Santa Clara County Plays Matchmaker With House-Sharing Program

4 min
Sunnyvale homeowners Vivian, Bruce and their cat, Allegro, opened up a room in their home to help alleviate the housing crisis in Santa Clara County earlier this year. (Tiffany Camhi/KQED)

If you’ve ever had to find roommates to share a house or apartment, you know how much of a headache it can be.

First there's all the interviewing, then maybe you also do a credit check and a background check and, most importantly, there's the question of whether you'll get along.

But Santa Clara County's House Sharing Program aims to make the whole process easier, and more affordable.

"We do all the vetting and we do all the work for you," said Susan Castillo, who runs the year-old program through Catholic Charities of Santa Clara County.  "We find out your preferences and then we just introduce you to people."

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The idea is relatively simple: open up empty rooms in homes by matching homeowners with renters in need of affordable housing. It’s basically a housing rental dating service.

Santa Clara County needs nearly 54,000 new affordable housing rentals to meet the existing low-income housing needs, according to affordable housing advocacy group SV@Home. In 2016, county voters approved a $950 million affordable housing bond that aims to create 4,800 new affordable units by 2026. So far, the county has built more than 1,400 new apartments.

Housing seekers and home providers do have to hit a few goal posts before becoming eligible for the free House Sharing Program. Potential renters must prove they have a monthly income and can afford to pay at least $750 a month, pass a background check and provide three references. Housing providers also have to pass a background check and a home inspection, provide proof of ownership or approval from a landlord to sublease, and have a private bedroom available.

In the last year, there were more than 1,300 inquiries about the matchmaking program. The caseworkers have paired 26 people so far.

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House-Sharing Success

Vivian — who asked to omit her last name due to privacy reasons — has lived with her husband, Bruce, in their four-bedroom, two-bath Sunnyvale home since 1976. They’re both retired now and their children moved out years ago, leaving lots of empty space in their home.

They said they wanted to do something to help alleviate the housing crisis. After hearing about similar house-sharing programs in other Bay Area counties, Vivian and Bruce decided to take the plunge.

"We were a little reluctant to just list our room ourself, but the beauty of this is, you are fingerprinted," Vivian explained. "They do an extensive background check and you give three references."

The vetting process, which takes at minimum three weeks to complete, is designed to eliminate any worries a housing provider might have.

"They ask you everything from: How often can the person be in your house? Do you want them to be working? Do you want them to rarely be there? What are your sleeping hours? What kind of music do you listen to, your TV shows?" said Vivian. "And right down to: Are you going to share your condiments? And if so, who's going to pay to replace them?"

After going through this sort of personality quiz, case managers  matched Vivian and Bruce with Elena, who also asked to use her first name only.

Elena had to go through the same rigorous cross-checking. For $400 a month, she rents out what used to be Vivian's daughter’s room. She has her own private bathroom and she shares common spaces like the kitchen and living room. She also shares in the chores, a crucial part of their unique housing agreement.

"They go out of town and I take care of their cat," said Elena. "I water the plants and maintain the house just as I would my own place."

Based on Elena’s income and the property itself, program staff told Vivian and Bruce they could have asked for up to $815 a month in rent, which is close to the program’s average rent of $900. But Vivian said the deal wasn’t about maximizing profit.

"To us, it was more important to get somebody that was dependable, that was responsible, that was trustworthy," said Vivian.

It’s now been over six months since Elena moved into her new home and, so far, she said it’s been working out.

"I mean you can feel it sometimes when you click with someone," said Elena.  "We're still getting to know each other, but it's been a good connection."

And the feeling’s mutual for Vivian and Bruce.

"I noticed recently she bought a plant for her room and I thought that was kind of like putting down roots," said Vivian.

Santa Clara’s House Sharing Program hopes to connect 50 more people with affordable housing in its second year. But with only 28 open rooms available now, the county has to win over more homeowners like Vivian and Bruce. There’s no problem winning over renters, though. At any given time there are 60 housing seekers waiting to be matched.

But how is this any different from something like a smartphone rental app or using Craigslist? Well, according to Elena, there’s a big difference.

"Compared to Craigslist, this is like winning the lotto," said Elena. "You never know who you’re going to get on Craigslist. There's a lot of fake rentals out there. You just don't know."

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