As we continue to shelter-in-place, Covia Community Service programs have found new ways to support their participants’ safety and well-being. For the Home Match program, staff have created new safety-informed initiatives and resource guides to support participants, sent care packages to ongoing matches, and developed digital initiatives to better reach people online.
For ongoing matches, Home Match staff have been facilitating conversations around safely sharing a home during COVID-19. “We put together a home-sharing specific questionnaire to guide productive conversations around maintaining health and safety in a shared-home, and for proactively planning for the event that a homemate becomes ill,” says Tori Shepard, Home Match Program Manager in San Francisco. “We also mediated a number of these conversations virtually, which received very positive feedback, particularly in homes where some homemates are at higher risk of severe illness.”
The Home Match team also boosted the spirits of ongoing matches by sending staff-curated care packages. These Happiness Packages consisted of fun activities that matches can participate in together as well as self-care items for relaxing while staying at home. Items included pancake mix, green tea, Rubik’s cubes, homemade soap, and puzzle books.
“We’ve received back a lot of gratitude from matches,” says Shepard. One participant wrote to say “We were truly delighted after receiving our package. In this new normal, for a couple of minutes, we felt the love of our friends and family.”
Many participants have “also noted their gratitude for each other, as shelter-in-place buddies,” Shepard notes. “One of our matches shared that she’s grateful to be sharing her home, during these uncertain times. Since she’s at higher risk for severe illness, her homemate does all the shopping to make sure they have what they need – she’s even planted a food garden. She says it’s wonderful having someone to laugh with and talk to.”
The Home Match team has also been sharing helpful information with participants and adapting their program operations. For participants who have not yet been matched, the Home Match team provided local resource guides related to food, unemployment, and mental health. Following guidelines from local health orders and the CDC, Home Match has also adapted overall program operations to safely support participants and new matches while taking in the reality of the current situation.
“We’ve transitioned to 100% virtual operations and developed new safety procedures, in adherence with shelter-in-place orders,” notes Shepard. “All our participant interactions—including appointments, home visits, outreach activities, and Living Together Agreements—are now offered by phone or video call.
“Operating remotely has also created an opportunity to focus on the program’s online tools and presence,” says Shepard, while noting that “we are taking extra care to still reach those who do not have a computer or internet access.” Part of this focus is a new Home Match website, which debuted the week of July 24th. The new website includes expanded information for interested home-sharers, as well as testimonials from ongoing matches.
“We love the new website,” notes Shepard. “It has a much more open and content-rich layout, which gives us more room to tell our story. New features like our inquiry form and staff profiles give us more avenues to get to know our prospective participants and vice versa.”
The new Home Match website is available here and is a great jumping off point to learn more about the program and how they support the community.
Jonathan and Jackie have only lived together for a few months, but they both say it already feels like they’ve known each other forever. They found each other through Home Match, a program of Covia Community Services. Jonathan describes Home Match as “a ‘dating service’ that helps you find the perfect roommate.” For both Jonathan and Jackie, finding Home Match was a life saver.
Jonathan, a social worker with the city of San Francisco, couldn’t find affordable rentals in San Francisco and was commuting daily from Hercules. “I was searching for a place to live. I tried Craigslist, Apartments.com, asking through friends, with no success,” he says. “It was either Home Match or I had to leave San Francisco.”
Jackie, a retired hotel worker, was thinking of giving up her San Francisco apartment where she’d lived for years in order to save some money. “Then I thought I LOVE this neighborhood,” she says. “Why don’t I just see about a roommate.”
Home Match was the key for both Jonathan and Jackie. Home Match helps homeowners with extra rooms connect with home seekers who need an affordable place to live, creating a win-win situation. Home Match staff interview prospective homeowners and home seekers to check backgrounds and ensure compatibility, then connect people by researching personal preferences, house types, and interests. In some cases, accommodation can be provided in exchange for services, such as driving to the grocery store or lending a hand around the house. With this kind of arrangement, senior homeowners can often continue to be successful in their own home, while lodgers have access to affordable housing so they can remain in the area and continue their good work.
“With Home Match, along comes Jonathan, and he’s been a blessing,” says Jackie. “Living with him has opened the door back to life. It’s the best thing that could have happened to me.”
Jonathan and Jackie both appreciated the personal nature of the application and matching process. “I felt that I was being treated with dignity throughout the process,” Jonathan notes. “I always felt like I could trust the Home Match team.”
“I would absolutely recommend Home Match to anyone in my position. I love it because it brings people together, even those who you wouldn’t think would connect,” Jonathan says.
*This article was previously published in the Fall 2019 edition of Community Matters
Download the full Annual Report with financial reports for FY 2019 here.
