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Roommate wanted: Homeless people are pairing up as a way around the housing crisis

Eric Perkins says the kitchen is what sold him on the two-bedroom, one-bathroom apartment in Norfolk, Va., that he found through a shared housing program. Parker Michels-Boyce for NPR

NORFOLK, Va. — Even after three years of homelessness, Eric Perkins did not want to move into an apartment with another person who had been unhoused.

"I was real skeptical because of the things I was seeing inside the shelter," he says. "A lot of drug use, lot of alcohol abuse, PTSD, there was a lot of veterans there. ... I was like, 'I don't want to be in a house with somebody like that.' "

But the arrangement suggested by a local housing provider has turned out better than he expected.

On a recent afternoon, Perkins gave a tour of the two-story house where he has lived for more than two years. It's divided into two apartments, and he shares the one on the first floor. The place came furnished, including with some homey knickknacks. Perkins has his own bedroom but shares a bathroom.

"It's small, but it's enough for us," he says.

Farther down the hall is what sold him on the place — a roomy kitchen with a window onto the small yard. "I like to cook," he says. "This is where I want to be."

Before he moved in, Perkins had lived on the beach in Virginia Beach, then a shelter and — during the pandemic — a hotel. He ended up without housing after a heart attack in 2017 and double-bypass surgery with no health insurance. He also has chronic lung disease that limits his ability to work. Perkins' monthly disability payment is just under $800. The median local rent for a one-bedroom apartment is more than $1,000.

After seeing the apartment and meeting the roommate he'd be paired with, Perkins decided to try it out. His rent is $600, and he gets a lot of help from housing aid. He says his roommate was also a good match with his personality, neat and quiet.

"We got to know each other, we respected each other's space, we shared everything," he says. "It was really nice."

That roommate ended up reuniting with his family and moved out, and in April 2021, Leon Corprew moved in. Corprew is 59 and Perkins is 56. They say they get along well, though they mostly keep to themselves and give each other space. Perkins used to cook for both of them, but Corprew makes his own meals now because, he says with a laugh, "I eat a lot!"

The housing crisis can make it all but impossible to place people on their own

Getting homeless people into their own apartment, without roommates, is considered the "gold standard" for achieving independence, says Ann Oliva, CEO of the National Alliance to End Homelessness. But record high rents and a historic housing shortage are making it all but impossible in many places in the U.S.

"The housing market right now is incredibly tight," Oliva says. "We're seeing vacancy rates at sort of record lows for rentals, especially for affordable rental units."

Rents in many places around the country have gone up by double digits in the past couple of years, and in June, the median listed rent for an available apartment rose above $2,000 a month for the first time. Federal benefits like Supplemental Security Income — or disability — have been unable to keep up.

Meanwhile, pandemic aid and protections against eviction mostly ran out just as the highest inflation in decades began spiking. Mortgage rates have risen as the Federal Reserve tries to try tamp down inflation, pricing many people out of buying a home and putting even more pressure on rentals.

Oliva says she's seeing more interest in offering roommate arrangements to homeless people out of necessity. When vacancy rates are as low as 1% or 2%, she says expanding the search to two- or three-bedroom apartments can make it easier to find a place.

It may also lead to housing in nicer neighborhoods, says Todd Walker, executive director of the Judeo-Christian Outreach Center in Virginia Beach, which found the shared apartment for Eric Perkins.

Learning the hard way about managing roommate arrangements

Walker started trying out this kind of shared housing eight years ago when one of his volunteers offered to rent out a four-bedroom family home. And he says he quickly learned some of the pitfalls.

"We had clients that weren't paying [rent], other clients giving that client their money to pay for the utility and it wasn't getting paid," he says. "It was a catastrophe."

The first major lesson Walker learned was to have a separate lease for each roommate. That way, if one person is a problem they can be moved — or evicted — without everyone else being kicked out. Also, he says it's important to keep utilities in the landlord's name and include that cost in the rent.

Another rule that Walker considers nonnegotiable: No doubling up in bedrooms, and there must be locks on the bedroom doors so that each renter is guaranteed a safe space.

Many people are initially reluctant about sharing an apartment, but Walker says they end up appreciating the community and support. "Sometimes they say they want to be alone, but they struggle with loneliness," he says.

