It does sound cozy. Five or six single senior citizens, living in a big house, each with his or her own room, sharing a kitchen, eating together, sharing chores, becoming friends. Like college roommates.
"We thought it was a very good idea. Just as everybody else does who hears about it," Josephine Kasteler says.Six years ago, when she first started working on the project to bring Shared Housing to Utah, Kasteler was an assistant professor at the University of Utah and worked in the gerontology department.
Now, she herself is retired. And would she like to live in shared housing? No, she says, "I want to stay in my own home as long as I can possibly function on my own."
So Kasteler can understand why others would be leery. Still, she thought, in the whole state of Utah there would be at least 30 or 40 people who wanted to move in, who would leap at the chance to have one of the seven rooms.
"But it turned out we just couldn't fill our house," says Richard Bird. Bird and others on the board of the non-profit Senior Citizens' Shared Housing Inc. raised enough money for a down payment on a house on Douglas Street, near the University of Utah.
In 1988, the house opened with one renter. They needed six more. "We couldn't meet the mortgage payments," says Bird, "so we turned the house over to another agency, and there are handicapped people living there now."
"We tried," says Kasteler. She personally visited every senior citizen center on the Wasatch Front, not once, but twice, to explain the project.
Shared housing works in many cities, including Philadelphia, where six houses are full and functioning and four more homes are planned. However, Milton Marks, a program manager with the Shared Housing Resource Center of Philadelphia, says, "We do more matching roommates into private homes, that's often easier to do.
"Shared housing is often a difficult product to sell. You have to balance affordability with privacy with companionship."
He cites a 1988 study that shows two-thirds of the shared residences around the nation are easy to fill. "But that means one-third do have problems."
The key to filling the homes, Marks says, is to make sure the rooms don't rent for more than the market will bear. "Which is why state subsidies are so important."
This may have been part of the problem in Utah. Many corporations and private citizens contributed to the down payment and furnishings in the home on Douglas Street, but there was no ongoing subsidy.
Since people can find a studio apartment for $250 (plus electricity) in any city on the Wasatch Front, perhaps they were unwilling to pay $325 a month to share a kitchen and bath.
Winston White lives in one of the shared homes in Philadelphia - eight bedrooms occupied by four men and four women. He says it works fine for him. "I'm an adult in my 60s, so I've got to say I'm set in my ways. But I spent 28 years in the Army, so group living is nothing new to me."
His main motivation for living in a group home is financial. He doesn't seek companionship as much as an affordable house, within walking distance of the grocery store and bus lines.
White is working, and he comes and goes quite independently. Most of his conversations with his house mates take place in the kitchen, he explains, where each does his own cooking.
"We each have our own friends," he says. "Some people who live here do associate with the others. Some of us don't have too much in common. We cooperate as far as taking care of the house. But no one gets angry if someone isn't too friendly."
Maybe seniors aren't as lonely as we think? Kasteler guesses they are, but loneliness is not so painful that seniors want to sell their homes and move in with strangers.
In Philadelphia, Marks says, some of the people who moved into shared housing actually have more privacy and more independence than they did where they were living before. "I don't know for sure but I can guess. I'm assuming that they come [to shared housingT from renting. And from pretty poor conditions."
They may have been living with relatives, perhaps in an overcrowded house. They may be seeking freedom from responsibilities for their extended families, he says. Are there any Utahns in similar situations?
There may be. If so, all is not lost.
Genevieve Lawrence was part of the first group that tried to bring shared housing to Utah. Undaunted by the Douglas Street experience, she's serving on a new board, to try again to purchase a house and fill it with single people who seek a cooperative living experience.