LA seniors find housing solution with home share program

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Some seniors struggling to make the rent in Los Angeles have turned to living with strangers.

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.

Slee says of Biles’ cooking, “if she sounds like a professional, she is,” adding that she’s now eating “too much probably.”

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.

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.”

Before moving in with Slee, Biles had a studio apartment in Playa Vista that was close to her only daughter and two grandkids, but her rent kept going up. Biles reached her breaking point when her landlord told her that her rent of $1500 was going up another $350. What Biles didn’t know is most landlords in LA had been raising rents since the last time she moved.

“I cannot do that. I will not do that,” was Biles’ response. She moved out. “I didn’t realize everybody else was doing the same thing at that time.”

Biles couldn’t live with her daughter, because there wasn’t enough space and she still works, so she was hoping for a place she could afford near Playa Vista.

Meanwhile, Slee was finding it harder and harder to age in place. She no longer drove, she relied on a cane to get around, and her doctor’s appointments were becoming more frequent.

“Ever since my husband died, the kids have just fussed over me constantly… and I knew they worried a lot,” said Slee. “They mentioned nursing home. And I said ‘Oh no.’ I said ‘Well, ok. I’ll talk to somebody. But don’t count on it.”

“For kids my age, we look at those centers with a lot of favorability. We think, ‘Wow, they have caregivers, they make sure you’re eating, they make sure you’re taking your medicine on time, they have social events, they take you to the grocery store or you have a kitchenette so you can still do for yourself,” said Earl Slee, Jo’s son. “It’s hard to know what to do because you also see people who go into those centers and thrive. And you see people going to those centers and do the opposite. They languish and you feel badly about taking them out of their home that they’ve lived in for 59 years.”

Her kids explored options that would allow Slee 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.

“When I found out, I couldn’t believe it,” Biles said of the low rent. “It gave me an opportunity to do something that I may have needed to do, take care of some of my old bills that I haven’t paid, and then I’ll be close to my daughter and my grandchildren.”

Miriam Hall with ALA’s Home Share Program says that at any given time there are up to 85 seniors on her list of people seeking housing. But that far outweighs the number of people with homes who are looking for someone to move in.

“We try to bridge the gap so the roommate that we find for these folks bridges the gap,” said Hall. “They are either paying some rent or they’re helping with companionship and household chores and allowing that senior to remain at home.”

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!”

Robert Rodriguez and his wife lost their home after participating in a renter’s strike in MacArthur Park. Photo by Jenny Hamel. (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

Pearlie and Joe wound up finding a happy outcome. But a lot of seniors are not necessarily ending up with such a great solution.

The Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority in their latest homelessness count found that while homelessness generally went down overall, the only age group that experienced a spike — and it was a 22 percent spike — was the senior population, people 62 years and older.

One woman was diagnosed with breast cancer and fell behind on her rent for a couple of months in an apartment she had lived in for 20 years. The landlord showed no empathy and evicted her. As she was signing up to live in homeless shelters, she was able to get into a home share situation.

Another 80 year old man had worked in the maintenance department for the L.A. Zoo for years and was caring for his wife who had Parkinson’s disease.  They were being pressured to move out of the apartment they had lived in for decades, because his landlord wanted to convert his apartment building.  He desperately looked for apartments and tried to see if there was Section 8 housing available.  He was told there was a years’ long waiting list.

And one senior became a housing activist. Robert Rodriguez, 82, participated in a multiple building-wide renter’s strike. A jury ruled in favor of the landlord and he was promptly given an eviction notice.

“It boils down to the same thing. Money, money. I don’t have enough money. I’m too old to go out and work. I can’t drive anymore,” Rodriguez said.

Rodriguez and his wife plan to stay with his sister for the time being, but have no idea of where they will live next.