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HomeShare Vermont Marks 40 Years of Matching Hosts With Guests

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Jeri Messick and Dan Dougherty at Messick's home in Milton last summer - COURTESY OF KAREN PIKE
  • Courtesy Of Karen Pike
  • Jeri Messick and Dan Dougherty at Messick's home in Milton last summer

For Christmas dinner, Jeri Messick roasted a turkey, and Dan Dougherty made stuffing and cranberry sauce. The two exchanged holiday gifts: Messick gave Dougherty some clothes, and Dougherty bought Messick a new alarm clock.

The occasion last month represented something more than the usual holiday festivities for the pair. It marked a year since Dougherty moved into a spare room in Messick's three-bedroom Milton home — an arrangement facilitated by South Burlington-based nonprofit HomeShare Vermont.

HomeShare matches folks who need housing with those who have space in their homes and would like to share it. The process of making a match, which is organized and guided by HomeShare, starts with a free application. It includes interviews with each person, a meeting between the two, and a 14-day trial period in which the guest moves into the prospective home. If each party wants to proceed, as happens in roughly 90 percent of cases, then HomeShare negotiates a formal arrangement.

Those arrangements come in three basic types: a rental agreement, which is strictly financial; a hybrid plan that involves rent and service (typically six hours a week of household chores, shopping or yard work); and an option in which the guest provides assistance to the host, with the duties spelled out and no money exchanged.

Currently, HomeShare has about 55 matches in Vermont, most of them in Chittenden County, according to the nonprofit that serves seven counties.

"Every situation is different," said Kirby Dunn, HomeShare's executive director. "It's really up to what two people are willing to do and what they're looking for."

A successful match is built on common interests, similar expectations and compatible lifestyles, Dunn said. In addition, it requires a certain degree of flexibility.

"You have to be able to go with the flow a little," she said. "It's hard to invite somebody into your home."

While each HomeShare arrangement is customized by the people who form it, the individual matches are bound by the organization's overarching goal: generating affordable housing for Vermonters at a time of critical need, while offering companionship and assistance to aging (and other) populations. The most recent data put Vermont's rental vacancy rate at 3.4 percent and Chittenden County's at about 2 percent, according to the Vermont Housing Finance Agency.

Sharing the Burden

Messick, 71, the Milton homeowner, said she needed financial assistance to stay in her home after the June 2019 death of her husband. She learned about HomeShare from a brochure at her doctor's office.

She and Dougherty were matched in December 2020. He pays rent and shovels the driveway, takes out the trash, works in the garden, and pitches in with other chores. Messick, a retired school bus driver, cooks supper for the two of them during the week; Dougherty, a courthouse security guard, prepares meals on weekends.

"It's just wonderful," Messick said. "I'm not as lonely as I was. I have companionship, and I'm helping somebody else out."

Dougherty, 61, is a widower who couldn't afford his Essex apartment on a single income after his wife died in the summer of 2019. That fall, he answered a Craigslist ad posted by a middle-aged Burlington man who needed a caretaker. Dougherty took the position and moved into the man's home for about a year.

But by October 2020, Dougherty said, "I was no longer needed, and I became homeless."

His church in Colchester paid for Dougherty to stay in a motel for two weeks and then offered him the church's Sunday school room — not in use during the pandemic — as a living space. He had a bathroom with a shower and use of the kitchen. Dougherty lived in the church for about two months, during which time he tried to find housing through various social service agencies. But his hourly wage of $21 priced him out.

"I made too much money for assistance," Dougherty said, "but not enough to rent an apartment."

One day at the church, he saw a flyer about HomeShare. It was early December 2020, a stage of the pandemic when it was tricky to meet new people and consider shared living.

"We took our precautions and met just before Christmas," Dougherty recalled of his meeting with Messick. "And we seemed to click right off the bat."

The two were up front with each other about what they wanted in a housemate, an openness that they said was key to making the arrangement work.

