Seeking home and finding dignity: Reporter's Notebook

Wednesday night I covered a talk at the Atascadero library held by the AAUW, all about the housing crisis around these parts, with a special focus on single senior women. First of all, let me say, a library room full of (mostly) older-aged college-educated women makes for a powerhouse meeting.

I entered the room of 100 or so community members and was immediately introduced to the group with smiles and courtesy. That’s manners, and I appreciate that. There were heart-warming, incredible female guest speakers from ECHO, Peoples’ Self-Help Housing and HomeShare SLO who shared some pretty disturbing statistics.

For example, 11,000 people in North County are single seniors, and nowadays the average room rents for about $600-$650. If the average social security payment is $1,100 a month, please tell me how these single senior women – unless they have a savings account or a big, fat pension – are surviving?

I would judge the involved “doers” in the room – the volunteers and community activists in the town – like me, were a little uneasy with a housing crisis that seems insurmountable.

I’ll be writing about what I learned as far as some unconventional options for seniors needing independent, affordable housing.

A show of hands said only 25 percent of the room had ever lived with someone (like a housemate) other than family. How on Earth would a senior woman, say, who lost her husband, who has never had to go out and live with non-family housemates, find a home without serious help and guidance? What happens if she doesn’t have the family or children to help her? The process is hard enough for my generation, the Gen Xers looking for a decent home for their families and also for Millennials who are trying hard to find decent shared living spaces.

But senior women looking for affordable homes in this market? HomeShare SLO has a solution that made some sense. I will plan an interview soon with Anne Wyatt of HomeShare, but basically, the group is like a for finding seniors rooms. They counsel, do extensive background checks for both the home seeker and the home provider and even teach providers how to set boundaries with housemates.

Wyatt said 80 percent of her clients are single senior women. I know it’s an uphill battle with housing seniors who have never done anything like it and have no desire for drastic change. It’s downright scary. Still, HomeShare is helping. Stay tuned, seniors, and please keep an open mind!

I’ve been thinking about my own experience with housing. How it’s taken me this long — and I’m 44 years old — to find a home that feels like home. It takes too much of my energy. I cannot imagine having to start looking for a new housing situation at an older age, let alone single. This issue will take much understanding of a generation that rarely asks for help. I certainly want to see more landlords and property managers treat their renters the way I have been treated at my colony home in Atascadero – with dignity, humanity, and at the very least, with manners. It’s about time for more human treatment and the doing away of the landlord/tenant class rift.

I may never own a house – I get by with very little money and, like most of us these days, I don’t save either.

Renting apartments, townhouses, flats and houses has been my M.O. – ever since I left my home in Danville to go off on my own. I have probably lived in more than 20 rentals, I would say, and in all these years, and all these pads, from a cockroach palace I shared with four sandy male housemates in Pacific Beach to the run-down duplex in Aptos with the ever-sagging roof that caved whenever the toilet flooded. I always felt like I was borrowing my life, and I shouldn’t get too comfortable or settled because soon I’d have to return it like a library book that’s past due.

For each home came a painful application process. If you’ve done it you know: digging up personal references, credit reports, and your first born child for Rumpelstiltskin. Most property managers treat new renters like crack dealers, they don’t discriminate their robotic distaste for everyone’s applications.

And to move into their unkempt, run-down, spiritless people boxes, families must arrive at an open house to be corralled and examined and schmooze for a high position, in demeaning competition that feels terribly unnatural. Good luck if you have tattoos, or an outstanding Target credit card bill or one of those horrible, terrible, dirty, dirty dogs. Sorry, no room in the inn.  

I moved my family into a little, super-funky and character-rich colony home in Atascadero. The owner, represented by gracious property manager, Leslie at Clear Choice Paso, left me some nice baking pans, the good Meyer’s laundry soap and lavender essential oil for the washing machine, brooms and mops for the original floors, and even some well-loved s’mores sticks from the days the owner roasted marshmallows over the bonfire with her own children. Good vibes in a well-loved home! Leslie and I chatted it up about our kids, and after signing the papers, I noticed a bottle of wine with glasses on the counter, and a thank you note, thanking us for renting the home. And this is not a high-end home! Just good people, appreciating the fact that another human is calling a piece of shared Earth ‘home.’

I write her little notes with my rent check, and I get little thank you’s back from Leslie, telling me the owner is so happy I’m living in the home. Simple gracious human interaction. Necessary for the task ahead with housing seniors affordably in this county.

I have no papers saying this house is mine, but guess what? For the first time in my home-renting career, it doesn’t matter, because, this is the first house we’ve moved to where the process has been an absolute joy. I pray more landlord homeowners and property managers take into account that no matter what age you may be, and according to whatever housing contract you sign, everyone thrives when they can feel at home. No one should feel like their only asset is a credit report number.


More In Columns