A Teach for America pilot with an online home-sharing company addresses the gap between the cost of living and the salaries of key workers

The partnership also puts a spotlight on the plight of homeowners on fixed incomes.
10 min. read
Caroline Houser, an 8th grade reading teacher at Kepner Beacon Middle School, pickets on Federal Boulevard on day one of the Denver teachers’ strike, Feb. 11, 2019. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

After recent Appalachian State University graduate Phebe Martin earned a spot with Teach for America Colorado and an assignment in the science department at Montbello's McGlone Academy, it was time to start the Web search for a place to live.

It was a challenge on a salary of $27,000.

"The stuff I was looking at ... was out of my price range or clear across town," Martin said in a telephone interview.

Then Teach for America told her about Silvernest, a Denver-based national platform that digitally connects people like Martin to, for the most part, seniors with rooms to rent. Just before she starts teaching seventh-grade science in August, Martin will be moving from North Carolina and in with Ashley Madison. Madison, a teacher herself, sees the arrangement as a way to both support a young colleague and get help paying the mortgage on the home in Stapleton she bought recently.

A pilot partnership that Teach For America Colorado and Silvernest announced last month addresses both the wide gap between the cost of living and the salaries of key workers in and around Denver and increasing concern that older people on fixed incomes are struggling as the region's economy booms.

Wendi Burkhardt, who has a background in technology, had the latter problem in mind when the founded Silvernest three and a half years ago. She set out to meet the needs of people 50 and older who often had economic reasons for wanting to monetize extra space in their homes. As rents, property taxes and other expenses mounted, they were finding their retirement incomes were no longer stretching as far. Or they had had setbacks such as divorce or widowhood.

As Silvernest puts it in a line on its website, it wants to help you "stay in the house you love."

For $25 a month, owners or even tenants -- who are advised to check first with their landlords -- can post information about and photographs of their homes.  Both those with space to rent and those seeking a home upload profile details that Silvernest feeds into an algorithm to make matches.

Potential housemates can view homes on the site and get in touch with potential landlords for free. A home seeker is charged $29.99 for a background screening if the matched householder wants that optional but recommended step. Silvernest checks that its users are people, not robots, and ensures information is secure. The package includes a direct deposit payment system. If problems crop up after a home share begins, Silvernest can deploy a relationship counselor via video conferencing. If the problems get worse, lawyers specializing in mediation are available.

Denver-area seniors have options when it comes to finding a roommate.

The nonprofit Sunshine Home Share Colorado, launched by counselor Alison Joucovsky, relies on social workers instead of an algorithm. Joucovsky and her staff meet the people they match, help them set parameters for living arrangements, require those who want to enter into a home share agreement to first try it out for a short trial period and later keep close tabs on the participants.

Sunshine's Joucovsky and Silvernest's Burkhardt know one another and see their operations as in some ways complementary. Joucovsky has served people in their 90s and worries that some older seniors would struggle finding a roommate online. That's in contrast to teacher Martin, who turns 22 in August and said that throughout her college years she has been turning to "Airbnb and couch-surfing and all these kinds of online ways to find places and find community."

Joucovsky also worries that older seniors might find themselves in vulnerable positions without the kind of follow-up Sunshine offers.

"Silvernest certainly serves a purpose and we refer to them all of the time because we are so small," Joucovsky said.  Silvernest "makes things happen quickly. It gets people into housing."

Alison Joucovsky. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

Burkhardt said Joucovsky's slower "high-touch model" is the right choice for some, particularly those who are frailer and older than the Silvernest average of about 62.  Burkhardt said that while she has not turned to Sunshine for backup, she has consulted with similar nonprofits elsewhere in the United States.

Silvernest, which is available in all 50 states, has made 6,000 matches in the Denver area alone since its founding three years ago, Burkhardt said. In the two and a half years since Joucovksy founded it, Sunshine has made 19 matches.

Earlier this year the city of Denver awarded Sunshine $60,000 to hire an additional social worker to reach out to providers of affordable senior housing. Such apartment buildings often have wait lists that are months or even years long. Joucovsky hopes to get some of those people on the wait lists into housing faster through a home share.

Those wait lists are evidence of the housing crisis among seniors, said Maureen Hewitt, president and chief executive officer of InnovAge.

"We need more affordable housing in the state," Hewitt said.

Hewitt's Denver-based organization offers home care and other programs to help people age in place in Colorado, California, New Mexico, Pennsylvania, and Virginia. InnovAge also owns two affordable senior housing communities in the Denver metro area. Each has a wait list, Hewitt said.

Hewitt said home sharing can be "really, really important. More so now just due to the economy and the shortage of housing."

