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Increasing Housing Options for Homeless Populations Through a Shared Housing Approach

Inside an open concept room with a kitchen, dining table, and couch, one woman hangs a bicycle on a wall rack, another woman reads a book on the couch, and a third woman looks at her phone.Although many Americans have significant experience living in shared housing, shared housing has been an infrequently used strategy within the affordable housing and homelessness systems.

Inadequate supply presents a challenge to people transitioning from homelessness to permanent, stable housing. At the National Alliance to End Homelessness’ 2020 Solutions for Individual Homeless Adults conference, held in February 2020 in Oakland, California, one group of panelists discussed a strategy that could expand housing options while providing benefits that go beyond simply increasing the number of available units. Shared housing, defined as two or more unrelated adults cohabitating in a single dwelling unit, offers potential financial, social, and other advantages to participants, service providers, and the broader community. Kris Freed, chief program officer at LA Family Housing; Kris Kuntz, principal at LeSar Development Consultants; and Todd Walker, executive director of the Judeo Christian Outreach Center, discussed their organizations’ experience using this approach to rehouse individuals experiencing homelessness, including program design elements to help ensure the successful application of a shared housing model.

What Is Shared Housing?

Although many Americans have significant experience living in shared housing, with some estimations showing that 7.5 percent of adults aged 25-34 in the U.S. lived in such an arrangement as of 2016, shared housing has been an infrequently used strategy within the affordable housing and homelessness systems. According to Walker, before the widespread adoption of the Housing First approach, shared housing was common among individuals transitioning from shelters because people frequently formed friendships with others they met at the shelters and eventually became roommates with them after leaving. These often-informal arrangements, however, sometimes created their own set of difficulties. Practitioners need to proactively address problems resulting from handshake deals, subleasing without landlord knowledge, and routine violation of boundaries to ensure the successful implementation of shared housing.

Shared housing, according to Freed, has reemerged as a strategy to cope with problems such as the rising cost of housing, inadequate supply in general and a lack of affordable housing in particular, stagnant incomes, and inadequate public resources. Although a shared housing approach can make housing individuals experiencing homelessness easier, the benefits, according to Kuntz, accrue to all stakeholders. For the individual being housed, rent payments can be lower. Adopting this approach makes more housing options, including higher-quality units, accessible. A well-matched roommate can provide social support and decrease isolation. For landlords, the additional supply of potential tenants can reduce vacancies, enhancing their financial security. For the community and for the homeless system, tapping into the general rental market helps people get housed more quickly. Freed noted that although shared housing can be a transition stage toward more independent living, it also offers a built-in support system when care is taken to match roommates well. The model, panelists agreed, can benefit a diverse range of people, including single adults, college students, transition-age youth, and seniors.

Making Shared Housing Work for Homeless Individuals

The shared housing approach, as shown by the experience of the panelists’ organizations, can be made to work for clients when certain best practices are put into place. The two principles that should guide a shared housing program, said Kuntz, are that the program should be person-centered and that the individual should have choice. Participants should be able to choose their roommate, their housing, and whether to leave. Freed reinforced that sentiment, saying that participants must choose to participate in the option willingly, knowing that it is not being forced on them, and she suggested several strategies to encourage individuals to consider shared housing. These strategies could include providing positive examples that demonstrate shared housing’s social and financial benefits, having a robust roommate matching system, hammering out agreements between roommates before moving in, and building relationships with landlords. Training an organization’s staff in the mechanics of shared housing is also critical for success, said Freed. Finally, Freed identified elements such as having individual leases for each participant in a shared apartment, landlords adhering to fair housing laws, and being committed to following proper eviction procedures as key program features. Kuntz added conflict mediation, clear procedures for filling vacancies, and efforts to measure program performance to the list of considerations.

Freed highlighted encouraging results from studies examining the shared housing model. She cited findings that suggest that shared housing benefits more than just the single participant by freeing resources that can be used to find stable, adequate housing for others at risk of homelessness, which may also help alleviate poverty. According to Walker, since adopting a shared housing strategy, his organization has seen faster movement out of shelter and into permanent housing, with 80 percent of clients being rapidly rehoused through the shared housing model in fiscal year 2019. Finally, Walker said, the broader community is more engaged with solving homelessness through the shared housing model. Landlord participants are often found through engagement meetings and through the outreach of faith-based organizations. By producing better outcomes for individuals, organizations, and communities, shared housing is a promising approach toward making episodes of homelessness rare, brief, and nonrecurring.

 
 


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