For 20 years now, St. Ambrose Housing Aid Center in Baltimore has run a matchmaking service. Think empty rooms, not lonely hearts.
The nonprofit helps Baltimore City and Baltimore County homeowners, with space to spare, find people looking for a room to rent, and vice versa. The program, launched by employee Mark Benson, was conceived as a way to get elderly residents extra income and companionship. But it has proved popular with all ages.
"It's one of the most creative things we do," says Vincent Quayle, executive director of St. Ambrose.
St. Ambrose Homesharing has made 1,180 matches, about 60 a year. Room rent is typically $400 to $450 in the city and about $500 in the county.
Sometimes personalities don't mesh. But things usually work out well, St. Ambrose says.
"Knock on wood, we have not had any serious problems," says Annette L. Brennan, program director. "We screen very carefully."
The homeowner and home seeker can ask for a criminal background check on the other party at a cost of about $15. Beyond that, St. Ambrose wants references, assurances that participants have been drug-free and sober for at least a year and a doctor's report from any party dealing with a chronic condition. The nonprofit conducts interviews, too, on site with homeowners so that it can check out the property and neighborhood. (For its efforts, it asks for a $5 fee from the home seeker and $15 from the homeowner.)
Some home seekers offer services in exchange for rent. Sometimes folks stay together for a few months by design; sometimes they're together for years.
On a few occasions, St. Ambrose has helped match renters with homeowners who needed extra money to avoid foreclosure.
"Most of it is, the universe just happens to smile on us," says Brennan, noting that homeowners might have to wait a while to find the right match.
Eileen L. Lewis, a Catonsville homeowner who has taken in renters for years through St. Ambrose, says she likes the experience. The renters' payments - $375 for one room, $400 for the other - help her financially, and she's happy to think that she's helping them avoid the much higher cost of an apartment.
Sometimes it hardly seems as if she's sharing her house, her renters are so quiet.
"Everybody respects the space," she says.
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