By Karen Ann Cullotta
Home-sharing pro has made more than 600 matches for 1,200 suburban homeowners seeking quality roommates.
Skokie resident Jean Mulqueen says she never imagined she would be a widow at age 45, scrambling to make ends meet and attempting to pay a monthly mortgage with her income as a medical billing clerk.
Determined to avoid foreclosure on the house she purchased after her husband’s death, she reached out to the Winnetka-based Open Communities, a nonprofit organization that serves as a matchmaker for folks like Mulqueen who are interested in pursuing an affordable housing program known as home-sharing.
“Before I found home-sharing, I had placed an ad for a roommate on Craigslist, but I was very choosy and didn’t know what to expect,” said Mulqueen, a 55-year-old mother of two and grandmother of four who has found roommates via the Open Communities’ home-sharing program since 2011.
While renting out a spare room has long been a method for cash-strapped homeowners looking to earn extra income, home-sharing does not operate like the boarding houses of years past, which are now prohibited in most towns due to local zoning ordinances.
Local laws often do not allow having more than two non-related adults renting space in a residence, said Jackie Grossmann, home-sharing coordinator for Open Communities.
Instead, Grossmann said she is not unlike a “professional matchmaker,” helping homeowners who are facing financial hardships due to a death, divorce, disability or unemployment remain in their homes. The homeowners rent rooms to pre-screened candidates who pay between $450 and $600 a month, a price that includes utilities.
Grossmann said since she began coordinating the home-sharing program in 1997, she has made more than 600 matches for roughly 1,200 clients living in homes on the North Shore as well as in several other Chicago suburbs, including Evanston, Niles, Glenview and Mount Prospect.
It’s an arrangement Mulqueen said has worked well for her.
“You do not expect to have good relationships with them, but my roommates even get along with my grandchildren. … One roommate has sketched a picture of my granddaughter and plays the guitar for her,” Mulqueen said.
The free program, which is a member of the National Shared Housing Resource Center, does not conduct credit or criminal background checks, Grossmann said, but relies on personal references and interviews before making placements for clients, who range in age from 18 to their 80s.
Would-be renters also are required to show proof that they earn at least $1,000 a month, Grossmann said.
On a recent morning, Mulqueen served tea to a visitor in the living room of her Skokie home, where she pointed out the details of a home-sharing contract she has with a 19-year-old renter, Ona Oliver, a college student from Vermont who attends the nearby Chicago School of Violin Making.
“I am a private person and I respect my roommates’ privacy at the same time, and so many good things have come about from home-sharing,” she added.
Among Mulqueen’s rental criteria on the contract is a clause that prohibits tenants from smoking and from having non-family members stay overnight.
The contract includes the use of a washer and dryer, which are available in a laundry room off the kitchen, for $1 a load, she said.
Both of the two renters currently in Mulqueen’s home have the use of a private bedroom, a communal bathroom and shared spaces in the living room, dining room and kitchen. The renters she houses are responsible for buying their own groceries as well as for their own meal preparation and clean-up.
Oliver, 19, said renting from Mulqueen for the past year has been an affordable and nurturing solution to finding housing that is just a bike-ride away from her studies at the Skokie violin making school.
“This was a great transitional space for me and had all the comforts that made it feel like home,” said Oliver, who now is looking forward to renting another apartment in Rogers Park with two new roommates, both of whom are friends and fellow students.
“My mom and I looked first for roommates for me online, and everything just looked so sketchy, and I didn’t know what I was getting myself into,” Oliver said. “Jean and her family were so nice, and once I move out, I’m planning on going back to visit.”
For details on the Open Communities home-sharing program, call Grossmann at 847-501-5760 or email her at firstname.lastname@example.org
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