After living with more than a dozen different roommates in his young life, most of them strangers, Dean Kaplan is well-versed in the particulars of those first meetings — the short introductions, the perfunctory pleasantries, and then the quick getting on with life.
“After you move enough times,” said the 25-year-old Baltimore native, there is “definitely a high degree of nonchalance.”
In late August, though, as he stood on the front porch of a sizable multistory house in Cambridge ready to meet his newest roommate, he found himself uncharacteristically nervous and eager to make a good first impression.
Of all the roommates he’d had in the previous few years, Sarah Heintz would be the first septuagenarian.
In fact, Kaplan, a student at Harvard’s Graduate School of Education, and Heintz, a 77-year-old whose grown daughter now lives across town, are part of an experiment in connecting young people in need of cheap rent with older residents who wouldn’t mind a little extra companionship and an occasional hand around the house.
The notion is driven by the Boston area’s housing crisis, which has propelled rents through the stratosphere and made living space so scarce that Boston Mayor Martin J. Walsh last month increased his goal for building new housing in the city by 2030, from 53,000 to 69,000 units.
At the same time, according to one 2017 survey, some 90,000 spare bedrooms are going unused in the homes of aging empty-nesters.
That got a pair of MIT urban-planning graduate students thinking: Those rooms might be valuable to young people, especially students. And they might also provide a way for older people, who increasingly are living alone, to stay in their homes as they age.
“They get helped around the house, doing everyday sorts of things — walking the dogs, going grocery shopping, technology tutoring, and feeling that they can help a young person get started in their life,” said one of the students, Noelle Marcus.
To match these odd couples, Marcus and classmate Rachel Goor last year launched a startup called Nesterly, which works roughly on the principles of a dating app, with searchable online profiles and features that help work out details of a lease.
Marcus and Goor partnered with the city to try out the idea on a handful of people, and after some tweaks, they are now offering it more broadly, which is how Heintz and Kaplan found one another this summer.
They talked on the phone several times and seemed to hit it off. But, as anyone who’s been on a bad date knows, meeting in person is a whole other ball of wax.
That day in August when Kaplan showed up on Heintz’s porch, he came with his mother and some luggage stuffed with clothes. Heintz invited them in and gave them a tour.
At first glance, they would seem an unlikely pairing. He has a man-bun, a nose ring, and a strict workout schedule. She is pleasant and gray-haired, a grandmother who regularly spends time working at her booth at the Cambridge Antique Market.
But as Heintz led Kaplan and his mother through the house, his nerves started to ease.
“The walls are covered in books,” Kaplan said later. “And that made me feel at home immediately.”
It didn’t take long, in the subsequent days and weeks, to discover they get along quite nicely. They bonded over a shared love of politics — both volunteered for Elizabeth Warren’s campaign — and an affinity for cooking.
Under the terms of their lease agreement, rent is $800 a month (about half the cost of apartments Kaplan had been looking at before the arrangement with Heintz), knocked down to $700 if he devotes eight hours each month to helping Heintz with a range of chores. But even without that incentive, they said, they’ve discovered they like doing favors for one another. He helps in the garden and gives her a hand logging into her e-mail account; she offers him rides to Market Basket and recently taught him the proper way to gut a fish.
Each weekend, they plan some kind of event — dinner with neighbors, afternoons in the garden —
and he has taken to picking her brain on a variety of topics, from botany to the year she spent at a French cooking school in the ’70s.
“It’s the type of repository of knowledge that you can’t Google,” Kaplan said.
And as they’ve gotten to know each other better, they’ve emerged as confidantes. She told him about people from her past. Another time, when Kaplan mentioned being close with a local friend’s grandfather, he noticed Heintz quickly perk up.
“She was like, ‘Oh, a grandfather?’ ” Kaplan said. “Clearly, her interest was piqued.”
True, it has required some slight lifestyle adjustments on both their parts; Kaplan has mostly written off the idea of dating over the next nine months — he’d be uncomfortable, he said, bringing a guest back to Heintz’s home — while Heintz has been forced to reconsider some of her own habits.
“I can’t go around naked now,” she deadpanned.
But for the most part, it’s been the kind of match that Nesterly’s founders had hoped for.
Whether such arrangements can work on a broader scale still remains to be seen, though the concept is attracting attention. Following the completion of last year’s pilot program, the city of Boston praised it as a viable source of both affordable housing and social connectedness for elderly residents, and housing experts nationally have lauded the company’s mission; according to Marcus, Nesterly has also been getting inquiries about launching in other cities.
For their part, Kaplan and Heintz seem happy to have found one another. Sitting on the patio having breakfast together one recent morning, the two quickly fell into an easy back-and-forth, joking and chiding each other like a pair of longtime friends.
“It’s so nice out here,” Kaplan said at one point, as a cool breeze sent leaves rustling.
“This won’t last,” Heintz quipped. “Soon you’ll be shoveling.”