Home-sharing: A win-win for two Belfast residents

By Fran Gonzalez | Feb 10, 2020
Photo by: Fran Gonzalez Elizabeth Garber, left, and Andree Bella pose at Bella's home, which she shares with several housemates Feb. 5. The two Belfast women spoke on different aspects of home-sharing at a Jan. 27 event at the Belfast Free Library.

Belfast —

An alternative way to meet housing needs and provide financial benefits to homeowners has been quietly unfolding in Belfast’s tight housing market.

Home-sharing is not a new idea. It can provide companionship and daily help with household chores while filling a housing gap. In addition to more income, renting out one or several rooms in a house may also give seniors stretched by high housing costs a way to stay in their homes.

Two area women spoke at the Belfast Free Library Jan. 27 on what led them to open their homes and how they have benefited from the experience.

Andree Bella of Belfast said her 10-room farmhouse always felt "really big," and admitted she enjoys having other people around. She noted that having housemates is not for everyone and that some people just need to live alone.

Her adventure in home-sharing began 25 years ago after her spouse left, and she faced a financial meltdown. When her marriage ended, she was overwhelmed by financial obligations. Bills didn't get paid, and the bank started sending foreclosure notices. "It was a bleak picture," she said.

While Bella does not credit home-sharing as the only thing that brought her out of her financial difficulties, she said, "it was a very big part of it."

She decided to get a housemate in order to "glean a little more income," and the $300 a month rent she charged at the time went exclusively toward paying her "enormous" mortgage. "That was helpful," Bella said, "and I had the right person."

In the 20 years since Bella opened her home, she has had 60 different people live with her. "I've only had to ask four to leave," she said. She relies on a mutual understanding and does not have anything in writing with her housemates.

"Eviction is quite simple," Bella said. "I tell anyone coming to live with me that they must pay first and last month's rent before moving in and that we each have the option of terminating their stay with a 30-day notice. I haven't had any problems with this arrangement."

The roommates lead private lives in the farmhouse, Bella said. "We share the kitchen and downstairs part of the house and we all have our own separate bedrooms." The rooms come unfurnished because, she said, that sends the message that she is looking for a long-term person.

Bella said she advertises through Craigslist because it is free and noted that the average stay for her housemates is around a year, but added she had one person stay five years.

Currently, she shares her home with four housemates she describes as "absolutely wonderful people." She also rents out an apartment above her barn to a couple. To Bella, they are more than renters, but rather housemates.

“We help each other out a lot,” she said. “And we are always there for each other.”

Elizabeth Garber is a Belfast artist, poet and acupuncturist. She lived in shared housing all throughout her 20s and 30s before moving to Belfast. As a divorced single parent, she, too, found herself scrambling for an affordable housing situation for herself and her children.

She found an old sea captain’s house on Miller Street which, she said, was the cheapest thing available in Waldo County at the time. The house had been split into four individual condominiums, and in 2000, she purchased an apartment in the large house for $60,000.

After her children left home, Garber realized she was spending too much time alone, and wanted to interact more with people. She became involved with the co-housing movement in Belfast, which was in its early years. Eventually, she said, the co-housing units became too expensive.

Along with a friend, she house-sat for different people for about a year. “It’s an amazing way to live, where you have just what you need in your car, and you move from place to place,” she said.

Once Garber was ready to settle down, she discovered a converted church for sale in Northport which was split into four suites. She bought the church and had several housemates at a time, creating a community where people stayed for the long term. People would be invested and do chores together, she said, with agreements about different jobs to do for the house.

Eventually, the situation evolved into something more like “rented rooms,” she said, where people were coming and going, as opposed to sharing a house. Garber eventually remarried, sold the church, and bought a house with a walkout ground-floor apartment.

When she moved to Belfast from Northport, her taxes almost tripled, she said, and she rents out the apartment and a spare room in the house to pay taxes and help with the mortgage.

At this point in her life, Garber said, she primarily wants to share the house with her husband. She invested in finishing the downstairs apartment and is planning to add an external door for her spare rented room, so as to make it more independent from the rest of the house.

She distinguishes between housemate and house-renting, where one is sharing the kitchen, bathroom and sometimes a living room and the other is renting a room to someone who comes and goes, sometimes with a separate entrance and a small kitchenette.

“There are so many ways to do it,” she said, “and there are so many ways to be creative.”

She remembers thinking, when she was living in the condo on Miller Street and looking at all the big houses on that street, how others could make “manageable-sized apartments that people can share.”

“It was so great living in the church, having four or five bedrooms. I would hear about these people that couldn’t find any place to live… it was incredible to say — yes, I’ve got room, whether they stay two months or three years.

“It’s an incredible service to the community to offer a place where people can live,” she said. For the most part, she has not had many issues sharing her home.

Both Garber and Bella agree an important part of the formula is finding the right people and having agreements concerning who does what. A thorough vetting process is also crucial, including checking references and meeting face-to-face, Bella added, and “trust your gut.”

Belfast City Councilor and event organizer Mike Hurley talked about the importance of home-sharing, saying, “If you share a house, it takes the need for an apartment off the books.”

Every house in Belfast, Hurley said, is legally allowed to be a two-family house and noted that recently the city passed an accessory building article, where homeowners are allowed to convert a garage or a barn into an apartment. “There are a few rules about it,” Hurley said, but added that not many people have taken advantage of it.

At a communally prepared dinner at Bella’s sprawling farmhouse Feb. 7, the fire was warm and the mood was light as housemates spoke about their current living experience. The four women who share the main house range in age from 20 to 40. The young couple sharing the apartment above the barn were also present at the house dinner.

Several housemates said they appreciated how Bella set boundaries right away because “you knew what to expect,” and added that the house revolved around honesty, trust and mutual respect.

Renting an apartment in Belfast, they said, is an expensive venture and good places are hard to come by. They said they felt grateful to have a situation they could afford, with like-minded individuals.

One young woman said that after arriving to meet Bella and check out the house, she decided the farmhouse, located on the Passagassawakeag River with a commanding view of the bay, was where she wanted to be and did not look any further.

For questions concerning aspects of sharing a home, Andree Bella can be reached at andree.bella@gmail.com. Hurley can be reached at Ward4councilor@cityofbelfast.org.

Housemates speak about sharing a house at a communal dinner at Andree Bella’s farmhouse Feb. 7. (Photo by: Fran Gonzalez)
Comments (2)
Posted by: Ralph Stanley | Feb 11, 2020 07:35

Thanks for doing the math on the rent thing Seth. Don't think I could have done it myself. BEP Hearings today starting at 9am at the Hutchinson Center. Those who are opposed are asked to wear red.

Posted by: Seth Thayer | Feb 11, 2020 06:12

Getting roommates is a great way to afford rent.  I had roommates all through my 20s when I lived in the big city.  At first, we couldn't afford to live in town so we had to commute over an hour from the suburbs.  Then when we could afford it, we moved into the city into an apartment with lots of roommates.  If one can't afford to rent in Belfast, one should consider roommates, its the best way to afford a coastal community like Belfast if you can't afford to rent a place on your own.  $1000 a month rent becomes $500 a month with one roommate and even less with two.

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