Snezhanka Stefanova was in a serious bind before she met Jeanne Falla.
The 20-year-old would soon be without a home. Her parents planned to move back to their native Bulgaria, but the recent high school graduate had lived in Contra Costa County most of her life. She wanted to start college and didn’t want to leave her friends.
“In order for me to stay here, I had to figure out how I’m going to live on my own,” said Stefanova, now 21, who was juggling two part-time jobs at the time.
Enter 64-year-old Falla, a semi-retired former federal worker who was looking to rent out a room in her Walnut Creek townhouse. The two women were introduced through the nonprofit Home Match Contra Costa, talked and decided they could be compatible roommates, despite the gap in age and life experience.
That’s the purpose of Home Match: to connect seniors, who are seeking additional income and companionship, with local workers, students and others in need of affordable housing in the astronomically expensive Bay Area.
“I think the whole idea of having a roommate is great,” said Falla, who said the $1,000 rent Stefanova pays each month has helped “a lot.”
For some seniors, taking in a roommate is the only way they can afford to stay in their homes, said Luke Barnesmoore, strategy director for Home Match, which has offices in Contra Costa, Alameda, Marin and San Francisco counties.
There are online sites where people can search for roommates, but Stefanova and Falla thought Home Match represented an option that was more “safe.” The free service puts considerable work into vetting clients, with criminal background checks, home visits, detailed questionnaires and interviews that make introductions based on people’s personalities, communication styles and lifestyle preferences.
Home Match began in the Bay Area in 2012 in Marin before expanding to the other counties. It is an initiative of Front Porch, a nonprofit that runs more than 50 affordable and market-rate senior housing communities in California and other states.
Between 2015 and 2023, Home Match facilitated 371 matches across the four Bay Area counties, with most tenants signing month-to-month leases. The organization is seeking $5,000 from the East Bay Times’ Share the Spirit Holiday campaign, which highlights organizations that help support vulnerable communities and individuals. The funds will help arrange 15 home matches for 30 people.
The average age of Home Match home providers is 72. About a quarter have at least one disability, or they have mobility issues or fall risks that make it difficult for them to live alone, Barnesmoore said. In such cases, a home provider might opt for “a task exchange,” where the roommate helps with household chores or errands in exchange for reduced rent.
“This can address the problems of social isolation, allowing home providers to age in place,” Barnesmoore said.
The average age of home seekers is 53, and they include older adults and people with disabilities living on fixed incomes, as well as teachers, restaurant workers, people who work minimum-wage jobs and students.
Before Falla signed up with Home Match, her friends were wary of her getting a roommate. But Falla persisted, in part because she thought it would be “a good thing to do for the community.” She also appreciated the thoroughness of the questionnaire.
It asked obvious questions: smoker or not, does the roommate need their own bathroom, are pets OK? But it also tried to surface issues that can more accurately determine whether two people are compatible: How do they feel about sharing food or kitchen utensils or playing music? Are certain rooms off limits? Is it OK to have overnight guests? What about cleaning or expectations about having meals together? What is the temperature usually kept at in the house?
Falla realized that cleanliness was very important to her; she couldn’t abide a roommate who left dishes in the sink. But Stevanova only being 20? That wasn’t an issue, as she told the young woman when she called last December about meeting.
“I was open,” Falla said. “There are benefits to intergenerational living.”
For her part, Stefanova, who has since turned 21, needed a roommate who wouldn’t monitor her comings and goings, as her parents had done. She also liked Falla’s colorful, cozy decor, including the smiley-face pillow propped on a living room arm chair.
“It gave me good vibes,” Stefanova said.
Stefanova was especially excited about moving into Falla’s unfurnished second bedroom, which she could decorate herself. “I never grew up having the room I wanted,” she said. After they signed their “Living Together Agreement” in mid-January, Falla hosted Stefanova’s parents for dinner before they returned to Bulgaria, which helped them “feel better.”
Both women appreciated that Home Match offers mediation services, if conflicts arise, which hasn’t happened in their case. Barnesmoore said only about 5% of their matches since April 2022 have ended with the two parties realizing they were not a good fit.
Falla and Stefanova haven’t become BFFs who cook meals and watch TV together. But they get along as they lead independent lives and can see the arrangement continuing. Logan Robertson, associate director for Home Match Contra Costa, said some clients end up becoming “like family.”
Sometimes, Stefanova, who works at a car rental agency, talks to Falla about her job and likes hearing her insights.
“It’s nice having someone with more experience to talk to,” she said.
“I’m just trying to be helpful,” Falla said.
Share the Spirit
The Share the Spirit holiday campaign, sponsored by the Bay Area News Group, provides relief, hope and opportunities for East Bay residents by helping raise money for nonprofit programs in Alameda and Contra Costa counties.
How to help
Donations will help Home Match stabilize the housing situation for 30 or more individuals in Contra Costa and Alameda counties by establishing 15 new compatible matches. Goal: $5,000
How to give
Go to www.sharethespiriteastbay.org/donate or print and mail in the coupon.