison, Chittenden, Franklin, Grand Isle, Lamoille, Orange and Washington counties. The organization matches “hosts” and “guests” based on the lifestyle of the applicants, personal preferences and needs.

In an attempt to incentivize new Burlington homeowners to become hosts through HomeShare Vermont, the Burlington City Council last month unanimously approved a yearlong pilot program. The program allocates $1,000 to 30 hosts over the course of 12 months.

HomeShare Vermont is seeking $30,000 from the Burlington Housing Trust Fund to pay for the program. The trust is expected to decide on the request by early December.

“We’re trying to really encourage more people to share their homes especially, you know, with the downturn in the economy that might be something that people want to think about doing,” Dunn said.

Dunn said she’s recently noticed an increase in the number of younger individuals applying to become hosts.

At the same time, however, she said that HomeShare is competing with the short-term rental market, which has the potential to offer more lucrative returns to those opening up their houses.

Blakely said she decided to apply to host not because she needed help or extra cash but because she thought it was “silly” to have her house vacant when so many people need affordable housing.

“I mean, if Katie were my daughter, I wouldn’t want her honestly going and living with somebody on Craigslist,” Blakely said.

Bailey struggled to line up housing when moving from Chicago for a nine-month lecturer position at the University of Vermont. The most affordable option that she could find online for a studio apartment that “didn’t look like it would have bedbugs” would cost more than half her income after taxes, she said.

She learned about HomeShare Vermont through Teresa Mares, then-interim chairwoman of UVM’s anthropology department.

Mares said she has seen graduate students and faculty struggling to secure housing, especially if they have a limited time period to do so. Several years ago, before she was married and had children, Mares looked into the home share program for herself because of how expensive it is to live in Chittenden County.

HomeShare Vermont allows hosts to charge up to $650 in monthly rent in Chittenden County and $550 elsewhere in the state.

In practice, however, many hosts charge far less. The average rent, which has increased 18% since 2018, was $340 in fiscal year 2022, according to the organization.

In contrast, the median monthly rent in Vermont in 2021 was $1,115, according to Census data.

There’s no cost to apply to HomeShare Vermont. However, if a pair is successfully matched, both parties are charged a one-time fee between $60 and $500 depending on income.

On paper, Blakely and Bailey’s HomeShare agreement is a purely financial exchange, with Bailey paying the maximum rent of $650. Blakely lives on the first floor while Bailey occupies the second, allowing both to have their own space without feeling like they have to socialize constantly, something the two brought up to each other when they first matched and met up online.

Nevertheless, Bailey said she takes care of Poppy, sometimes with the help of a neighbor, when Blakely leaves to visit her children.

In the few months Blakely and Bailey have shared a home, they have visited an orchard together and shared meals. Blakely has even introduced Bailey to the world of Vermont creemees.

“It’s great to have a presence in the house,” said Blakely, who has lived alone for the past 15 years. “There’s no expectations, but I know if something came up or whatever, or I was, I don’t know, sick for some reason or broke my foot … there’s somebody around.”

In two-thirds of HomeShare Vermont arrangements, the guest provides some amount of assistance to the host — which could include grocery shopping or bringing the host’s pet to the veterinarian, for example.

These pairings often involve aging hosts who need help with daily tasks. Vermont has the second highest median age — about 43 years — in the nation, according to Census data, and home health care staffing shortages continue to be a problem.

Although HomeShare Vermont receives a lot of calls from people in need of a nursing home or 24/7 care, Dunn said the organization’s program isn’t intended to meet those kinds of intensive needs.

In Stowe, 63-year-old HomeShare guest Gretchen Mills pays no rent in exchange for providing companionship and cooking meals for 89-year-old Hesterly Black.

The pair have lived together since September and plan to continue doing so throughout Black’s life, depending on her health.

Mills, who moved to Vermont earlier this year from Northern California, said she needed to minimize her housing costs to be able to launch a leadership development agency.

Black, meanwhile, had been thinking about applying to HomeShare “for quite a long time,” after one of her children brought her a brochure for the program several years ago.

She started to have difficulty walking, or, in her words, became less “frisky.”

“I’ve been living alone for quite a long time and at my age I was concerned if something actually happened to me, nobody would know about it for quite a while,” Black said. HomeShare’s process of background checks and interviews gave her the assurance she needed that she wasn’t letting a total stranger into her house.

So far, she and Mills have been living together seamlessly, with Mills making most meals, including her favorite dish of pork with a chutney sauce.

Although there are some geographical divides, including Black raising an eyebrow to Mills’ morning avocado toast — which Black concluded was a California invention — the two have enjoyed cooking and eating meals.

“Often we make it together, and we always eat together. So it’s just lovely to have that kind of cadence to a day,” Mills said.

In three months of living together, they have introduced each other to their families, taken a day trip to Burlington and made outings to a craft fair and Smuggler’s Notch.

Black’s three-bedroom home is filled with animals, including an African grey parrot, two dogs, a Gloster canary named Donald for the tuft of hair on his head and a beta fish named Liberace due to his flowing fins.

“I have animals — I’ve always had animals — so Gretchen has had to deal with it,” Black said with a mischievous smile.

Mills doesn’t seem to mind. In fact, she said the moment that she realized it was a perfect fit was when she was sitting in Black’s living room with the dogs sprawled out across her lap, listening to Black and her daughter name the species of birds flying to the feeders.

Living with Black, she said, has “felt like home.”

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