This intriguing finding raises the question: Can seniors rent out their spare bedrooms to stave off low income in old age? It’s an age-old question, actually. For centuries, widows and other senior ladies (as they were called) took in boarders to make ends meet. As things got better and Social Security grew, this 18th and 19th century practice faded. Could boarding come back now to help elders who own extra bedrooms and need cash, and the many renters out there needing beds? The answer is yes, at least on paper.
As of 2021, there were an estimated 137 million spare bedrooms and more than 24 million people needing a room — that’s 113 million excess bedrooms that could provide cash-strapped seniors with income and renters in need with a home. The share of homes with four or more bedrooms has nearly doubled from 13 percent to 24 percent since 1970. Interestingly, those most likely to have a spare bedroom are lower income — 56 percent of households earning less than $50,000 annually have at least one spare bedroom — and likely seniors.
One vexing paradox in the American economy is that while households shrunk, house sizes grew. As a result, in 2023, 62% of all homes have at least one spare bedroom – up from 49% in 1970, according to Salviati’s report. One key reason for the extra bedrooms is that seniors are stuck in their suburban 3BR/2baths because of a shortage of apartments and condos for them to downsize in.
Homes occupied by seniors with two or more spare bedrooms have more than tripled since 1970.
More Solo Homeowners, More Solo Seniors
In a related paradox, bedroom demand is rising even while bedroom supply is up. Can this market gap be made up by another market? Will seniors take in boarders? Probably not.
In the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries in the U.S., taking in borders was seen as a genial and legitimate activity for families, widows, and widowers. Imagine – cities and towns would pay households to take in people without shelter. Only 3.7% of people lived by themselves when the first census was taken in 1790. In the 2020 census 27.6% U.S. households were one-person households, up from just 7.7% in the 1970s.
It’s possible that many elders are renting their spare rooms to a divorced woman or a college student. But even rooms on Airbnb have ceased to be shared living quarters and more like short-term hotel experiences. No cities or towns I know of are paying people to take in others who need a bedroom.
For whatever reason — safety concerns or plain-old decorum – people who were once middle class who own too much house are unlikely to take in strangers as boarders for money. Apart from some Airbnb’ing to meet bills, the idea of sharing a kitchen and bathroom for the money is not part of the modern middle-class expectation.
Too bad, because taking in boarders would solve a market problem and help both struggling seniors and renters. Unfortunately, markets don’t have solutions to everything, including how to match bedrooms with people who need a room, and how to get seniors the money they need. Collective solutions like having the government or universities pay seniors to take in boarders, investing in more affordable housing, and subsidizing house-to-duplex conversions could make a real dent in this housing crisis caused by mismatch.