A room to rent

Recession-shocked homeowners take in boarders

March 15, 2009|By Scott Calvert | Scott Calvert,scott.calvert@baltsun.com

Faced with the risk of losing her home and car, Laura Rogers reluctantly chose to give up something else: her privacy. In mid-December she began sharing her Southwest Baltimore rowhouse with a tenant for $400 a month - income that has greatly eased her financial crunch.

"Thank God I was getting the money from my roommate," said Rogers, 45, a temporary worker on contract with the state. "I would have never thought about trying to live with anybody, except for this economy."

For her tenant, 54-year-old Anthony Lee, the arrangement has provided a tidy, safe and affordable place after his marriage ended. He works 60 hours a week as a stock clerk but had little money to spare. After four months under one roof, he and Rogers call the match a big success.

With the Baltimore region beset by layoffs, falling home prices and other grim effects of recession, plus high energy bills, an increasing number of people have resorted to sharing their homes.

"A lot more homeowners are calling saying, 'We need extra income; I lost my job, and I want to keep my house,' " said Annette Brennan, who runs a home-sharing program at Baltimore's St. Ambrose Housing Aid Center.

Brennan's office has made 51 matches since July, one more than the entire previous year. Among them was the pairing of Rogers and Lee. Three more homeowners should soon get tenants.

"It's better for many people than trying to get a second job; there are not that many jobs available," Brennan said, pointing out that a rented room can turn a burdensome house into a money-maker.

St. Ambrose is the only home-sharing network of its kind in Baltimore, but scores more people are seeking tenants through ads in newspapers and on the Internet.

Bermesola Johnson has already rented one room of her three-bedroom condominium on East Lombard Street near Little Italy. She wants to add a second tenant at $595 a month. "Looking for a female roommate to share new condo with 2 professional females," reads her ad.

Johnson, a registered nurse, said that when she bought her home for $340,000 in October 2006, she expected a property tax discount as a first-time buyer. The discount did not materialize for reasons that were unclear to her, and the $2,800 payment proved too much for her.

"I'm pretty much depleting my savings," she said. "Last year I had to put my property taxes on a credit card." Selling is not an option, she said, because the house now may be worth just $260,000, putting her deep "under water." Walking away would wreck her credit, though "if it gets that bad, I may have to."

Some existing renters have also been pinched because of the economy. In September Gina Boswell, 27, moved into a house near Bel Air with two friends. Recently the other two had to move in with family because of financial problems.

Boswell, an aspiring nurse, works as a surgery technician but cannot foot the $1,500 rent herself. She doesn't want to move because that could force her 6-year-old son to switch schools if she couldn't find another place nearby.

Boswell has found one new roommate and is searching for a second. "I'm trying to find someone as quickly as possible," she said.

Laura Rogers was nervous about letting someone share her Irvington home. She was used to living solo and enjoyed her routine. She bought the house overlooking a stone church in 2006 for $80,000. A city grant helped rehab the three-bedroom home.

At the time she had a full-time secretarial job. She could manage the $620 payments. But by last October, she was "underemployed" as a temp worker and two months behind on the house. She was also behind on the note for her Hyundai sedan.

"I didn't want to lose my house," she said. "I didn't want to lose my car."

One day last fall she heard about the St. Ambrose home-sharing program. After overcoming her reluctance, Rogers decided to try it. Neither age nor gender mattered to her, so long as she could get an easygoing tenant who was clean and did not smoke.

The program is open to people of all incomes. St. Ambrose requires that a private room be available for a prospective tenant. The only monetary requirement is that home-seekers must be able to afford the rent, usually between $450 and $550 a month. Applicants are screened, Brennan says, for criminal past or active problem with drugs or alcohol. Everyone must provide names of four people who have known them five years.

Laws governing home-sharing vary by jurisdiction. For instance, in Baltimore County only two unrelated people can live under one roof, Brennan said. Baltimore City has no such limit but does have rules for operating a boarding house.

Anthony Lee's ex-wife is the one who suggested he apply after their marriage ended with her staying in their home. Rogers was one of three possible matches for him; he thought her neat habits made her the most compatible.

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