- Associated Press - Saturday, December 8, 2018

FORT COLLINS, Colo. (AP) - Sheila Hillhouse’s basement felt more chaotic than usual last week with boxes, furniture and suitcases strewn around the bedrooms and kitchen.

Renter Sahar Radwan was moving out, and a new renter was moving in.

With one adventure coming to an end, and other about to begin, Hillhouse, 72, takes the chaos in stride.

She and her husband, Larry, had mostly lived alone in their south Fort Collins home for several years when she heard about Neighbor to Neighbor’s new Homeshare program.

The program, in collaboration with The Partnership for Age-Friendly Communities, matches homeowners over age 55 with home seekers looking for a more affordable living option not typically found in Fort Collins. Rent is negotiable and can be a straight financial transaction or lowered rent in exchange for household help.

The Hillhouses’ new tenant will pay $700 a month to rent the two-bedroom, two-bath finished walk-out basement with a kitchen, patio and view of Fossil Creek Park. All Hillhouse asks in return is the ability to keep her craft station and bridge tables set up in the common area, and for the renter to keep an eye on the house and water the plants when she travels.

While they get a little income from the rental, “money is not the motive,” Hillhouse said.

“It just seemed silly to have this big old house with the basement sitting vacant,” she said.

Homeshare is among a trio of potential new options for older residents weighing their living arrangements as they age.

It joins Seniorly.com, a Silicon Valley-based website that allows seniors to search and compare an array of independent and assisted living centers, and a possible 50-unit affordable senior housing project on East Drake Road.

All three hope to make a dent in the city’s affordable housing crisis that is particularly acute for seniors, the fastest growing demographic in Fort Collins.

Senior demographic is fast-growing

While the median age in Fort Collins is still under 30, the number of 60- to 64-year-olds in Fort Collins grew three times faster than the rate of population, according to a City Plan report on trends and forces.

“We’re seeing an increase because people are aging and not leaving,” said Sue Beck-Ferkiss, social policy and housing program manager for the city’s Social Sustainability office. “People who live here like it here and wish to age in place. We are looking at strategies as a community to accommodate that need.”

In 2014, the last year for which data is available, the city’s social sustainability office identified between 150 and 200 seniors in need of affordable rental housing, based on wait list information from Fort Collins Housing Authority, now named Fort Collins Housing Catalyst. At the time, 182 seniors were on the wait list for public housing and 149 were waiting for Section 8 housing.

Housing Catalyst has closed its wait list and does not have updated data on how many seniors are in need of affordable housing.

There’s not a one-size-fits-all solution to the problem, Beck-Ferkiss said. Instead it will likely take a mix of diverse housing options including patio homes, condos, subsidized housing, independent and assisted living and continuing-care facilities, and programs like Homeshare, she said.

Helping one housing shortage may create a trickle-down effect that helps others. Seniors choosing to give up homeownership in favor of renting, downsizing or sharing a home help free up other housing in the community, Beck-Ferkiss said.

Seniors share their homes

Tim Merrick moved to Fort Collins a year ago to be close to his daughter but was shocked at the city’s high housing costs. With median rents topping $1,300, the 68-year-old Arizona man wondered if and how he’d be able to stay.

“The first few months were a reality check about the expense of apartments and rooms,” he said. “It really puts serious pressure on people. … It becomes very difficult to live here unless you bring a lot of money with you.”

Merrick was close to checking out other towns and cities when he heard about Homeshare.

After filling out an application and being fully vetted, including a criminal background check, N2N Homeshare coordinator Debbie Mayer introduced Merrick to an 82-year-old homeowner in north Fort Collins who was looking for someone to share her home.

“She felt she needed something in the way of companionship,” Merrick said. “After we met, we just became very comfortable instantly.”

He pays $400 a month for a bedroom and bathroom. But Merrick, who bills himself as an artist and craftsman, helps around the house and yard as needed.

The arrangement has worked for both, according to Brooke Cunningham of N2N and Merrick. The homeowner did not want to be interviewed for this story.

“We became friends and she appreciates having somebody to talk to and especially someone who can listen,” Merrick said.

And he appreciates the roof over his head and ability to remain in Fort Collins close to his daughter and now his son, who moved here recently.

They’re helping each other prepare and eat healthier, get out for walks and socialize more with neighbors. “We’ve all become this kind of nice little neighborhood group,” Merrick said.

How the program works

N2N has an extensive application process that asks about idiosyncrasies, habits, likes and dislikes, even cleanliness tolerance. The nonprofit screens and interviews both homeowner and home seeker and provides referrals to potential matches based on compatibility of preferences. The decision to rent is left up to the participants.

When both parties agree to share a home, the N2N housing counselor helps them work out the terms of their living agreement and offers ongoing support. And it steps in with mediation to resolve any ongoing issues.

Cunningham said the program provides companionship, helps reduce monthly expenses for both parties and allows homeowners who are in good health but need help with minor chores remain independent.

With Sahar’s departure, Hillhouse is welcoming her second home sharer, who hopes to stay at least a year. The woman could no longer afford her $1,300 a month rent when it was upped to $1,600.

She’ll now pay less than half that.

Sahar, 58, an Egyptian pharmacist, was visiting the U.S. on a 3½-month visa. As she leaves, she considers Sheila and Larry and their 3-year-old Chiweenie (a Chihuahua-Dachshund mix) Pita to be family. Sheila feels the same.

“She was the perfect renter, and although I might never be able to see her again, we will be friends for life,” Hillhouse said.

A new home for mom and dad

While Homeshare matches homeowners and home seekers, Seniorly.com uses technology to help families find new living arrangements for those who might want or need to give up their home.

Seniorly, based in Silicon Valley, recently launched in Fort Collins, listing dozens of independent and assisted living options.

“It’s always something that’s been overwhelming, frustrating and complicated for families,” said communications director Max Wertheimer.

It’s not something families have experience at, and it typically comes at a time of crisis, often around the holidays, he said. “Adult children come back home, see their parents have declined and realize they need an elevated level of care.”

Seniorly makes it easier for families to see their options and compare amenities and prices. It also pairs with local senior advisers, like Maureen Walker of Assisted Living Locators, as a local resource to help arrange tours and work with advocates.

The service is free to consumers. Seniorly and local advisers are paid by the facility once a consumer chooses it.

“Today people expect a lot more when searching online,” said Seniorly CEO Arthur Bretschneider. “They expect transparency and immediate answers.”

The senior living market is so fragmented with so many small or medium facilities with little online presence that is can be hard to see what’s available, how much it costs and what it offers, he said.

Seniorly allows consumers to search and compare facilities and “for the last mile” be paired with someone in the neighborhood who can meet them and answer questions,” he said.

“There are becoming a lot more financial choices for those who will eventually have to go on to Medicaid,” Walker added.

People sometimes don’t know they have a lot of choices, especially if money is limited. “If someone called and said they needed help with Mom and she had four years of money, I’m going to focus on a place that would take her in as private pay and switch over to Medicaid. There’s an advantage to educating people about the different level of care.”

Low-income senior housing project

Doug Snyder, developer of Sanctuary senior housing in Fort Collins, has met with city planners for a preliminary review of a 50-unit housing project off East Drake Road.

Snyder of Volunteers of America doesn’t own the land yet but said he is looking “at multiple opportunities to help bring quality new senior housing to Fort Collins.”

Sanctuary Place Apartments is 60 units for low-income residents age 62 and older. The waiting list for a one-bedroom apartment is closed, and the wait is currently over a year, according to its website.

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