Strangers grow old together, courtesy of home share program

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Pearlie Biles, left, and Jo Slee found each other through an agency called Affordable Living for the Aging, and became roommates at Slee’s home in Westchester. Photo by Jenny Hamel.

More and more older people in Los Angeles are struggling to stay in their homes. Life expectancy is rising, and an increasing number of seniors are finding it difficult to care for themselves. Many others are on fixed incomes and can’t keep up with rising rents.

But for some people, the answer doesn’t lie in constructing new buildings, but rather in figuring out how to stay in the house you already have. Or, how to find a new home because the landlord just increased your rent by several hundred dollars a month.

Two women facing those challenges came together to create a solution. Jo Slee, 86, and Pearlie Biles, 73, have been roommates since January of this year. They live in Slee’s Westchester home where she raised her four children and shared with her husband of 59 years before he passed. Two seniors, who were complete strangers only a year ago, now share space, meals and laughter.

They connected through an agency called Affordable Living for the Aging, which provides housing for low-income seniors. It’s one of a growing number of groups that play matchmaker for older people who could use roommates.

“Home sharing is an innovative housing model because it addresses two issues at once,” said Miriam Hall, Director of Affordable Living for the Aging’s Home Share program.

“Each unused bedroom in Los Angeles is a potential housing unit. And so when occupied, those housing units naturally increase the supply of affordable housing in a community by utilizing homes that already exist. And then secondly, home sharing addresses the financial or service needs of older adults who are struggling to live independently in their homes.”

Slee’s kids explored options that would allow her to stay in her home and they found the home share program. Slee interviewed four pre-screened applicants. That meant background checks, employment records and so on. Slee had three rules: her new roommate would have to have a car; not smoke and have no overnight male guests. Biles fit the bill. Plus, they liked each other right away. Slee says it’s because of her “well-rounded personality.”

After a two-week trial period, they signed a rental contract. And this is their agreement. Slee provides a bedroom with a big window facing the yard, and use of the whole house. In exchange, Biles drives Slee to places like the grocery store, church or to doctor’s appointments. She helps with light chores and she’s around to provide companionship and will know if an accident happens, let’s say Slee takes a fall. Biles also cooks some meals for Slee, but that’s not required. And she pays 360 dollars a month in rent.

In the nine months they’ve lived together, Slee and Biles say it’s working out great. They’ve met each other’s friends and family, and they’ve celebrated birthdays together. Slee will acknowledge that although at first she didn’t want a roommate, “I like it better the way it is now though.”

“So I’m just really happy,” said Biles of her roommate situation with Slee. “I just recently had to redo my driver’s license and it has her address on it. So, this is official!”