The whole idea can also be a tough sell to landlords, who might worry about property damage. Walker talks it up to mom-and-pop landlords at every chance and offers incentives like a bonus or double deposit. He says these arrangements often let him house people who would otherwise be denied a lease, because of lack of income, a criminal record or past eviction.

"There's just not any apartment complexes around that's going to be that flexible," he says.

Once housed, people can start building up a rental history. And Walker says the lower rent — along with housing aid — offers a chance to pay any outstanding utility or other bills that would be a barrier to moving out on their own.

"The only way they're going to be self-sufficient ... is if they can knock down some of those other things that they may not be able to do if they were living in a place by themselves and having to handle everything," he says.

Despite some wariness, landlords also see benefits

Landlord Sophia Sills-Tailor owns the house where Perkins and Corprew live. When she heard about Walker's program five years ago, she was desperate to rent out a couple of places. She'd been using Craigslist but found those tenants "fly-by-night." Working with a nonprofit seemed more stable, even if its clients were homeless.

"When they come in, they don't just say, 'OK, here is the person, goodbye,' " she says. They help them set up the household, donating things like blankets, pots and pans. "And then they're coming to see them."

For the first few months, a case manager visits often to make sure everything is going well. Of course, anyone who has had roommates knows there can be tensions. But people who've experienced trauma might have a harder time adjusting, or a mental illness can flare up. The case manager keeps an eye out and also helps roommates learn how to resolve any conflicts themselves.

"Anytime I've had a little issue with somebody, I can always call up and say, 'Hey, so-and-so's having this issue,' and then they talk to them," says Sills-Tailor.

Housing providers who suggest roommate matches also work hard to try and avoid future problems.

"You definitely don't want to put a renter in a situation where it might spark their fear for whatever ... was traumatic for them," says Nina Wray, the housing locator for the Judeo-Christian Outreach Center. For example, she would not place someone in recovery with a person who's an active drinker.

Wray says she gets to know people through the group's emergency shelter and while showing them different apartments, and she does her best to match those she thinks will get along well.

A mission to scale up and find better roommate matches

Making this type of shared housing work better is a mission for Kris Freed of the nonprofit group LA Family Housing in Los Angeles, where the housing and homelessness crises hit early and hard. She started getting strategic about placing unhoused people with roommates more than seven years ago.

"We started seeing a rise in the number of single adults that were not able to find units as they were trying to transition out of programs," Freed says. They were returning their housing vouchers, "and that's where I started to say, 'Oh, we got a problem.' "

At first, she says the idea of shared housing felt taboo, reminding people of the old sober-housing model. Freed wants everyone to know: This is not about shoving a bunch of people in bunk beds and charging high rent. Now that the housing crisis has spread, she says she's fielding calls for training from across the country, including from Kentucky, Oklahoma, Hawaii, Texas and North Carolina.

Freed is passionate that having a roommate should be by choice and that it can work for most anyone who's interested, including those struggling with addiction or mental health. A good match is key.

"A lot of people tend to fall into homelessness because of a relationship fallout," she says, and may worry they won't get along with a roommate. LA Family Housing is piloting a personality matching tool that Freed likens to

"And then we put them in a room together and let them decide," she says. The document from the matching tool will "show the flags" — or which parts of their personalities or habits may not necessarily mesh — "so that they can ask each other, to determine if they would potentially be a good fit or not."

So far, there's only a few hundred people in the system, but the matches have been surprising. Some younger people seeking guidance have paired up with seniors eager to offer it.

Right now, placing the roommates can take a lot of time, cutting deals with landlords case by case. Freed and others would like to see federal and local rules changed to foster shared living arrangements. For example, the Fair Market Rents that housing subsidies are tied to apply to an entire apartment, rather than setting specific amounts for individual renters sharing a place. And Freed says if there were more clarity about the process, it could be easier for nonprofits to become their own landlord and avoid having to negotiate each arrangement.

It doesn't have to be forever

Back at the Norfolk apartment, Perkins says he's finally gotten a housing voucher and can afford to move to his own place. He's excited about having more privacy, but says his time with roommates has been "really good."

"I'll tell anybody it's better than being on the street," he says. "If you can deal with, you know, other people's issues and little stuff that get on your nerves, you get past all that and you'll be fine."

His roommate, Corprew, would like to find his own place in a subsidized senior community someday, but figures he'll stay put for a while. And as soon as Perkins moves out, the Judeo-Christian Outreach Center will work on finding another good match to take his place.


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