Looking back over the past months, I can say with great confidence that it has been a year full of progress. Some of it came from the momentum started in 2018 by the unified Covia brand, while other aspects have resulted from a strong strategic focus and our willingness to make difficult decisions. I can proudly say that we are positioned for a future where we can help more seniors live well and age well no matter where they call home.
In February, the Covia Communities Board made the difficult decision to close one of our communities — Los Gatos Meadows. We have long had a goal to redevelop this community to better support the needs of our residents. As we began our evaluation of this long-term plan, we uncovered some safety issues at the campus that accelerated our timeline. Since arriving at the decision, our focus has been on supporting and relocating the residents and fulfilling our commitment to our staff. Soon we will begin the preliminary work of redevelopment. We are committed to staying in Los Gatos with a reimagined approach to community living.
Our year-end financial results as of March 31, 2019, show continued stability and strength as outlined in the audit results in this report. This has been further reinforced by the reaffirmation of our A- rating with a stable outlook from Fitch. Even with the one-time costs for the closure of Los Gatos Meadows, Fitch recognized the operational consistency and strength we continue to demonstrate. Their confidence is a strong signal for a bright future.
One of the important commitments we are making as we move into the future is technology. Over the past year, we have continued to implement software platforms that help us improve the services we provide. From a more efficient electronic health record system, to a new human resource information system, to a refined customer relationship management system, we have invested to create solutions for our residents and employees alike.
And it was our employees that achieved one of our greatest accomplishments this past year. We were once again named a Great Place to Work. Because this certification is based wholly on employee feedback, it says a lot about the success of the efforts we have been making. I am thrilled that our team members throughout Covia, from Support Services to every community and program, feel engaged and committed in helping us fulfill our mission. They are the heart and essence of what we do and how we can make a difference.
Expanding the number of people that we touch was also a core focus over the past year. From high occupancy at our communities to signing a management contract for Friends House, a Life Plan Community in Santa Rosa, to increasing participation in our Well Connected program and launching Well Connected Español, we are involving more seniors. Add to that Home Match launching in other geographies and making ever more shared housing matches, and the measures of progress are truly profound.
We also piloted a meaningful sustainability initiative started by our residents — CoviaGreen. The brainchild of the Green Action committee at St. Paul’s Towers, CoviaGreen involves a pledge by residents and staff to live more sustainably and consider elements of environmental justice in our community planning. The program is slated to roll out to all of our communities and programs in the coming year.
From financial progress to community progress to progress for the environment, this past year has been one of commitment, engagement, and forward movement. I am grateful to the Covia staff, our leadership team, and our Boards for all that we have accomplished this year. Together we have established an incredibly strong foundation for progress and growth.
In theory, Fair Housing is a straightforward concept: “At the end of the day, it’s that you don’t have special treatment for one resident over another,” says Karim Sultan, Covia’s Vice President of Affordable Housing. But in practice, it may not be as easy as it sounds.
The Fair Housing Act guarantees protection from discrimination in housing on the basis of race, color, national origin, religion, sex, familial status, and disability. It is enforced by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), which subsidizes Covia’s six Affordable Communities.
“I think a big myth is that fair housing is something that’s automatic and that you don’t have to be incredibly intentional about it. You can very easily be in violation of fair housing in two seconds if you’re not careful,” says Sultan. “You have to really be aware of it at all times and be very diligent about maintaining it.”
April is Fair Housing Month, but Covia Affordable Communities works hard to practice that intentionality in fair housing all year round. “We do an annual fair housing training with a fair housing attorney religiously every year,” Sultan reports. “But we also have periodic fair housing check-ins when we do our monthly meetings. It’s something you can’t reiterate enough. If you say it a thousand times, say it a thousand more times. Because as soon as it starts to be not present in the mind, things can happen.”
The planning for fair housing starts long before people move into a community, Sultan explains. “When we open up a wait list, we have to have a HUD approved marketing plan and tenant selection plan. And so those plans really seek to ensure that the process by which you move people into the building is fair.”
Once people move in, “you have a lease and house rules that again you have to be really diligent about because the lease is the same for everybody. Everybody follows the same house rules. So it’s really incumbent upon the site staff to make sure that they’re treating everybody fairly.”
If residents do feel there has been a violation of their rights, they can go through an appeal process. At Covia, “I haven’t had to reverse an administrator for violating fair housing up to now. It could happen. It just hasn’t happened as of yet,” says Sultan. “But I do remind them always that sometimes it’s not what you do but how you do it. Are you communicating thoroughly enough when you’re having people stick to their lease or talking to them about the violation of house rules. Are you ensuring that you’re communicating in a way where they feel like, ‘This is standard, and this is not just targeted at me’?”
