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A Swiss Army Knife for Affordable Housing

wanted: affordable housing illustration

Making smart decisions about where to live over the next decade or two can be daunting.

I served on Seattle City Council for 10 years and worked with older adults who wanted more tools so they could afford to remain in their Seattle homes. In many cases they wanted financial relief so they could stay as long as possible in the neighborhoods where they raised their families.

Some of us have lived in our homes for decades. Many of us are now living on fixed incomes, facing rising costs associated with Seattle’s ever-present levies and property taxes.

We are also dealing with new life challenges such as retirement or the death/incapacitation of a spouse. Keeping a home in working condition—let alone looking as good as it once did even if two people shared responsibilities—is demanding.

PBS Newshour screenshot

Click on the image above to watch a PBS News Hour clip about Nesterly’s homesharing service in Boston.

Life changes require new approaches. For example, during this pandemic year academic focus has been directed to the impacts of social isolation and loneliness. Loneliness is a serious public health problem that can lead to mental and physical illness. It is extremely costly, resulting in $6.7 billion in Medicare spending each year. It is also widespread, impacting over a third of adults and nearly 40% of young people ages 18 to 24.

Dealing with social isolation during the pandemic has been made more difficult because budget-friendly housing in Seattle is in short supply. Between 2011 and 2020, Seattle/Bellevue rental rates nearly doubled, and other than tech and related industries, wages and investments did not keep up. Many people have been forced to move further away from their schools and jobs and their preferred communities.

This past year I looked for solutions to address both housing needs AND loneliness and I discovered Silvernest and Nesterly. I have had many conversations with the leadership in these companies. They offer something flexible—individualized home sharing resulting in a predictable new income source, safe companionship, and scalable local housing options for tenant-guests.

Home sharing is not a new idea, and in many cities, we’ve seen growth in temporary vacation-type home sharing through businesses like Airbnb. Many Seattle neighbors opposed short term rentals, and the City of Seattle responded by placing limits on how many units could be dedicated to vacation-type short term rentals and for how long.

Silvernest and Nesterly are not Airbnb.

Nesterly originated in Boston and focused on making connections between homeowners and graduate students where there are 35 colleges and universities and great demand for affordable in-city housing. Silvernest has broader national and West Coast reach. Both Nesterly and Silvernest offer person to person connections using an established technology platform while retaining the human oversight and engagement. They provide individualized support for older adults aging in place by matching homeowners with a compatible guest. Tools such as background screens, secure in-app messaging and ID verification are all offered on the Silvernest platform to provide security, and housemates may have the option to provide assistance around the house in exchange for reduced rent.

The City of Boston has championed home sharing. Like Seattle, Boston is full of students and older people who can benefit from each other’s experiences. That city offers modest funding assistance through affordable housing preservation funds, senior property tax relief for homeowners willing to offer a room or ADU’s on their property, as well as innovation funds and grants for outreach. Similarly, Marin County near San Francisco and areas around Los Angeles are talking with Silvernest to expand housing options and improve older adults’ ability to age in place.

Over the past few months, I have spoken with leaders at the University of Washington, Seattle Pacific University, Seattle University and the Seattle Colleges. Each school expressed interest in a pilot project in their neighborhoods to increase local housing options for their students.

I suggested we conduct a home sharing pilot within walking/biking distance of each school. The program would be marketed and measured in partnership with the schools, with extensive neighborhood outreach to reduce concerns and promote the programs’ benefits. Homeowners within walking/biking distance would be invited to learn more.

One university sparked to the home sharing idea for its divinity students, its nursing students, and its students earning degrees in social work where reduced rent would be welcome and the students’ experiences valuable. Some departments said they’d be willing to offer letters of reference, which in addition to the background checks the companies conduct would offer upfront reassurance to the homeowner.

When I met Jennifer Hammer of Silvernest, she agreed that Silvernest would be a willing Seattle partner as they currently have a presence and listings in the greater Seattle area. Silvernest would provide matching services and screening tools, Washington state-specific leases to protect the homesharing agreement, automatic rent payments and insurance to both homeowners and housemates.

Seattle’s Department of Neighborhoods and AARP are interested in these programs too. Both organizations see the value of bringing people together across generations, across cultures and with different lived experiences.

The next steps are to invite Silvernest or Nesterly to partner with community organizations and governments in Seattle, while the City and the County leverage financial support for homeowners through some property tax relief and grants. Simultaneously colleges and universities can offer staff support for their students to help them find good housing options. The program’s success can be measured by setting reasonable numerical goals, counting the number of connections made and tenant-guests retained, and by the number of participating homeowners who can stay longer in their homes.

We in Seattle are fiercely independent about our homes and privacy. Yet, as Boston has discovered, hundreds of homeowners have found companionship and a new source of income by renting out rooms or portions of their homes. A similar program could likewise result in safe and affordable living for hundreds of people who want to remain in Seattle.

Sally BagshawContributor Sally Bagshaw is a Harvard Advanced Leadership Initiative Senior Fellow, former three-term Seattle City Councilmember, and Chief Civil Deputy for the King County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office. Sally is a lawyer, mediator, and advocate for government that functions responsibly.

Posted in Housing