They joke they're the "odd couple," but Joan and Theresa, who share a home in Franklin Square, say their living arrangement is an ideal solution to the high cost of housing on Long Island and their need for companionship.
Two years ago, Joan, 57, (who, like Theresa, asked that her last name be kept private), decided a housemate could ease the burden of increasing taxes on the home she inherited from her parents.
Meanwhile, Theresa, 51, was having trouble finding a place with affordable rent. In November, they met through the HomeShare program of the Family and Children's Association in Mineola.
Home sharing is an arrangement where a homeowner and a home seeker have their own bedrooms but share common areas. In exchange, the owner receives rent, services or both. Rent for a private bedroom in a homeshare here averages $600 a month.
Joan had to warm up to the idea. "It's a trust issue because she's sharing my own space; it's not a separate apartment," she explained. "But the application and interview process is very thorough, including a criminal-background check, and you get to lay out exactly what your rules are."
At first, Joan and Theresa say, there were adjustments. Joan wanted to find the kitchen tidy, the way she left it. But Theresa, who pays $725 a month, says she prefers leaving dishes in the sink and cleaning up later. (Joan won.)
"Joan would yell at me," Theresa teases, with Joan nearby. "But for us, it has really become more than tenant-owner. We have a friendship. We watch TV and eat together a few times a week when our schedules allow. We share the groceries." Even their two male cats, Tucker and Smokey, get along.
Affordable housing need
Experts say the need for matches like this one is increasing on Long Island as the population ages. The arrangement accommodates homeowners on limited incomes who want to age in place and renters who struggle to find affordable housing, says Karen Boorshtein, who heads the Family Service League in Huntington. The agency runs Suffolk's HomeShare Long Island program.
It's based on a national model started in Atlanta in the '80s, originally designed to support homeowners 60 and older on fixed incomes. But Dolores Tibbets, the HomeShare Nassau coordinator, says it has "evolved to be more flexible about age and circumstances as more needs come to our attention, like a divorced mother who isn't sure she can keep her house." But, she said, "We still mostly deal with senior homeowners. There are no typical matches."
Both Tibbets and Boorshtein say most of the inquiries come from homeowners who are widows and a majority of those who seek housing also are women.
"Some seekers are out of work on disability. Some have moved into a community and need short-term housing," says Doreen Davidson, program coordinator for HomeShare Long Island. "We get a lot of calls from adult children who are worried their parents have become forgetful or they just don't want them alone."
That's the case for Elena Fortune-Jones of Wading River, 56, who was worried about her 89-year-old mother, Aida Fourtouniades. "My husband and I are retired and have grandchildren out of town we want to visit. I live nearby.
But I wanted to have someone in the house who can make sure she takes her medications and eats; to walk with her when she wants to be outside," Fortune-Jones explains. "My mother was reluctant at first. But we told her if you want to stay in your house, you need help."
For the past year, Fourtouniades' 60-year-old roommate, who works full-time as a nursing assistant, has been providing care and companionship in exchange for rent. Fourtouniades says she has adjusted. "She's become part of my family. We play cards and eat together. I had been alone for 20 years, so I was hesitant to share my home at first. But now I love having her here for the company."
In fact, Boorshtein says that while the financial aspect of the program is important to many, for the elderly, companionship is paramount.
Frank Emilio of Cedarhurst cares for his 88-year-old aunt who wants to remain in her home. He approached her with the idea of home sharing mainly for socialization.
"At first she resisted. But then she saw the benefits, especially at night when she was lonely," he says. "You do question at first if you can let someone into your home. But . . . there's the safety aspect of having another person to check on her."
Vicki Irons of Rockville Centre says the benefits work both ways. She was the first roommate of Emilio's aunt. "I needed a place to stay after an illness left me broke. We hit it off, and I lived there nine months before moving."
Even now, a year later, they get together to watch favorite TV shows. Irons brings ice cream for a special night together. "I'm friends with the family. I think the program is wonderful. There is no lose, only win-win," Irons says. "For me, it's like having another grandmother. More people should do it. It helped me to stay on Long Island and gave us each a new friend."
Some pairings don't work
Of course, not every match is perfect, Davidson says. "About 15 percent of the matches don't work out for various reasons -- like the commute to work [from the house share] is too long or there are personality conflicts. So we try again. There are so many wonderful stories of people becoming friends. It's almost like a dating service."
Typically, Tibbets says, the match process includes applications from both the owner and the seeker. Fees of up to $200 each cover such things as criminal background checks. There's an initial assessment, and the agencies require that applicants provide three references. If there's a match, a coordinator helps smooth out details involving personal habits, financial arrangements and living space.
Follow up is done for a year. Home shares usually last six months to two years.
"In any arrangement, the homeowner has to give up some privacy or personal space and the seeker may have to give up some personal belongings [for space] or a pet," Tibbets says. "For many, it's a cultural shift because you're not renting, you're sharing someone's home. It's not without its challenges, but it's worthwhile."