She said InnovAge social workers and other staff sometimes help seniors decide what home-sharing model might work for them, and that might be a "Golden Girls" situation of seniors of similar ages living together and helping one another, or cross-generational.

Hewitt has seen relatives and friends help seniors find housemates. Some seniors do it themselves, perhaps using Craigslist.

"But you have to be careful," she said, adding organizations like Silvernest or Sunshine -- she is associated with neither -- can play an important role when it comes to safety and security.

Hewitt said it's not just economics or simply finding a place to live that make home sharing a good option for seniors. Combatting loneliness and depression or sharing home maintenance duties are among other reasons.

Silvernest's Burkhardt said in recent years she has come to realize some of the people who come to her platform are altruists.

"There's a population that really wants to be involved in helping other people," she said. The pilot with Teach for America "has given us a chance to test that and better understand it."

Teach for America is a bit like the Peace Corps, only it sends its recruits to struggling schools instead of overseas.  Teach for America has since 1989 been encouraging young college graduates to consider teaching careers, giving them some training and placing them in schools with the goal of helping disadvantaged students. Damion LeeNatali, executive director of Teach For America Colorado, said one of his staffers knew Burkhardt, and that connection led to the partnership.

Traditionally, LeeNatali said, his organization has relied on Teach for America alums and Craigslist to find housing for its participants.

Increasingly, "we've just found it very, very hard to make the numbers work," he said.

"It's just so expensive to build here and we have so many teachers that need to live here."

Silvernest dropped the background check fee for Teach for America participants. The company also undertook special outreach to recruit hosts, including postcards to homes near the schools where LeeNatali's teachers were placed. Burkhardt said the goal was 20 matches for the pilot. Silvernest heard from more than 4,000 people interested in housing a teacher.

"Our hypothesis was that there are a lot of people who just want to help other people," Burkhardt said. "And we have learned that."

The response in Denver led to pilots in San Francisco and Miami.

According to a study released in May by the online housing marketplace Apartment List, across the country nearly 20 percent of households in which a teacher is the primary earner are spending more than a third of their income on housing, a situation known as being housing cost-burdened. Apartment List said that that was 21.3 percent higher than the cost-burden rate for households with a primary earner who is a non-teacher with a college degree. In San Francisco, the cost-burden gap between teacher households and those non-teacher households was 56 percent. In Denver it was 29 percent and in Miami 20 percent.

Apartment List's latest rent survey found the median rent for a one-bedroom in Denver was $1,080 for a one-bedroom apartment and $1,360 for a two-bedroom. A one-bedroom at the median would have eaten up nearly half teacher Martin's salary. Silvernest had several rooms in the Denver area listed at around $600, but also for $1,000 or more. Home-sharing landlords and tenants sometimes work out arrangements in which renters perform chores to lower or even replace the rent.

Stapleton residences under downtown Denver's skyline. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

Teach for America's LeeNatali praised Silvernest as good corporate partner and expressed gratitude to all those interested in hosting a teacher.

"This is obviously one way for our community to rally around some of the most important people in our kids' lives," LeeNatali said.

But "this is not an answer to teacher compensation," LeeNatali said.

"We have to pay our teachers better."

Denver Public Schools agrees.

In an email, Anna Alejo, DPS's chief communications officer, said, "Given that state funding for education in Colorado has fallen so far behind our rapid increase in the cost of living, it is essential that we do everything to help our educators meet their housing needs, while continuing to advocate for greater state funding for education."

Alejo said Sunshine Home Shares is included in information DPS gives its staff about housing. Among other initiatives, she noted that DPS last year began linking teachers to Landed, a company that offers down payment assistance, homebuyer education and financial coaching to school teachers and staff in high-cost areas across the country.

Madison, who is taking in colleague Martin, teaches fourth grade in a DPS school. She grew up in Denver.

"I've watched the property market go insane," she said.

She is younger than the average Silvernest landlord and said she bought her home a year ago, thinking prices would only continue to rise and she should get into the market while she could. She and her boyfriend soon decided they should seek roommates. They were used to shared living arrangements and wanted to ensure the mortgage would be paid.

Her father suggested she find a company that would handle background checks and help take some of the stress out of finding housemates. She searched the web and found Silvernest. Soon after uploading her information and photos of her house, she learned about the Teach for America partnership. She reasoned:

"I'm a teacher. I love teachers. Why not help a teacher?"

Martin said that for most of her time in college, where she majored in sustainable development with a concentration in agriculture, she hadn't been sure what she would do after graduation. When she learned about Teach for America, she said she "fell in love with the values of the organization."

And she thought back on her younger years.

"I have had pretty much a whole lifetime of great teachers rallying behind me," Martin said.

She said she was grateful to have found a teacher's house in which to live as she sets out on a career of paying it forward.

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