Dr. Judith Davey
An increasing number of people are reaching age 65 without being homeowners, as I have previously noted, and there is a widespread interest in innovative ways of accommodating this group. The 2001 Positive Ageing Strategy indicated a move towards shared housing as a rental option. And a 2015 Office for Senior Citizens report stated a goal to develop “low-cost communal housing for older people”. I also remember discussions amongst my female friends about sharing accommodation in retirement.
But does this concept require closer scrutiny? Do the benefits of shared housing lie more with the providers and funders than those who are expected to live in them?
Robyn Barry’s 2019 PhD thesis follows five years of the development of a social housing initiative in which women over 65 share living spaces in two purpose-built houses, and reports on their lived experiences. The women rent their own bedrooms, with an en-suite and deck, and co-manage the other communal spaces. Robyn’s research found that for some this living arrangement appears to be working well. There are instances in which social cohesion and camaraderie are enhanced. These examples could be taken to support the shared housing model as a means of accommodating older renters. However, Robyn found that this view could be misleadingly one-sided; that this way of living is more likely to be a compromise than a choice for those in housing need.
The thesis sets out the limitations to shared housing:
- Shared housing is not a popular housing option. “There is likely to be insufficient interest from those desiring to live with others to ensure the viability of future shared housing projects that do not provide services.”
- Local and international literature suggests that shared housing projects have not been as successful as anticipated.
- Being under one roof does not mean a sociable, cohesive household ensues. “Compelling strangers, for whom sharing with others is not a preference, to live together is likely to create social stressors that may necessitate social service interventions.” Residents do not have control over whom they live with.
- Whilst providing affordable accommodation, shared housing is a compromise that people may make in the absence of better choices. “It is unrealistic to expect a household of unrelated adults who did not choose whom they live with to act like a cohesive, close family or friends “. The result may be a social environment which can be both convivial and challenging, with variations of lived experiences and no easy reconciliation when conflicts of interest arise. “One person’s attempts to achieve comfort and mastery of their environment can impact on other’s attempts to do the same. “
- Living with others does not guarantee any level of support. Residents renting individual rooms are not responsible for others and cannot be expected to take on extra responsibilities when others are impaired.
- Living alone or with others is not a straightforward dichotomy. Sharing should be differentiated, e.g. with friends versus strangers, from preference or need, the number of people, what spaces are shared, the balance between privacy and company, the quality of the relationships, and also the proximity and frequency of social contacts. Sharing with whom and for what purpose are important considerations and contingent on individual circumstances.
- Sharing provides an opportunity for social interactions and could reduce social isolation; “yet one could still feel lonely if these social interactions are perceived to be negative, exclusive, or problematic.” Living with others who do not share the same social expectations and values may potentially exacerbate loneliness.
- Negotiating the social spaces in shared housing, especially over a long period, can be stressful and difficult. Examples arise such as having to get dressed to go into the kitchen to make a cup of tea, using mobility aids in the shared spaces, getting to the kitchen only to find someone else is using the space or appliances, and maintaining the household standards.
- Security depends on household relationships. Personal security associated with having others close by can be found in shared housing, but only if those relationships are trusting relationships.
- Living in shared accommodation restricts people’s future housing options. To move again, could entail loss of benefits such as lower than market rents and quality-built environments as well as being very disruptive for older people.
This study concludes that the implications of creating more shared social housing need to be carefully considered for policy and practice. The attraction of shared housing, without services and formal supports, is likely to arise mainly from the need for shelter . Traditional sole-occupancy housing may well be the most appropriate housing option for the majority of single, older renters. An assumption behind shared housing is that it is cost-effective. However, if resident wellbeing is factored in, this may not be the case.