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Aging in place—with someone else

Can multigenerational home-sharing solve LA’s affordability crisis?

When Cate first received an informational postcard about the services offered by Affordable Living for the Aging, she tucked it away. Cate, who is in her 50s, has a body-work practice and thought it might be a good resource for one of her older clients. “But then my situation started to change,” remembers Cate, “and I thought, huh—maybe this is for me.”

Cate lived in Culver City, a small city on the west side of Los Angeles. She loved Culver City’s walkable neighborhoods, public amenities like parks and a sparkling city pool, and having a short commute to work in the nearby city of Santa Monica—without paying Santa Monica rent prices. But as she started to do the math, she wasn’t sure how much longer she’d be able to afford to live where she did, which worried her, she says. “I really wanted to stay in Culver City.”

A little over a mile away, Laurette, who is in her late 90s, was confronting the same questions. (Neither Laurette nor Cate wanted their last name or exact age shared due to privacy concerns.) A former public school teacher and an accomplished violinist who played with the Hollywood Bowl orchestra, Laurette had bought her spacious, light-filled ranch in the 1980s. But she had recently been diagnosed with mild cognitive impairment. She, too, wanted to stay in Culver City, home of her monthly book club meetings and the international folk dancing class she attended two nights a week. Leaving her home would mean leaving the grand piano she played in the living room, its wall of windows looking out onto a leafy back patio.

Since 1978, the nonprofit Affordable Living for the Aging, or ALA, has been connecting people like Laurette with people like Cate as part of its home-sharing program for seniors. One year ago, ALA matched Cate as a roommate with Laurette.

“I opened the door and said, she looks pretty good! Okay, I’ll try it for awhile,” laughs Laurette.

More than half of Los Angeles is zoned for single-family homes, and in many ways, the quiet tree-lined street of 1950s homes where Laurette and Cate live is where the city’s traditional approach to homebuilding and homebuying meets Los Angeles’s housing crisis.

Culver City was incorporated a century ago around a handful of film studios, and for decades it remained an affordable place for studio employees to live. But in recent years, the city of 40,000 has seen a boost of popularity among tech workers due to its proximity to Silicon Beach. Without enough new housing units to keep up with demand, renting and buying there has become prohibitively expensive.

About 40 percent of Culver City’s housing units are single-family homes, a majority of which were built before 1970. Between 2000 and 2016, the median sales price of those Culver City homes increased 216 percent, from $240,000 to $759,000. The median home value for the city is currently $1,171,600, a figure which increased 12 percent just in the last year.

Culver City’s population is also aging—by 2030 one in four residents of LA County will be 60 or over—and today’s seniors are more likely to stay in their homes longer due to better health. According to a recent Freddie Mac report, the rate of Americans over 68 who are choosing to remain homeowners is not decreasing as quickly as previous generations, holding back single-family homes that would have otherwise been up for sale.

The empty bedrooms that sit in those single-family homes in the LA area represent some of the most prime real estate in the city, with the best accessibility to jobs, schools, and transit. Yet even small efforts to change their zoning to allow for multifamily dwellings, like proposals to permit taller apartment buildings around light-rail stations, are often fought by groups in those single-family neighborhoods. A homeowners’ group recently sued the city of LA to stop a plan which is estimated to add between 4,400 and 6,000 new units of housing to the city’s west side.

This is part of the reason why housing affordability across the region has reached an all-time low. According to a 2018 report by the California Housing Partnership and the Southern California Association of Nonprofit Housing, almost 600,000 new affordable units are needed countywide to house low-income renters.

In 2016, Culver City permitted just 11 new housing units, about .3 permits per 1,000 residents, according to the Southern California Association of Governments. The scarcity has dramatically impacted rents. As Cate looked for an apartment building in Culver City that year, the average rent was around $2,400.

“Los Angeles is one of the most expensive housing markets, making it challenging for older adults, particularly lower-income people who solely rely on social security that does not factor the cost of living,” says Stephanie Ramirez, associate state director of community for AARP California. “ALA is providing innovative solutions to this crisis and bringing alternative housing options for older adults through their shared housing program.”

