Gwen Roberts: A Life in Home-Sharing…the Old Fashioned Way

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Gwen Roberts sharing stories of her 35 years renting out rooms in her Hancock Park home.

As most of us are well aware, home-sharing via short-term rentals is a hot topic in Los Angeles at the moment.  And one argument in favor of the trend that we’ve heard over and over is that renting rooms is nothing new, and it’s a great way for older homeowners, or those who could use some extra income, to continue to maintain their homes and lifestyles in the face of rising costs or changing life circumstances.

What we don’t often hear, however, is that while home-sharing itself is as old as the hills (according to dictionary.com, the term “lodger” has been around since the 1300s and has been used to describe a person who rents rooms in another person’s house since at least the 1500s), the way in which people most often share their homes has definitely changed.  In the past, people who rented out rooms typically did so by the month, several months or year – actually inviting someone in to share the space as their own home for a contracted period of time.  The renters became roommates, housemates, tenants or, yes, “lodgers”…instead of overnight, daily or weekly “guests.” And “hosts” were landlords and also roommates in such arrangements.

In reporting stories on the short-term rental phenomenon, the Buzz has often asked short-term rental hosts why they enjoy sharing their homes…and most cite the extra income and ways their lives are enriched by getting to know their guests.  When we ask, however, if they wouldn’t receive those same benefits with more traditional styles of longer-occupancy home shares, the hosts we’ve spoken to say no – they can make more money via daily vs. monthly rentals, and while they enjoy their short-term guests, they’re not really interested in longer-term relationships and roommates who would be more invested in their personal space.

So we’ve been wondering if there are people who still enjoy renting their homes and sharing their spaces with more traditional, longer-term renters and roommates, and how those people view the new trend toward shorter-term, less intimate forms of home-sharing.  It turns out people who rent rooms in their homes by the month and year do still exist…and even though they might be able to make more money with short-term rentals, at least some of them have no interest in doing so.  Here is one of their stories.

In 1978, Gwen Roberts and her husband, a successful music manager and record executive, bought a six-bedroom, 5,300 square foot house in Hancock Park, intending to settle down with their three boys.  By 1981, however, Roberts found herself a divorced, single mother with some choices to make.  Her first instinct was to sell the house and downsize to something more affordable on her own income as a math teacher.  But when she sat her sons down to tell them they’d be moving, Roberts says, “They threw a fit.”  So Roberts shifted gears and started what she now refers to as an “austerity program.”  The boys tripled-up in one of the six bedrooms, Roberts used another, and she began renting out the other four rooms.  And although she says her sons never fully warmed up to the idea, it turned out that she loved the new lifestyle…so much so that she’s still taking in long-term lodgers 35 years later, long after her sons grew up and moved on to lives and homes of their own.

Roberts says that sharing her home with long-term renters has been “an overwhelmingly positive experience” and that, as a result of the practice, her life has been “much more interesting.”  In fact, she says, it has given her “a much wider world view, and a better understanding of my role as a citizen of the planet and not just Hancock Park.”

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Shakespeare tiles on Roberts’ fireplace.

For the last 35 years, Roberts has found almost all her tenants either by word of mouth or though ads at UCLA’s Community Housing Office. And she says she’s not only very picky about her tenants, but screens them in unusual ways that help her determine whether or not they’ll be compatible additions to the household.  In addition to basic background information, for example, she has them meet her dog, may ask them to comment on details of her house (such as the unique Shakespeare tiles surrounding the living room fireplace), name three of their favorite books, discuss their favorite philosopher or, perhaps, ask them to play chess.  “You can tell a lot about a person by playing chess,” said Roberts, who was once a nationally ranked player.  She might also ask them if they like their name, if the number “42” means anything to them, or ask them to solve a math problem.

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The well-used chess table.

Her interview techniques have apparently worked very well.  Roberts says most of her renters – many of them UCLA graduate students, from many different backgrounds, ethnicities and nationalities – stay for two or three years, until they finish their studies. But some are there even longer, including at least one who stayed for 8 years until she married.  And Roberts says in all the years she’s been renting rooms, she’s had only one problem tenant – someone that the mother of a friend talked her into renting to, about 25 years ago, against her better judgement.

Aside from that one notable exception, however, Roberts says she and her tenants have formed a very special and intentional family-style community.  Also, because of the word-of-mouth connections through which people come to her, the renters have tended to fall into “eras,” in which groups with specific interests or professions seem to congregate at the house for several years at a time, which further enhances the living arrangements.

“My neighbors would have gone crazy,” Roberts said, “if they knew (about) all the eras.”

These specific periods have included what she calls the “rock and roll era,” (mostly musician friends of her now-musician son, with loud and lively jam sessions) and “the poker era” (in which a number of talented players, some of whom lived there and some other friends, a few of whom later turned pro and moved to Las Vegas, congregated every Sunday night for a game dubbed “the Church of Gwen”).  There was also the “era of martial artists,” “the chess era,” and currently, “the era of scientists.”  (Her current tenants include a pre-med student, two post-doctoral candidates (one in medicine and one in physics), and a language student, as well as one (non-scientist) photographer and a well-known graffiti artist.)

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Mural painted on a wall of the tennis court at Roberts’ home by the graffiti artist currently in residence.

Roberts also counts a number of very recognizable names among her former occupants.  They include chess player Victor Korchnoi, champion kickboxer Graciela Casillas, martial artist William Cheung, writer G. Gordon Liddy and even, for a short time, evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins.

Roberts says that in addition to careful screening, another reason for her long-term home-sharing success is that she does have a number of very clear, well-established rules for the household.  She gives out a two-page FAQ to all of her renters, and also incorporates strict policies in her lease agreements.  The rules include no on-site use of marijuana or other controlled substances, a note that destruction of household property will not be tolerated, and policies for the shared kitchen, which Roberts says are best described with something akin to “a long German word:  prepareeatwashdryputaway.”  She also requires tenants to do weekly “KP” duty, which includes daily “skating” of the kitchen floor to keep it free of dust and debris.  And, finally, to keep utility bills low, she advises everyone to use the backyard clothesline instead of the dryer – “We’re full of sunshine here,” she tells them.

Roberts is fully aware of current trends away from long-term rentals, and toward short-term styles of home-sharing, but says she’s never considered short-term rentals, even though the money might be better.  “I like to know and share the lives of people I live with,” she says. “We’re not ships passing in the night.  We become a family of sorts.”

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Sorting through books and memories.

While Roberts is still loving her home-sharing lifestyle, however, a number of health issues in the past year have convinced her that it is finally – and sadly, for her – time to sell her home.  The house is currently on the market, and as Roberts has begun the process of sorting through a lifetime of memories and possessions, she has also been sharing that journey on her Facebook page, where there has been – in response – an outpouring of memories, support, love and gratitude from her legions of former housemates.

Roberts says the comments she has received from people with whom she has lived “make me feel surrounded by love…like I’m part of a big family” even as she prepares to leave the house they once shared.  At this point, Roberts says she doesn’t know yet where she’ll end up after the house sells…but she definitely would consider someday being a renter in another home and intentional community like the one she has maintained for the last 35 years.

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About Elizabeth Fuller

Elizabeth Fuller was born and raised in Minneapolis, MN but has lived in LA since 1991 - first in the Sycamore Square neighborhood, and since 2012 in West Adams Heights/Sugar Hill. She was long-time board member of the Sycamore Square Neighborhood Association, currently serves on the board of the West Adams Heights/Sugar Hill Neighborhood Association, spent 10 years with the Greater Wilshire Neighborhood Council, volunteers at Wilshire Crest Elementary School, and is the co-owner/publisher of the Buzz.

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