As demand for residence share program grows, extra strangers transfer in collectively

Hidden among the trees of Forest Road in St. George, 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. 

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. 

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