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With rentals scarce, a program that houses students with seniors is growing fast

Canada HomeShare plans to expand into Fredericton and Winnipeg this year.

BY SPARROW MCGOWAN | SEP 13 2022

As rental prices rise in many Canadian cities, students are finding it more difficult to secure affordable housing. One program is offering an alternative that is not only easier on student wallets, but also provides support to older adults.

Canada HomeShare is an intergenerational housing initiative that matches students in need of housing with older adults with extra space in their homes. Students pay between $400 and $600 in rent per month, while also providing five to seven hours of assistance around the house or companionship. The program operates in Toronto and neighbouring Peel Region, Kingston, Ont., Vancouver, Peterborough, Ont. and, most recently, Edmonton.

Jordana Knelsen (whose pronouns are they/them) is in second year at York University and moved from Alberta to Toronto to attend classes in person for the first time this fall. While they said they also explored roommate search programs and even considered living in a van in a worst-case scenario, Canada HomeShare was their first choice. “I spoke with the social workers and read through the website, and it just seems like a really great setup,” they said.

Following an application and initial interview, Mx. Knelsen received an email with a potential match: Shelagh Larkin, who had read about the program in a magazine article a few years ago. “I thought, wouldn’t that be a nice idea, a little bit of income, someone in the house, and it’s just a way to help out.”

A short history

The Canada HomeShare program started in 2018 as the Toronto HomeShare Pilot Project, a City of Toronto initiative run by the National Initiative for the Care of the Elderly. Raza Mirza was a key organizer of the pilot project. He’s the director of national partnerships and knowledge mobilization at HelpAge Canada, a registered national charity that aims to improve the lives of older adults and their communities through community-based initiatives, and lead for Canada HomeShare. Dr. Mirza said the pilot included only 10 matches, but they had more applications than they were able to address. They also started to hear from other interested communities. Then COVID-19 hit.

“The pandemic, although it was extremely difficult, did give us two opportunities to learn,” said Jackie Tanner, national manager and clinical lead for Canada HomeShare. “One, about the value of preventing social isolation” and “that we can do things virtually to provide the program wider,” she said.

They were able to begin piloting the program outside Toronto last year and in 2022, they became part of HelpAge Canada.

As students return to campus this fall, Canada HomeShare is planning for about 100 matches in the Toronto area and 10 to 15 in the other locations. “We wanted to study our process before scaling up and out farther,” said Ms. Tanner. That process includes an application, personal reference check, enhanced criminal background check and an interview with a social worker. Once complete, the matching process begins. To find a match, considerations include location, the requested tasks from the home provider, allergies and common interests. The student and homeowner then meet to assess whether or not they feel it would be a fit. If successful, an agreement is worked out in collaboration with a social worker.

That detailed process was a big factor in Ms. Larkin’s decision to participate in the program. “They do a lot of the work in terms of checking, making sure that it’s a good fit. Given that this would be my first venture out, it’s a bit of a safety net in terms of knowing that I can sort of stand behind them and not have to go and do it on my own,” she said.

Housing crisis continues

Mike Moffatt, senior director of policy and innovation at the Smart Prosperity Institute and an assistant professor in Western University’s Ivey Business School, said he’s not surprised that people are looking at novel approaches to find housing. “We’re seeing, sort of across Canada but particularly in the Greater Toronto Area, increasing rents as you have more students wanting to rent places and you’ve got people who normally wouldn’t be buying homes not buying homes,” said Dr. Moffat. He’s not optimistic about future prospects, either. “I do think it’s going to get worse, particularly in the medium- to long-run.”

It also makes sense for seniors, said Dr. Moffat. “There are a lot of seniors who … would be the first to admit that they’re living in a larger space. There might be these creative opportunities where they can rent out a room and earn a little bit more income,” he said. He noted that downsizing isn’t necessarily an option for many — smaller homes simply aren’t available and news about long-term care facilities during the pandemic has made many wary of them.

We, as a culture, need to start “looking at our homes and our communities and saying ‘how can we leverage the opportunities that are here?’” said Dr. Mirza. The Canada HomeShare program is designed to be scaled, he said. “We are going to continue to conduct research and evaluation around it so that we can refine our processes and really build out a program that is driven by evidence – and continue to meet the needs appropriately of the communities that we aim to serve.” Those communities will expand during the 2022-2023 academic year, with plans to launch in Fredericton and Winnipeg.

Meanwhile, for those like Mx. Knelsen who are already participating in the program, the stress of not knowing where they would live is eased. “Getting set up with Shelagh and meeting her and getting to know her has been really great,” they said. “And my family and friends are super excited because me and Sheila are a lot alike. I think it’s going to be a really great situation.”

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