Since 1978, ALA has made 1,200 of these home-sharing matches, about 30 per year, according to Miriam Hall, ALA’s home sharing program manager. Similar programs focused on offering affordable housing to students in seniors’ spare rooms have cropped up in other cities. But Hall says ALA’s applications from home seekers, older adults who are still working and living independently, have increased in recent years as LA has become more unaffordable.

“People share homes for a variety of reasons, but this program speaks specifically to the housing crisis in LA,” says Hall. The average rent for a one-bedroom apartment in the LA area is $2,000 per month, she says. ALA works with its home providers to set much lower rents—its home seekers pay an average of $600 per month. “Home sharing naturally increases the supply of affordable housing.”

While paying more affordable rent can be life-changing for the home seekers, this type of living situation can also be financially beneficial to home providers, many of whom are on a fixed income, she notes. Homeowners in the ALA program make an average of $6,000 per year from rent, which can be enough to offset the cost of a caregiver or medical bills, for example.

Home sharing wasn’t on Laurette’s family’s radar when changes to her health caused them to re-evaluate her living situation, says her son Tim, who lives a few miles away but spends a lot of time abroad.

“She fell, she was dealing with depression, and strangely enough, she developed late-onset alcoholism,” he says. When Laurette returned from a stay at a short-term rehab facility, they knew they’d have to hire a caregiver for some medical needs. But Laurette was completely physically able to stay in her house. “My mom really wants to live at home,” says Tim, “and we really want her to live at home.” What she needed was a roommate.

The empty bedrooms that sit in those single-family homes in the LA area represent some of the most prime real estate in the city, with the best accessibility to jobs, schools, and transit.

“At first I looked on Craigslist,” he says, laughing very hard after completing this thought, which he describes as “a very interesting experience.” When Tim and his siblings discovered ALA, an organization that specializes in the needs of seniors and performs extensive background checks on both parties before setting up a home share, it seemed like the best possible solution. Plus, ALA staffers could act as the intermediaries, drawing up the rental agreements, which might include light household chores or other responsibilities, and scheduling regular home visits to make sure everything is running smoothly.

Laurette’s family particularly loved the idea that they could offer someone below-market-rate rent to make ends meet. “The key is having the right person,” Tim says of Cate, “and she couldn’t be more wonderful.”

Sitting side by side on a swooping peach sectional sofa, Cate and Laurette banter like old friends. They talk about spending some evenings together playing Boggle, or watching The Crown and Call the Midwife on Netflix. On warm days they might take a walk in the neighborhood or drive a few miles to the beach to stroll along the Marina.

Laurette keeps Cate up to date on current events—Laurette reads the Los Angeles Times cover to cover every day—while Cate helps Laurette delete the messages from telemarketers who overwhelm her voicemail.

“She’s easy to get along with,” says Laurette, looking at Cate. “She’s easy to get along with,” Cate chirps back, smiling at Laurette.

Finding home seekers is easy, Hall says. It’s not as easy to find homeowners who want to participate in the program. “For housing providers, there’s more of a challenge,” she says. “A lot of people have to cross over some mental blocks.”

When Sherri Akers, organizer of an aging-in-place group in the Mar Vista neighborhood of LA, adjacent to Culver City, asked ALA to present the program, she saw a lot of anxiety from single-family homeowners about letting a stranger into their space, and it was about more than just having a roommate.

“The elephant in the room is dementia,” says Akers. About one in three Americans will develop some type of dementia, a figure that’s slightly higher for women. “I think that’s the biggest fear—a bad situation that’s difficult to get out of.”

It’s similarly challenging for older adults who are healthy and active to find places in pricey, car-dependent LA to age in place. Park La Brea, a large, centrally located postwar development, is home to a federally designated naturally occurring retirement community (NORC), where the nonprofit Jewish Family Service of Los Angeles coordinates transportation, healthcare needs, and cultural programming for 75 older adults who live independently.

