A few blocks from the roar of the 405 in a quiet West L.A. neighborhood, brand-new roommates Shirley Ross and Lois Rubin are getting to know each other.
Rubin, who sports a short, dyed hairdo, is into blues, jazz and rock ‘n roll. Ross loves classical music. Rubin is vegetarian. Ross, who stands 4-foot-9, is a self-proclaimed carnivore.
Having a roommate is coming later in life for both of them —Ross is 95, and Rubin is 66 — but both are embracing the set-up.
“I refer to Lois as my 'roomie,'” Ross said.
Seniors around Los Angeles are living together as a way to save money. The city is one of the hardest places in the country to find affordable housing, but it can be especially tough for older adults on fixed incomes.
“I was paying over $1,600,” said Rubin of her last apartment. “They wanted over $1,700. You know, it’s a little bit too steep for me.
Rubin found a room for $550 a month at Ross’ house through a roommate-matching service provided by the non-profit Affordable Living for the Aging. Ross decided to rent a room in her Westdale home after nine years of living alone after her husband died.
“I just decided it’s kind of lonely, and I realized it would be nice having someone here,” Ross said.
Boomers facing financial challenges
Rubin and Ross could have gone through sites such as Craigslist or Roommates.com. But Affordable Housing for the Aging is one of a dozen or so programs around the country that specially matches seniors with homes and seniors who need homes.
Renters get a break on rent if they agree to help out around the house. Typically, it is younger seniors — baby boomers such as Ross — who benefit from this housing arrangement.
“The 'younger' older adults, they’re not in as great a position financially as their predecessors were at their age,” said Jennifer Molinsky, a senior research associate at Harvard’s Joint Center for Housing Studies.
Molinsky said a growing number of boomers are facing “more stagnating income" than seniors a generation older.
“They’ve lost wealth in the recession,” Molinsky said. “Their homeownership dipped in the recession and is unlikely to restore itself by the time they retire.”
Rubin wanted to buy a home. But after she lost her secretary job in the recession, that option slipped away. She was 60 at the time.
“Employers want very young people, so that was going to be my last time of working full-time,” Rubin said.
A need for more rooms
The program in L.A. has paired off thousands of seniors since it was founded in the late 1970s. But program director Rachel Caraviello said demand picked up during the recession and has remained strong as housing costs have climbed.
Today, for every homeowner with a room to spare, there are 16 people waiting to rent it.
“We had a lot more seniors who were renting, and their landlords were being foreclosed on, and they were calling us because they couldn’t afford to wait three years on a subsidized housing list,” Caraviello said. “There’s not as many foreclosures, but the housing production and the housing supply isn’t getting any better," Caraviello said.
A 2013 analysis by her agency and the University of Minnesota’s Population Center looked at how many seniors were living alone with an extra bedroom. The results showed that if even 10 to 15 percent of these people opened up their homes, it would add thousands of new housing units to the current supply.
Caraviello said the roommate-matching program needs more people like Ross. Ross has lived in her home since 1962. It's where she and her fabric salesman husband raised their son, and filled the rooms with his sculptures and antique clocks he repaired. She said they paid off the mortgage years ago.
“This house was $32,000,” Ross said. “Now I have agents at the door that want to sell it. And the last estimate I got was $1.4 million. Can you imagine?”
Shirley says she could sell and get rich, but she doesn’t want to leave her house. That’s an increasingly common sentiment as Americans live longer, more active lives, Caraviello said.
“They see their alternatives as having to downsize or move in with adult children which they don’t want to do, or move into some sort of facility or retirement community,” Caraviello said.
Living with Rubin is helping Ross to maintain her independence. In their month together, Rubin’s taken Ross to the doctor’s and they go grocery shopping together.
On a recent trip, she asked Rubin to reach items on taller shelves and read the label on a package of boneless cross-rib roast.
“How much is it?” Ross asked.
It was $9.94 cents.
“For a pound and a half. That’ll be OK,” said Ross as she took the roast.
The two roommates used the same cart but kept their items separate. After just a month together, they’ve already got a routine down.