Although not subject to the same federal law as the HUD-subsidized communities, Covia’s Home Match program is also attuned to the need for fair housing. Home Match, Covia’s Shared Housing program, connects homeowners with extra space with home seekers who need a place to live in the expensive Bay Area housing market. Home Match works with home owners and home seekers to create a Living Together Agreement that may include a home seeker providing services, such as shopping or pet care, in exchange for a reduction in rental costs.
Tanya Ahern, Program Director for Home Match in Fremont, previously served on a board of a Fair Housing organization and brings her experience to the table when helping to match homeowners and home seekers. “With shared housing I think the most important thing is to make sure that you don’t have identifying characteristics that go into referring people so that that way it’s based purely on their merit and their financial means to pay and it’s not based on race or gender,” says Ahern.
“I see a lot of people who have been turned away from housing because of race, because of disability status,” says Ahern. “Because Home Match prescreens, it makes people more comfortable and more open to housing with people that maybe they might not have considered before. I think it’s really helping house people who didn’t have a fair shake in the world. I think it’s a perk that it’s helping house people who face challenges due to stigma.”
For Covia Affordable Communities, fair housing is part of its legal mandate, but Sultan observes it’s not just about complying with the legal requirements. It’s about making residents feel at home. “Over time, when residents witness the rules being applied equally, it does give them confidence that ‘this is a place where I can feel safe, where I won’t be targeted because of my race, because of my sexual orientation, because of my religion.’ And that’s very, very important because a big part of home is security and being safe.”
“As long as you own and manage communities, and you house people, fair housing is something you have to be constantly aware of,” Sultan says. “It never gets old. It never gets easy. It never gets stale. It’s just something you have to be really diligent about at all times.”
Covia’s Home Match program was featured in an article in the San Francisco Chronicle entitled Affordable housing in the comfort of your own home.
From the article:
“We call these homeowners ‘house-rich and cash-poor,’” said Tracy Powell, vice president of community services for Covia (formerly Episcopal Senior Communities), which runs the Home Match program in San Francisco along with Northern California Presbyterian Homes & Services. “They have the house, but their maintenance, taxes, food and medical costs are all going up. So bringing in a lodger at $1,000 a month can make the difference between keeping or losing it.”
But finding a compatible housemate involves much more than just agreeing on pets, smoking, visitors and other deal-breakers, said Max Moy-Borgen, director of Home Match Contra Costa. “There’s a lot more that comes into play when you are living together with someone than just a standard rental where you’re living on your own,” he said. “But when everything clicks, it means that people are really enjoying the arrangement and it’s a good fit.”
In-person home-sharing services like Home Match counter that they have the advantage of face-to-face contact with applicants and knowledge of local conditions — and that their services are often free.
In San Francisco, for example, where the program is supported by the Mayor’s Office of Housing and Community Development, Home Match created a model contract that can be canceled with a simple written notice, not a time-consuming eviction. And, because Home Match checks back regularly with both homeowners and lodgers, it can step in to mediate if their needs change.
When Kevin Wallace, a 67-year-old San Francisco remodeling contractor, first took in a lodger last year, for example, it was partly to help him take care of his wife, who suffered from dementia. After some months, however, his wife’s condition worsened and she had to go into full-time care. So Christine Ness of Home Match sat down with the pair to re-negotiate their contract.
Now the lodger, 72-year-old Elizabeth (she asked that her last name not be used), a retired Montessori teacher, pitches in on chores in exchange for her $350-a-month room in Noe Valley. “My son from Cambodia came home for a visit recently and said, ‘Hey Dad, the house looks great. Make sure you keep Elizabeth,’” Wallace said.
Elizabeth, meanwhile, figures she spends about an hour a day on chores ranging from dishes to laundry to clipping flowers from the garden for ikebana floral arrangements. In exchange, she has an affordable room in a city she loves because “San Francisco is an outdoors place, and I’m a nature person.”
The biggest challenge that all home-sharing services face — whether online or off — is finding enough homeowners to meet demand. “When we first started matching people in San Francisco a few years ago, no one had heard of it,” said Powell of the San Francisco Home Match program, even though the home-sharing phenomenon has been around nationwide for decades. “But now we’re reaching a tipping point, and homeowners are more willing to give it a try.”
And while the chief goal remains affordable housing, the Home Match crew is always happiest when its work leads to more.
“I tell homeowners that it can turn out to be a wonderful experience to invite someone into your home,” said Ness, director of Home Match Marin. “Even if you’re just doing it initially for rental income or service exchange, sometimes it can turn into a community of friends.”
Learn more about Home Match here.
Photo by Michael Macor / San Francisco Chronicle / Polaris