But what the program is essentially doing is filling basic gaps in social services like reliable public transit and accessible medical facilities that used to be standard for living in any LA neighborhood. “The community has changed and so with it the access and availability of resources,” says Sheila Moore, senior director of comprehensive older adult services at Jewish Family Service. If an older adult wasn’t lucky enough to move to Park La Brea decades ago, the only way to “join” the community is to move in now—and pay market-rate rents starting at $2,000 per month for a studio.

With living costs compounded by medical costs, the percentage of older adults who are experiencing housing instability is increasing as LA’s population ages, according to James Don, of the city of LA’s Department of Aging.

Currently, one-fifth of LA County’s homeless residents are seniors, and last year, the city saw a 22 percent increase in homelessness among older adults over the previous year.

Our housing challenges are both from a lack of homes and what you could call a misallocation of dwelling space.”

—Mark Vallianatos, Abundant Housing

Last year, the city of Los Angeles released the Purposeful Aging age-friendly action plan, which recommends that the city “develop or encourage development of alternative housing types such as co-op housing, co-housing, or other multi-generational living arrangements that could also help reduce housing costs, and mitigate social isolation as residents age.”

ALA’s home-sharing program has some partnerships like this, receiving public funding from the city of Beverly Hills—another wealthy LA-area city with very low housing production—as well as a Community Development Block Grant from Los Angeles County, and support from LA County’s 2nd supervisory district.

Although ALA used to receive some funding through LA’s Department of Aging, the city currently does not provide additional support for the program. “We haven’t tried to replicate it,” says Don, noting that the city doesn’t possess the “high level of expertise at ALA needed to operate a successful program.”

Yet ALA’s program costs much less than the city’s other efforts to create housing. As construction costs rise, the price of building affordable housing from scratch has become more expensive. In 2018, the Government Accountability Office reported that it costs an average of $400,000 to create one new affordable housing unit in the city of Los Angeles.

Last year, ALA’s home-share plan effectively “created” 31 units of affordable housing at a cost of $2,650 per unit, essentially the administrative costs of running the program.

Besides providing funding for programs like ALA’s, the city or state could step up with more legislation that incentivizes the sharing of single-family homes, says Mark Vallianatos, from the advocacy group Abundant Housing. “Our housing challenges are both from a lack of homes and what you could call a misallocation of dwelling space,” he says. “[ALA’s] program is a cool way to match people up and help allocate bedrooms to people who badly need them. But we also need to tackle shortages of dwelling space and create a wider range of places to live. Some older residents may choose to downsize, freeing up larger homes for households with children.”

In recent years, accessory dwelling units, known as ADUs, or, more often, “granny shacks,” as a nod to their ability to enable semi-independent, multigenerational living, have been pitched as a way to add housing without demolishing or dramatically changing the character of single-family neighborhoods. Over the last two years, as regulations were eased at the state level, LA has seen an explosion of single-family homeowners applying for ADU permits. The city went from 142 permits issued in 2016 to 4,172 in 2018.

The city recently received a $1 million grant from the Bloomberg Philanthropies Mayor’s Challenge to pilot a program where single-family homeowners could get incentives of up to $30,000 if they agree to build ADUs to house homeless residents. But those garage conversions, prefab casitas, and backyard cottages will all cost additional time and money to build.

Using Hall’s estimate for the cost to create one unit of housing through ALA’s program, $1 million could help house 377 individuals.

ALA’s home sharing requires no zoning changes, no special permits, no construction costs, no years of local development meetings.

It’s also what most older adults want.

“We hear time and time again from our members and through research that people want to remain in their current residence for as long as possible,” says Ramirez, of AARP. “The program creates a win-win for its participants, creating enhanced personal independence, allowing residents to age in place, and fostering residents’ engagement in the community’s civic, economic, and social life—these outcomes are much aligned with AARP’s goal of creating more age-friendly and livable communities for people of all ages.”

Hall likes to think of every match made as a benefit multiplier. Last year, ALA didn’t just house 31 people, she says, it matched 31 at-risk seniors with 31 isolated older adults. That’s securing not only housing but a better support system for 62 total individuals, as well as their families, neighbors, and communities.