Linda Poon is an assistant editor at CityLab covering science and urban technology, including smart cities and climate change. She previously covered global health and development for NPR’s Goats and Soda blog.
In a college town, students and older homeowners have a lot to offer each other. That’s why two urban planners built an app to bring them together.
When Jane Kamine and her husband settled in Stanford, California, with their toddler in the 1970s, they decided to open up their spare room to renters. It wasn’t that they needed the money; what they really wanted was to meet their community. “We were in a new place, and we knew no one there,” she says. “We were questioning how we were going to be in this new world.”
So they set their eyes on folks from the nearby Stanford University, renting out the extra room for months at a time. Kamine says some of her most precious lifelong friendships were formed right at her kitchen table. They include people in their 20s and 30s. They were students and visiting professors, doctors and international scholars. And they all started out as strangers in her home.
Now 74, Kamine has since moved with her husband to Cambridge, Massachusetts, where they rent out their third-floor bedroom primarily to folks at Harvard University. With her children grown up and moved out, Kamine sometimes asks that her guests help out around the house. “Food shopping, gardening—just little things—helping with computer glitches,” she says. “Definitely computer stuff.”
It’s people like Kamine that Noelle Marcus and Rachel Goor, two urban planners who recently graduated from MIT, are hoping to attract with their new app Nesterly. A winner of several competitions earlier this year, including the MIT Global Ideas Challenge and New York City’s Big Apps contest, the app is set to launch in Boston at the start of this year’s fall semester and will match homeowners with graduate students looking for cheaper rent in exchange for doing household chores.
Think Airbnb meets Angie’s List. For the older users, Nesterly will serve as a service app through which homeowners can search for potential renters based on the kind of help they need. And for students, the more time they offer, the lower their rent may be, depending on what’s agreed upon. Once the two parties figure out the terms through Nesterly’s messaging system, the app will help them keep track of their agreement.
“Communication is so critical, so we're building out interfaces that encourage conversations about expectations and on what the interaction will look like before anyone commits to anything,” Goor says, adding that the app will include the opportunity for background checks.
The number of Bostonians who are at least 60 years old is projected to rise 65 percent between 2010 and 2030, and many are expected to age in place. Nationally, the number of households headed by someone 65 or older will reach 49.6 million by 2035, making up a third of all U.S. households. And most, according to a Harvard report, will consist of either a single person or a partnered couple.
“We're really excited about the opportunity to help the rapidly aging population in the U.S. stay in their homes, and one way is helping them access just household help like changing the light bulb or shoveling the snow,” says Marcus. “Simple tasks that students can do, but could really make a big difference for an aging household.” Marcus adds that while the app won’t require students to pitch in on chores, it would be to their advantage in finding affordable housing.
Intergenerational living is by no means a new thing. Nursing homes from Cleveland, Ohio, to Finland and the Netherlands have opened up rooms to Millennials willing to volunteer their time in exchange for cheaper rent. Universities have also begun experimenting with programs that pair students with older residents. The trend is growing; the National Shared Housing Resource Center lists roughly 40 such formal programs nationwide, and New York University is one of the latest universities to pilot a project that will pair 10 graduate students with empty nesters this fall. But but these intergenerational programs are still few and far between.
Informally, many homeowners and room hunters try their luck by turning to friends, community listservs, and sites like Craigslist. What Marcus and Goor hope to do with Nesterly, and what ultimately caught the judges’ attention in those competitions, is take the guess work out of those relationships and facilitate them through a safe and reliable platform.
“The bar is kind of low right now in terms of how it's happening, and it's not accessible to a lot of people,” says Marcus. “There's a much bigger market than the people who are willing to trust Craigslist.” Currently, the duo are reaching out to community organizations like the local AARP group and different homeowner associations, as well as the city government, to market the idea and find potential users.
The demand from students is certainly there, they say, given the rise of student housing, particularly in big cities like Chicago, New York City, and Boston. According to Trulia, many colleges often underestimate the cost of off-campus housing, often by thousands of dollars, welcoming incoming students with an unpleasant surprise.
The Boston area, where Nesterly will first be launched, is the eighth most popular college destination in the U.S. and has seen a boom in student enrollment over the years. That’s been placing stress on a market that’s already seen a 20 percent drop in affordable houses since 2014. Even these so-called affordable houses are too expensive for working families, according to the economist Joe Cortright, let alone students on a college budget.
On top of that, a 2016 report by the Massachusetts Department of Higher Education found that 24 of 29 public universities surveyed said they are aware of students who are homeless, either couch-surfing at a friend’s house, living in shelters, or even living in cars. “We really want to help relieve that pressure by better utilizing underused space inside existing infrastructure,” says Marcus.
The big question then is if Millennials and homeowners (boomers and younger families alike) are ready to mingle in such close proximity. If there’s any truth to the 2014 comedy hit Neighbors, starring Seth Rogen as a family man who finds himself at war with the rowdy frat next door, there’s a strong case for why residents and college students can’t coexist in the same neighborhood, much less under the same roof.
But when Marcus and Goor conducted a nationwide survey of roughly 1,200 people of all ages (though the sample size skewed older), the responses revealed that people are at least opening up to the idea. Among people between 50 and 69 years old, half said they would be open to the idea of homesharing, particularly if they are living alone or if their children have all moved out. A third of people aged 70 to 89, and a quarter of those 90 and over have also expressed interest.
Many respondents said they were willing to house strangers if they paid rent. Others said they were interested in the chance for social interaction and the opportunity to learn. Kamine, who participated in the survey, says she values the companionship she’s gained by welcoming students in.
“It's been an indescribably rich experience for us,” she says. “Not only do we have a relationship with people who are very often different from us, but it also gives a certain liveliness in our lives.”
For now, Kamine’s situation isn’t so unusual: the Millennial occupying her spare bedroom is her daughter, who recently moved back to finish graduate school. But she’s still encouraging her neighbors to take part, if only to bridge the gap between the residential and college kids.
“We may all complain about Harvard,” she says with a laugh. “But, on the other hand, it's a community that we're all a part of it."