woman in dark blue dress standing beside young woman in white blouse and blue jeans before garden

Photography By Nicholas Jones

Why seniors and students make the best roomies

How the Toronto Homeshare Pilot Project is helping the GTA cope with its housing crisis

When Theresa Bielawski learned about the Toronto Homeshare Pilot Project in July 2018, her interest was immediately piqued. The 68-year-old has lived in her three-bedroom house for 17 years, but has been struggling lately with the upkeep. “I had a knee replacement a year ago,” she says. “And there are many things I can’t do to maintain my home.”

In fact, any task that involves climbing or bending is hard for the retired geriatric-care manager. But she doesn’t want to sell. She loves her Queen West neighbourhood. Her corner lot. Her fabulous garden. So the pilot project, which matches seniors who have extra space in their homes with university students in need of a room, sounded like a perfect solution.

What appealed most to Bielawski was that the students pay a reduced rent in exchange for helping around the house several hours a week. “I’ve had international grad students in days past and it was a great experience, so it was time for me to broaden my perspective in terms of how to manage here,” she says. (The project also taps into a wealth of empty rooms: According to a 2017 report by the Canadian Centre for Economic Analysis, three-quarters of Ontarians 65 and older are “over-housed,” meaning they have more bedrooms than they need—and in Toronto alone, there are 2 million empty bedrooms.)

On older woman and younger woman sitting in chairs in a living room

Intergenerational home sharing is also a tested model. Programs have existed around the world for decades in cities like New York, Paris and London—there’s even an app to connect seniors and students in Boston. Across Canada, Red Deer, Hamilton, Gatineau and St. John’s all have similar programs.

To learn more, Bielawski attended an information session at City Hall. Organizers explained they conduct background checks and coordinate matches based on applicants’ goals and expectations. Social workers would be on hand every step of the way. Bielawski was in. She filled out an eight-page questionnaire, and it wasn’t long before she met her new roommate: Cristiana Kooy, a first-year mathematical sciences student at the University of Toronto.

The pair is one of 10 taking part in the four-month, provincially funded pilot, which addresses two critical needs in the city: supporting seniors wishing to remain in their homes, and providing students with a place to live that won’t obliterate their budget.

It’s no secret that the housing crisis has hit post-secondary students hard. With Toronto’s vacancy rate hovering around one per cent, a 16-year low, finding any available rental unit is a challenge. Finding an affordable one? Even less likely.

Toronto has the highest rents in the country, according to the apartment search engine PadMapper. In September 2018, the average one-bedroom cost $2,200 per month—nearly a thousand dollars more than other university towns like Montreal, Ottawa and Kingston.

And there’s no relief in sight. Usually a correction in the market lowers prices every seven years, but Toronto’s housing has been on the upswing for about 20. “The economy has been so strong,” explains Dr. Frank Clayton, a senior researcher at Ryerson University’s Centre for Urban Research and Land Development. “We haven’t had a downturn other than a shallow, short-lived one in 2008 and 2009 when the American housing market collapsed. Ours didn’t.”

Clayton has heard anecdotal stories of how students are doubling and tripling up in apartments that aren’t necessarily safe, living far from school or simply not moving out of their parents’ houses. As a result, many commute at least an hour to and from class each day.

To investigate student housing and potential solutions, including the Homeshare Pilot, Ryerson, OCAD, York and the University of Toronto have teamed up for a two-year initiative called StudentDwellTO. The researchers are starting with 26 focus groups. “We want to know how the affordability crisis is impacting students in terms of their GPA, their involvement with the school and the amount of time they spend on campus,” says Dr. Shelagh McCartney, Ryerson’s lead on the project.

Older woman and younger woman standing in front of tree showing autumn colours

As for Kooy, she was so anxious about Toronto’s high rental costs that she was prepared to commute from her hometown of Barrie until she found a place she could afford. But the 20-year-old was immensely relieved when she attended a university housing fair in July and learned about the Homeshare Pilot.

And after just a couple of weeks of living together, Kooy and Bielawski couldn’t be happier. Kooy has already been cleaning the bathroom and weeding the garden. Besides the affordable rent, she says she’s thankful for Bielawski’s tips and advice, not to mention the occasional home-cooked dinner as she settles into her new community and learns to navigate the city. “It’s hard for me not to be mom,” says Bielawski, laughing. “It’s part of what I need to be aware of. I’m not here to look after her, but you can’t help it. Some things just slip out.”

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