A combination of low vacancy rates and high rental prices is making affordable student housing increasingly hard to find in some Canadian cities. At the same time, many seniors could use some extra financial support and have room to spare. A number of new programs are looking to address both challenges simultaneously.
“If you look at housing in the big cities, the vacancy rates are at about one percent. You can have a one-bedroom condo that’s renting for $1,600 to $2,000 and about 28 to 30 people who are bidding on it … and that’s still way more than what most people can afford to pay,” says Raza Mirza, a senior research associate at the University of Toronto’s Factor-Inwentash Faculty of Social Work.
Dr. Mirza was also a key organizer of the Toronto HomeShare Pilot Project, a City of Toronto initiative funded in part by the Ontario Ministry of Seniors Affairs and implemented by the National Initiative for the Care of the Elderly, in collaboration with community partners. The project ran from September 2018 to January 2019 and matched students looking for housing with seniors who had an extra room, often referred to as home-sharing or intergenerational co-housing. Dr. Mirza says the project aimed to not only support older adults in monetizing their spare bedroom, but to also “increase social inclusion, opportunities for community engagement and intergenerational engagement.”
Students who participated in the project contributed things like housework, meal sharing and companionship for between five and seven hours a week. In exchange, the homeowner charged a reduced rent, typically between $400 and $600. Dr. Mirza says that the market rate for similar accommodations are between $1,100 and $1,200.
More than 80 students and between 20 and 30 older adults expressed interest in the program, says Dr. Mirza. In the end, they matched 12 older adults and 12 students, and feedback was positive. “We did a full exit evaluation and in-depth qualitative interviews with every single participant,” he says. “Almost all of them said this has been a great program and we would love to see this continuing.” Toronto City Council agreed. They recently approved funding of up to $120,000 to continue the project.
But it’s not just big cities that are turning to intergenerational co-housing. Adam Weaver is a community development coordinator at The Ville Cooperative community centre in Fredericton. He says they are looking at co-housing as a solution not only to the issue of affordable student housing but also to the “growing issue of loneliness and isolation amongst senior populations in Fredericton.”
He also sees students benefiting more than just financially. “For the student, who may or may not have a lot of local knowledge of the area, the senior could act as an ambassador, to maybe show them different aspects of the city, for example.” He says they plan to aim for 10 matches in the first year and will reach out to international students in particular.
Soumeya Abed, as an international student 10 years ago, lived in intergenerational co-housing in France. When she later moved to Hamilton, Ontario for a postdoctoral research position at McMaster University, she says she was disheartened by the lack of suitable housing. “I was looking for affordable housing close to campus and I was just shocked at how limited my options were,” she says. “And I was surprised to see [intergenerational co-housing] didn’t exist in Hamilton and other Canadian cities.”
Through conversations with friends, Dr. Abed decided to bring the concept to McMaster, and launched Symbiosis in 2017 with the support of a small grant from the school of graduate studies. Much like the other programs, Symbiosis connects students looking for low-cost housing with seniors who have a spare room. One of their key challenges was hesitancy on the part of seniors to participate. “Two years ago, when we started Symbiosis, not many people understood what it was,” says Dr. Abed. “Now, I feel that there is increased awareness about it.”
They made three matches in their first year, deciding “to only make matches if they would work,” says Dr. Abed. She says that intergenerational co-housing has “ups and downs,” as do most relationships. “It’s not for everyone.”
Dr. Mirza says sustainability can also be a challenge. For the Toronto HomeShare project, the organizers decided to employ a social worker to facilitate the process and address any challenges that arose. They also designed the project with scalability and replicability in mind. He says they looked for institutions or organizations common to most communities or large cities that could replicate their model. The university setting proved ideal. “It’s a good gateway for students to enter into the program. The other piece is that usually, when there is a code of conduct, the university also enforces it. That gives another layer of security and safety not only to the students but to the older adults.”
Dr. Mirza says he would like to expand the program to universities across the country, in particular those in Calgary, Winnipeg, Halifax, Vancouver and Montreal. “We see a lot of real positives in this, not only for the students, but for the older adults. And it helps address a lot of the housing issues that both these groups face – and also addresses problems related to intergenerational engagement and ageism,” he says.