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Wednesday, July 16, 2008

The wave of the future (unless zoning ordinances get in the way)
Posted by Jill | 6:35 AM
Mr. Brilliant and I live in a Cape Cod-style house, or in the local parlance, "POS Cape." I wanted a cape so that we could have a guest room on a separate floor from our bedroom, and so that we could live just on the first floor at such time as we become too old and infirm to handle the steps. It has occurred to me more than once that the two-rooms-and-a-bath upstairs, along with kitchen privileges, might make a good housing arrangement for a student someday, if we find ourselves short of cash.

I'm not the only one who thinks this way; an increasing number of homeowners are renting out space to help avoid foreclosure:

With residential mortgage foreclosures still on the rise, more homeowners nationwide are considering Miss Terry’s choice: whether to take in a boarder to keep their homes. Modest but growing numbers are turning to agencies nationwide like the St. Ambrose Housing Aid Center Homesharing Program in Baltimore, which screen boarders to find appropriate matches and relieve some of the fear of strangers.

“We’re seeing greater numbers of marginal people,” said Kirby Dunn, executive director of HomeShare Vermont, one of several hundred programs around the country that have been formed since the 1980’s to help elderly or disabled homeowners exchange spare rooms for income or, more often, help around the house, but now being pressed to meet different needs.

“Historically,” Ms. Dunn said, “the people who come to us have been looking for someone to provide services in the home. But now, money is the bigger issue for folks. There’s definitely an increase in people looking for a revenue stream.”

Ms. Dunn said volume at the agency was up this year, with three or four times as many people seeking rooms as seeking boarders.

On a recent Saturday morning, while Miss Terry attended a training session at her church, Katherine Ongiri, 47, celebrated her first week of living in Miss Terry’s two-story house, where she pays $500 a month, in weekly installments. The women work different schedules, but have shared an occasional meal. Miss Terry helped Ms. Ongiri, who does not drive, get her check cashed, and treated her to lunch at Burger King.

“She’s good company,” Miss Terry said. “And I don’t mind helping because I know how hard it is when you’ve got to take the bus, because I’ve been there.”

Ms. Ongiri said of Miss Terry and her daughter, “I don’t mind helping her keep a roof over that girl’s head, because I know what it’s like.”

The two women’s routes to St. Ambrose Housing Aid Center, which culminated in Ms. Ongiri’s moving into Miss Terry’s attic, describe the multiple hazards of the current economic downturn: stagnant wages, rising energy and food prices, exotic mortgages, job insecurity, neighborhood instability and the challenges for single working women to find safe environments for themselves and their children.

“A lot of prayer comes in,” Miss Terry said. “You don’t want someone to try to take over, or cause problems once they get a foot in the door.”

Miss Terry bought her home six years ago, in a hilly neighborhood in northeast Baltimore, for $92,000, with a government-backed mortgage and monthly payments of about $800. She had never owned a home before, and was excited to move out of subsidized housing.

After two refinance loans, like many homeowners she does not understand her current mortgage, which is an interest-only loan. What she knows is that her payments are now more than $1,000 per month, and that she cannot afford them.

“Everything was going up except my paycheck,” Miss Terry said. “During the refinance, people tell you you can get money to upgrade your home, and your mortgage will go up a little bit. O.K., but my paycheck is not rising.”

The problem, at least here in this part of New Jersey, is that strong local governments are already cracking down on housing of nonrelated people in the same domicile, in an effort to prevent the creation of boarding houses for undocumented immigrant day laborers. One nearby town has a new ordinance requiring any home, new or remodeled, with four or more bedrooms to have a two-car garage. The logic behind this escapes me, unless it's based on an assumption that a larger family is going to by definition have more vehicles. A co-worker who decided to reconfigure the new addition to his house for his mother-in-law so that one of the two rooms upstairs would be better classified as a walk-in closet told me that he had to do this or add on to his detached garage on a 50' x 100' lot with no room for an expanded garage.

As incomes continue to shrink, this kind of roadblock placed in the way of homeowners simply trying to make ends meet is going to be increasingly anachronistic. I suspect there will be little outcry, though -- at least not until there are more people in need of the reduced costs of house sharing than there are people trying increasingly in vain to protect a lifestyle whose time is rapidly passing.

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Blogger dguzman said...
"marginal people"? Ouch. Welcome to the New America. Same as the Olde America, only with more stupid laws and a lot less individual liberty.

Blogger Bob said...
One can probably still fly under the zoning radar with a discreet tenant like a college student or young professional one can pass off to neighbors as a relative. A friend of mine has taken in number of short term borders in her Iselin cape cod over the years, all people she knew.