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Seniors and students become housemates as rents soar

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Catherine Tordoff is an independent 65-year-old from Toronto, who enjoys spending her time volunteering and socializing with her friends.

But Tordoff would appreciate some help — both physically and financially.

“I am completely independent. But I don’t have the greatest of backs, and things like cleaning out the bathtub really hurt my back,” she says.

This is why she opened her home to Lee Chang, a 36-year-old student at the University of Toronto. Instead of finding a roommate on Marketplace or Craigslist, Chang matched with Tordoff through Canada HomeShare, a program that partners students seeking affordable rent with seniors who have an extra room and need additional support.

“She did way more than I asked,” said Tordoff. “It was such a positive experience that I would like to continue it.”

With students facing rising rents and seniors seeking ways to age in place, this seemingly unlikely pairing is becoming more and more common.

‘Big financial incentive’

Chang lived with Tordoff from November 2019 to April 2022, paying $500 a month for a room in a city where rent continues to increase. A one-bedroom unit in Toronto averaged $2,269 in July 2022, marking a 20.2 per cent increase in comparison to last year, the Toronto Regional Real Estate Board shows.

Some university residences in Canada are also suffering from a backlog, where they are unable to accommodate all the students seeking on-campus housing.

“There is a big financial incentive for students joining this program,” says Chang, who recently matched with a new housemate in order to be closer to campus.

“In exchange for low rent, I offer to help with light cleaning tasks and whatever is important to my housemate,” Chang said.

“In my current living situation, I mostly support myself by washing dishes since my housemate has arthritis.”

Students and seniors get to do more with saving

The average rent through Canada HomeShare is $400 to $600. Students and seniors apply throughout the year, to be matched, following a police check.

After starting as a pilot funded by the City of Toronto in 2018, the program has allowed hundreds of students to save money and find affordable housing. It has also helped seniors feel less lonely and isolated.

Jackie Tanner is a national manager for Canada HomeShare — and a social worker who oversees six other social workers — matching students with seniors. Through this, she’s seen the economic benefits seniors are reaping when they are able to save up to buy adaptive technology. This includes devices such as screen readers or magnification applications that help seniors — especially those with disabilities — function more independently.

“So I happen to have an interest in adaptive technology,” says Tanner. “So we research things together and they look at what they might need for the future and make a financial plan based on the rent that they’re getting.”

The program has huge financial benefits for students as well.

“One of my students actually paid for his master’s with the money that he saved,” said Tanner.

Expanding to Edmonton and Fredericton

The program is currently serving five communities — Toronto, Peterborough, Peel, Metro Vancouver, and Kingston —- with Edmonton launching Sep. 6 and Fredericton soon after. Plans are also in place to add Winnipeg.

In 2022, Canada HomeShare officially partnered with HelpAge Canada, a registered national charity, which is helping to expand its reach.

“From the pilot program, we garnered a lot of interest, not only in the city of Toronto itself, but we started to receive a lot of requests from cities and communities from across the country. Actually, not even just in Canada, but in North America and Europe as well,” says Raza M. Mirza, director of national partnerships and knowledge mobilization at HelpAge Canada, and assistant professor at the University of Toronto.

Local communities are behind the expansion

For Mirza, local communities lobbying for home sharing programs are signalling a need for this arrangement. Councillors in Edmonton and groups in Fredericton are proponents of bringing programs like this to their communities.

“It’s local community agencies we are seeing who want to bring home sharing program like this,” adds Mirza. Concerns around housing affordability for seniors, and aging populations across Canada, are driving conversations around communal living.

A 2017 study by the Canadian Centre for Economic Analysis found that there were five million empty bedrooms in Ontario. CANCEA also estimated that there were 800,000 empty bedrooms across Vancouver. Unlocking these living spaces can be an easy way to increase affordable housing, and allow seniors to remain in their homes.

After all, it isn’t just about cutting costs but helping seniors.

Tordoff shared the haunting story of a “very independent” man in his 80s, who died of a stroke alone and was found days later on the floor.

“It’s probably good to have someone around,” she said.

This article provides information only and should not be construed as advice. It is provided without warranty of any kind.