Households come in all shapes and sizes, bringing family, friends and sometimes complete strangers together under one roof. The way that people organize themselves into households is part of what shapes both a community’s physical and social structure.
Growing up, my parents’ house had a sizable basement, complete with a kitchen and bathroom – a space much bigger than we needed, and ideal for someone looking for less expensive housing and an opportunity to build community. The people that rented the basement became some of our closest family friends. When I was a kid, my parents rented out the space at a reduced rate in exchange for weekly babysitting. I still remember Julie, my babysitter for over 2 years, who become almost an older sister to me. We played with my model horses, practiced reading my first chapter books and made boatloads of mac and cheese. We still stay in touch, and even though we don’t see each other often, she is still someone that I can count on. Sharing our home brought us many special connections and memories with people we likely would have never met otherwise, a serendipitous outcome of making use of all of our home’s space and reducing housing costs for all involved.
Cities across the U.S. are grappling with accommodating the housing needs of their growing and changing populations, a process complicated by the increasing scarcity of affordable housing. What could be a recipe for disaster has the potential to inspire creative solutions that could help mitigate these challenges and build stronger communities in the process. Cities such as Boston, Massachusetts, and the Dutch city of Deventer, are both exploring creative solutions to their cities’ housing demands by utilizing unused space in ways that make their communities more vibrant and close-knit. Both cities have launched programs that connect aging homeowners or nursing home residents with people, mostly students and young people, in need of affordable housing.
Boston’s Intergenerational Homeshare Pilot program matches households with spare bedrooms, often empty nesters or older people wishing to stay in their own homes, with students in need of reasonably priced housing. The program, a collaboration between the City of Boston and a local social enterprise called Nesterly, offers alternative housing options that address housing needs while building community. As of May 2018, the pilot has made eight pairings, and will run through December of this year, before potentially scaling up to a city-wide program in the future.
Older residents are the fastest-growing segment of Boston’s population and the city must adapt to meet their housing needs. Over three-quarters of adults over 50 say they would prefer to stay in their own homes, which are likely bigger than they need and require more maintenance than they can manage. At the same time, college students – of which there are about 152,000 in Boston – are often hard-pressed to find cheap housing. This creates the perfect opportunity. Filling in the city’s available space through the homesharing pilot can help both of these groups meet their housing needs.
Boston’s program also allows for more people to gain access to the city without triggering fears of displacement or new development. Many of our cities are filled with empty yet livable spaces. A national report by Trulia’s housing economics research team estimates that there are roughly 3.6 million unoccupied rooms in the U.S. – nearly 40,000 rooms in baby boomer households in Boston alone – that could be rented out. This space offers a built-in way to accommodate cities’ growing housing demands, while helping to fulfill everyone’s need for social connection and sense of community.
This idea has also taken root overseas, including in the Dutch city Deventer, where a local nursing home called Humanitas has invited university students to live rent-free in exchange for providing the seniors with companionship. Developing personal relationships offers immense social and health benefits, yet building these connections can be hard, especially for the elderly. Studies have even shown that loneliness and isolation, particularly in older people, can lead to increased mortality risk. Building intergenerational households can help to dispel that social isolation while cutting down on living costs for everyone involved. The students living at Humanitas “bring the outside world in,” according to the nursing home’s CEO, infusing the community with warmth and offering support to sick or lonely residents. The elderly residents have built special connections with their younger neighbors, sharing old war stories, life experiences and jokes over drinks and going to organized parties.
There are all kinds of alternative housing initiatives such as these that can help cities make effective use of their available space. These initiatives also enable people from all walks of life to develop valuable personal connections and engage with their communities in new and fulfilling ways.
Cities can support intentional communities by altering or eliminating prohibitive housing policies, such as ordinances – like those in Minneapolis, Minnesota, and Fort Collins, Colorado – that restrict the number of unrelated adults that are allowed to live under one roof. To foster more creative living arrangements, cities can follow Minneapolis’ example and loosen maximum occupancy rules. Removing barriers to intentional communities would open the door for initiatives like those in Boston and the Netherlands to take root across the country.