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Rising rent leads some seniors back to living with roommates

Gerry Venable knew it wasn't his turn to restock the coffee. He'd just bought those two big containers of Folgers. But his roommate reminded him that the bag of Starbucks beans she'd contributed to the shared stash cost just as much.

The squabble dragged on for a day or two and spiraled into a discussion about quality versus quantity, before Venable decided it wasn't worth it. He bought more Folgers.

A few weeks earlier, his roommate, Carol Loper, called him out for falling asleep with the TV on and running up the electric bill. That same week — as he likes to remind her — she did the same thing. Twice.

Although an occasional tiff breaks out within the walls of the second-story duplex they've shared in the Carthay neighborhood for about a year, the roommates get along well. Whenever he goes to Vons, he buys her a jelly doughnut, her favorite. She cleans up his butternut-squash-soup splatters on the stove. And when he asks her for advice on how to get a girlfriend, she offers this: You need a good selfie for your OkCupid profile.

In most ways, Venable and Loper are a pretty typical pair of L.A. roommates. But at 74 and 69, respectively, they're among the senior Angelenos who have decided to share a home to save money.

Affordable Living for the Aging, the L.A. County nonprofit that introduced Loper and Venable, has matched more than 220 people in the past seven years. Home share program manager Miriam Hall said she hopes more seniors will consider the setup and help break down the stereotype that living with roommates is only for young people.

"That's the biggest challenge for most of our clients," she said. "Maybe they shared when they were younger — in college. It's certainly a change in focus."

The group's average client is divorced or widowed and lives on $900 a month. Loper, who worked as a secretary in a Kaiser Permanente office for years and did outreach for Jewish Family Service, gets by on even less: $850 in Social Security.

"Every month it was a struggle for money," she said.

::

An L.A. native, Loper married her high school sweetheart and had a boy and a girl. The couple divorced decades ago and now she lives simply — that's how she likes it.

She owns multiple pairs of Birkenstock sandals and wears her wavy brown hair short with an occasional streak of blond. She never misses an episode of the British comedy "Doc Martin" and switches to a saccharine voice when she talks to her cats, Rosie, Lizzie, Sweetie Pie and Mitchie.

About a year ago, when money got especially tight, she thought about how much she could charge someone to rent the extra room in her quiet, tree-lined neighborhood. But she wasn't ready. Not after eight years of living with her dying mother and a string of difficult, live-in caretakers.

"I really didn't want to live with anybody — at all," Loper said, as tears welled up behind her rimless glasses. "I just wanted to be my own person and have my own space."

Finally, however, she took the advice of a counselor and called Affordable Living for the Aging. She probably could have charged higher rent if she'd recruited a roommate on Craigslist, but she liked that the nonprofit would vet whoever moved in.

Loper remembers being immediately charmed by Venable's daughter, who came along for the interview, and Venable — a self-described spiritual nut — said he got good vibes from Loper during the meeting. She seemed much less prissy than the other potential roommates he'd met.

He moved in for a three-month trial period, which led to their current agreement: On the first of every month, he pays her $625 in cash.

::

As the American population ages, there's a growing demand for a more established network of home share programs, said Rodney Harrell, a housing policy specialist for AARP's Public Policy Institute.

In 2030, as the last of the baby boomers hit conventional retirement age, the federal Administration on Aging estimates that one-fifth of the population will be at least 65.

"At that point," Harrell said, "you're not going to be able to ignore it."

But with the largest 65-and-older population in the country and its crop of high-cost cities — the average rent in L.A. is more than $1,400 a month — California already has had to start dealing with the issue.

The National Shared Housing Resource Center, which keeps a directory of match-up home share programs across the country, lists nine in California — more than twice as many as any other state.

"These folks at ALA are pioneers at this thing," Harrell said. "They're following this new script of how to make this work in a formal way."

Hall, who manages the nonprofit's home share program, said the average roommate pair lasts about two years. Most of the housing providers, she said, are women who live on the Westside or in the Valley, but there are sets sprinkled all over L.A.

Although the shared-housing model doesn't work for everyone, Harrell said it's an important alternative to seniors moving in with their adult children. That's the case for Venable's daughter, Janine deZarn, who lives in Culver City with her husband and daughter. She loves having her father close, while maintaining a bit of space. And she likes knowing he's not alone.

"For me," she said, "it's really nice to have someone who could call and say, 'Hey, your dad didn't come home last night.'"

::

After her father had a lung cancer scare that turned out to be a serious bout of bronchitis and another hospitalization for heart problems, DeZarn began to lobby her dad to relocate from Atlanta. She called him every day and gave him the this-could-be-your-life tour of L.A. when he visited two Thanksgivings back.

The retired architect moved about a year ago, but a thick accent shows his Southern roots. The second syllable of "online," for example, gets drawn out into something that sounds like "on-laaaaaah-ne."

Most days — clad in his red beret and a scarf of some kind — he walks a mile or so to the grocery. He ran the Boston Marathon at 40 and 50 and would've done it again at 60, he says, if he hadn't been in the middle of his second divorce.

The $1,755 he gets in Social Security every month doesn't go nearly as far in L.A., so Venable knew that if he wanted to save any money he'd have to get a roommate. By living with Loper, he said, he's able to put money toward the things left on his bucket list: taking a trip to Italy and Greece, and going on an Alaskan cruise with a girlfriend.

Both roommates say the first few weeks of sharing space with a stranger was really weird. But watching television together helped cure the awkwardness.

"We started talking about our shows and, 'What's on tonight?'" Venable said. "Inch by inch, we got to know each other."

Loper finds Venable's patience with her cats endearing and appreciates his willingness to talk freely about politics and spirituality.

"I've been interested in God since I was a little kid," said Venable, a Southern Baptist turned Methodist who briefly dropped religion altogether, then discovered Baha'i and now goes to a Unitarian Universalist church. "But I'm still as confused as ever."

Loper smiles and reassures him: "Welcome to the rest of us."

::

As Venable tipped back his second glass of Merlot on a recent evening, he explained how generosity and compromise had helped them get along.

Their general rule for dishes: If you see stuff in the sink, wash it all, even if it's not yours. She knows he likes "The Daily Show With Jon Stewart," so if he's not home when it's on, she'll record it.

They share laughs about what age has done to them — he says they're both demented, she says they're out to lunch. Other times they joke about things that could cause tiffs, but haven't yet. If Venable gets a girlfriend, for example, Loper grins at the idea of running into women in the bathroom.

"That's a future problem," he said, laughing.

Seated a few feet away, Loper stared at her computer screen and grabbed a folded sheet of paper nearby. She studied the words scribbled onto it — ix, zoea, noob — and decided which word to play next in her online Scrabble game. She thought about how Venable had changed her perspective on sharing her home.

"I hated getting a roommate," she said. "But now … I don't know how I'd feel about living alone again."

Venable smiled. He knew it was a compliment.

marisa.gerber@latimes.com

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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