"We felt right at home with each other," Dougherty said.

A History of Housing

HomeShare Vermont executive director Kirby Dunn - LUKE AWTRY
  • Luke Awtry
  • HomeShare Vermont executive director Kirby Dunn

HomeShare was founded 40 years ago by a group of seniors as a grassroots initiative with the intention of helping aging citizens stay in their homes by matching them with other seniors in shared living situations, Dunn said. But HomeShare developed into an intergenerational program for the very reason it was conceived: Seniors wanted to stay put in their own homes.

Last year, people who shared their home through the program ranged in age from 27 to 98, according to Dunn; the average age was 72. Those who rented or provided assistance in another's home ranged in age from 21 to 79, with an average age of 51.

"We've tried to encourage young people to consider sharing their homes," Dunn said. "They might not need [household] assistance, but they could use financial assistance. We see this as part of the affordable housing solution in the area."

HomeShare's guidelines dictate that rent cannot exceed $650 a month in Chittenden County or $550 in other counties. The average HomeShare rent last year was $323 per month, according to Dunn.

These rates are substantially lower than the median rent in Chittenden County: $1,252 a month between 2015 and 2019, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. The website rentdata.org reports that the average rent for a two-bedroom apartment in the Burlington area is $1,500; the state average is $1,077.

The pandemic has complicated HomeShare's matchmaking process. There's pent-up demand because people are more hesitant to open their homes to others, and it's difficult for potential matches to become adequately acquainted through a Zoom meeting, Dunn said.

Over the decades, the program has observed three to four times more people looking for a place to live than available homes. The pandemic has pushed that number to 10 times more potential guests than available hosts, according to Dunn.

Yet the number of people living alone in this country is growing, according to the Census Bureau. In 2020, 28 percent of households in the U.S. were occupied by one person. In 1960, that number was 13 percent.

"Living alone — we think it's a sign of independence," Dunn said. "But human beings are social animals. The connection that comes by having someone else around is so life-altering."

Meaningful Connections

Theresa Mazza with her dog George and Amy Ross at home in Burlington over the summer - COURTESY OF KAREN PIKE
  • Courtesy Of Karen Pike
  • Theresa Mazza with her dog George and Amy Ross at home in Burlington over the summer

In Burlington's New North End, two women who maintain independent lives found a connection through HomeShare about two years ago, when Theresa Mazza welcomed a fellow educator, Amy Ross, into her home.

Mazza, a Spanish teacher at South Burlington High School, said she needed rental income to keep her home after a divorce. A colleague told her about HomeShare, and Mazza made a successful match with the second person to whom she was referred.

Mazza's bedroom and bathroom are on the first floor; Ross, also a teacher in South Burlington, has two bedrooms and a bathroom upstairs. One of those bedrooms is for Ross' teenage daughter, who lives at Mazza's house part time.

The two teachers give each other privacy but share meals on occasion, Mazza said. When she goes away, Ross takes care of her dog. Mazza, who has two grown children, enjoys hearing the banter of a mother and daughter in her home.

"I think about how quiet my house would be otherwise," Mazza said. "I do like private time, but I think I have just enough. It works really well."

HomeShare is most successful when a bond — a friendship — develops between host and guest, Dunn said. This is more likely to occur if the arrangement is not solely financial, she added.

"These matches are like little miracles in people's lives if you find the right person," Dunn said.

In Milton, Messick and Dougherty enjoy playing cards and going to flea markets and yard sales together. Dougherty's domestic assistance is wide-ranging. For the Christmas meal, he pulled the innards from the cavity of the turkey, relieving Messick of a duty she finds unpleasant, he said.

Finding a home in Milton when he was temporarily staying in a church "was like the world was lifted off my shoulders," Dougherty said. "I'm beyond grateful. I don't know where I'd be now if I didn't get to HomeShare."

The original print version of this article was headlined "Making Matches"