Housing Creation With Heart
Is it possible to create housing in San Francisco that isn’t controversial?
Pierce Smith and Ed Taylor discovered a way to quietly meet their housing needs while avoiding the city’s fierce political battles over where and what to build.
Their solution doesn’t change neighborhood character, pit landlords against tenants, or take a decade to get approved and built. They joined a nonprofit program called Home Match that pairs seniors who have an extra bedroom with people looking for an affordable place to live.
Seniors get additional income, help around the house, and someone to talk to. Their housemates get to stay in San Francisco at a fraction of the cost.
What’s the catch? Pierce is 81 and Ed is 27. Imagine the hijinks when a military veteran from the Silent Generation shares his home with a rock-climbing Millennial.
“We’re still trying to figure some things out,” Pierce said. “Like who puts the dishes in the dishwasher. But you don’t want to father your roommate. That’s a bad idea.”
“At 81, I thought Pierce would be ancient and close to turning to dust,” Ed said. “But Pierce is entirely with it — except for the occasional senior moment, like him accidentally eating my ice cream.”
Cue the theme music to The Odd Couple.
The pairing of Ed and Pierce was not random. There is a process.
“It’s like a dating service but not meant for romance,” said program director Karen Coppock. “Expectations are discussed and set up front.”
Coppock also plays the role of head matchmaker. Cue the song from Fiddler on the Roof.
“When I met Pierce it was like an awkward first date,” Ed said. “But we got positive vibes from each other. We both read people well.”
Coppock gives hosts a list of potential housemates to choose from. During the pandemic, pairs were first introduced by Zoom. Then they advanced to a socially distanced in-person meeting.
A match is usually made after a host looks at three or four applicants that Coppock screens with background checks. Current listings offer rooms that range from $400 to $1,100 a month.
Pierce chose to share his Inner Sunset apartment with Ed because he was looking for more companionship.
“Having someone to talk to is more civilized than living by yourself,” Pierce said. “Being lonely is no fun.”
Ed was impressed by Pierce’s history as a Vietnam War medic, construction worker on the BART transbay tube, and someone who dated an heiress whose grandfather went down with the Titanic.
“Pierce has lived lives I can’t fathom,” Ed said. “I like hearing his stories because he has a lot of knowledge and experience. Pierce did way more at my age than I’m doing at the moment.”
A mutually negotiated contract between host and housemate sets the terms for everything from rules on overnight guests to chores that can reduce the rent. The typical host is a woman around age 70 and they usually prefer a female housemate.
Sometimes changes to the contract are needed and Coppock serves as the broker — like when a housemate starts dating someone and requests an increase in the number of nights guests can stay in a month.
Half of the hosts never allow guests. The rest say it’s OK with some boundaries. To keep Pierce safe during the pandemic, Ed spent nights at his girlfriend’s place before vaccinations were available.
“She’s a teacher who worked from home and didn’t go anywhere, so Pierce was comfortable with it,” Ed said. “We were always conscious of Pierce’s age and health concerns.”
Contracts are commonly amended when hosts decide they want more help with daily activities in exchange for a reduction in rent. Housemates can agree to a set number of hours a week for house cleaning, running errands, or assisting with technology and Internet questions. They can even arrange to have a certain number of meals together.
Ed and Pierce have been living together for nearly a year, which is the average length of a pairing. The longest match in San Francisco is five years so far. The minimum stay is three months, “because we’re not Airbnb,” Coppock said.
But Home Match isn’t guaranteed lifelong housing. Individuals living in an owner-occupied home aren’t subject to tenant’s rights under California laws. A housemate cannot stay beyond the agreed upon date and hosts are able to end a contract at will.
While Coppock mediates disputes, she said break-ups are rare. Housemates usually move out when they’re able to get their own place or a host becomes ill and requires more advanced care than Home Match can offer.
“Everyone signs a living contract that can evolve over time,” Coppock said.
Ed was living in the Hunters Point neighborhood before he became a Home Match client. When the pandemic hit, his roommates left San Francisco and he couldn’t afford to keep the apartment himself.
“I’m underemployed, which is common for my age group,” said Ed, who has a Bachelor’s degree in history from the University of San Francisco and worked as an administrative assistant for One Medical.
“But I didn’t want to move back in with my parents in Los Angeles,” Ed said. “After becoming sober, I became part of a recovery community here and I was afraid to reconstruct that network somewhere else.”
Ed stumbled upon Home Match while reading Craigslist ads.
“I was relatively desperate, so I gave it a try,” he said. “Now I have a bit more faith that things are going to work out in life since this worked out so well.”
When it comes to San Francisco’s housing wars, Ed said he wishes more apartment buildings were allowed in all parts of the city.
“The only option with our limited space is to build up,” Ed said. “If we can’t agree to do that, at least Home Match can house people using what we already have.”
There was a time when Ed was homeless. The Salvation Army offered him a safe place to live and get sober.
“I know how important it is for people having challenges to have shelter,” he said.
Coppock said Home Match placed a couple living in their car who had lost jobs during the pandemic and burned through their savings.
“We’re good at homeless prevention,” Coppock said.
“A Great Thing”
Home Match is a city-sanctioned program that former Supervisor Katy Tang started in San Francisco through the Mayor’s Office of Housing and Community Development.
Today, Home Match is offered in multiple cities throughout the Bay Area. It’s run by an affiliation between nonprofit organizations Covia and Front Porch. Coppack oversees all of the programs and directly manages the San Francisco operation.
Pierce heard about Home Match through a social worker.
“I was living on social security, which isn’t much, and I needed more income,” said Pierce, who is twice-divorced. “I was going through depression living alone. My kids are so far away in Philadelphia and Florida. I had no idea how helpful Home Match would be. It’s a great thing.”
It’s hard to say who benefits most from the arrangement, Pierce or Ed.
Ed gets to live in a bigger and nicer apartment than he could ever afford in San Francisco. He also sees Pierce’s antique furniture and 1930s decor as a bonus.
“Everything matches the era of the building, so it fits. And I don’t have to sit on random college kid furnishings from the sidewalk,” Ed said.
Home Match provided both Ed and Pierce with housing security, a rare outcome as San Francisco fights with itself about how to address its housing shortage.
Perhaps the key to Home Match success is the human connection.
“Living with Pierce is much more than a secure living situation. It’s improved my quality of life,” Ed said. “We get along well even if our lifestyles are a bit different. I think with age comes serenity, which is a great attribute in a roommate.”
Originally published at https://www.engardio.com on May 25, 2021.