TARPON SPRINGS — Rising insurance and utility costs have pushed Dottie Engel's monthly expenses to $2,000 on her four-bedroom, 2,400-square-foot Tarpon Springs' home.
"It's obviously too big for me," said Engel, 67. "If I want to stay in this house, I need some help."
Enter Kathleen Grayson, 53.
Grayson, who suffers from a degenerative bone disease, was forced to quit working after a car accident two years ago and has been staying with her daughter and teenage grandson in a small St. Petersburg house. To provide her mother with a room, Grayson's daughter has been sleeping on the couch.
With the average rent for a one-bedroom apartment in Pinellas County at $603, Grayson would be putting half of her monthly Social Security check to rent — before utilities, gas, groceries and insurance.
Both women found a solution through the Home Share Program. The countywide program, administered by the Local Community Housing Corp., is a nonprofit affiliate of the Tarpon Springs Housing Authority that matches homeowners who need help paying the mortgage with renters who can't afford a place of their own.
Engel, who has found two previous tenants through the program, said there are several benefits: companionship, shared workload and someone to keep an eye on things if she's out of town.
For most tenants — or "seekers" as they're called — it's all about economics.
Michael Dahlgren, 62, who receives a modest pension from Lockheed Martin, said the program has enabled him to work just part time, instead of full time, because he's saving money on rent.
"I'm trying to keep my life simple, keep it minimalist, and it's really working for me," he said.
Dahlgren is renting a room in a Seminole home, which he shares with a woman in her late 60s.
"The thing that really makes it work is we have enough life experiences and enough maturity to realize what it takes to get along with other people," he said. "You have to have respect for other people."
Program organizers will match people of opposite genders if both agree. And some homeowners will take in families with children, though few parents have been interested.
For safety's sake, all applicants go through a comprehensive screening process that includes criminal background checks and personal references. The system is safer for homeowners who otherwise might have to search classified ads or message boards to find renters, program officials said.
"One of the things our program really provides is the most safety possible," said program director Sandy Herskowitz.
Launched in early 2007, the program has had inquiries soared, with at least four times as many calls coming in between January and June of this year compared with the same period last year, said Herskowitz.
There simply isn't enough affordable housing in Pinellas County, said Pat Weber, executive director of the Tarpon Springs Housing Authority. The Housing Authority has 541 people on its waiting list, Weber said.
Tampa Bay has a foreclosure rate twice the national average, with one of every 87 homes in some stage of foreclosure last quarter. That may explain why the program is getting more requests from homeowners than renters lately, Herskowitz said.
The program, which so far has matched 26 people, is time-intensive because of the screening and interviewing processes. But there's very little overhead, Weber said.
"Financially, it's not very expensive compared to buying new units," Weber said. "For $100,000 a year, you could house a lot of people and you can also, at the same time, help support homeowners who are on the verge of losing their homes,"
Weber and Herskowitz said they wish they had $100,000 to put toward the program. In actuality, they've been getting by on a shoestring budget funded through a $10,000 grant.
To be considered, renters must have an income to support an average rent between $450 and $550 a month. Some homeowners will negotiate a lower cost in exchange for services, such as lawn mowing or routine maintenance, though program officials stress that their mission is not to provide in-home health care or housekeeping services.
Both parties complete surveys to spell out their preferences and expectations. Much like the systems used by universities to match up dorm roommates, the surveys ask questions such as: Will food be shared or bought separately? Who will clean which areas of the house and when? Are overnight guests acceptable? Pets allowed or no?
Once a potential match is identified, Herskowitz sets up a home visit. If both parties agree to give it a try, they sign a contract that details responsibilities for both sides. If not, program officials try to set up another match.
If a relationship sours — as some do — mediation may be an option. If that doesn't work, either party can exercise a 30-day termination clause included in their signed agreement. But a renter who doesn't pay or intentionally destroys property can be given a three-day notice to leave by the homeowner.
As for Engel and Grayson?
The two hit it off when they met at Engel's home two weeks ago.
On Thursday, they signed an agreement and Grayson moved in on Friday.
"They're as happy as clams," Herskowitz said.
Information from Times files was used in this report. Rita Farlow can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 445-4162.