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  • Writer's pictureWorld Half Full

Pairing seniors and students to ease housing crisis


When Laura Prior began her second master’s degree at the University of Toronto, Canada, last July, she quickly learned her classwork might just be the easy part — at least compared to the uphill battle of finding housing. “It’s very expensive in Toronto and the spaces available for the amount of rent [students] could afford were very small [and] not in great locations,” she says.

It’s a predicament felt by hundreds of thousands of students across Canada. In 2021, Toronto was the third least affordable city on the entire continent. Last year, the average asking rent for a one-bedroom apartment in Toronto was about US$1,200 a month, according to the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation.

Then Prior came across SpacesShared, a home-sharing startup that has worked with a number of colleges and universities to pair-up 500 students in need of affordable housing with seniors in need of companionship. “When I started looking for alternative options, I came across SpacesShared and their program of connecting intergenerational living,” Prior says. “I asked, do you have any housing? And that was it.”

Pairing students with seniors in Toronto is proving to be a win-win solution that can be replicated across Canada and beyond, SpacesShared’s creators say. Their cheapest matched student is paying US$307 a month in rent —  far more affordable than most student housing options in the city.

SpacesShared’s mission is to alleviate two critical social issues: seniors’ desire to age in their own homes while remaining connected to their communities, and students’ need to secure safe and affordable housing close to their campuses.

“Beneath the housing crisis, there are probably millions of empty bedrooms across Canada hidden from the market,” says Rylan Kinnon, CEO and co-founder of SpacesShared. It’s not the usual “senior citizen has extra bedroom” scenario, he says. These are seniors motivated less by the money and more by their desire for companionship. Indeed, researchers estimate one in five Canadians over 65 suffers from chronic loneliness.

Building and maintaining intergenerational relationships helps ease that social isolation not only for older adults, but crucially also for students in Canada, says Jackie Tanner, a gerontological social work expert who co-founded SpacesShared. Homesharing has long been shown to be beneficial, she notes.

SpacesShared operates in four Canadian provinces, most prominently in Ontario, where it has partnered with four tertiary institutions. Its aim is to lessen the accommodation headache for colleges with limited student residencies.

Each student-senior pairing is unique, the company says, but students also receive discounts on rent for carrying out minor household tasks: shovelling snow, watering the flowers, tidying the yard, taking the garbage out. SpacesShared conducts background and identity checks on seniors and students, and it requires proof of enrolment in a college or university.

“Intergenerational homesharing allows for the leveraging of a resource that we have quite a lot of in Canada — empty spare bedrooms,” Tanner says. “The cost for opening up these bedrooms is quite low in comparison to other housing solutions, but the feeling of safety needs to be there for it to work.”

It’s an experiment that has worked well so far for Awofadeju Olajide Simon, a Nigerian student who is studying at Toronto’s Centennial College. He told CBC he bikes, cooks and plays music with the elderly couple with whom he lives. Before living with the seniors, he was “stressing out” about getting a room in expensive Toronto without meeting requirements such as a healthy credit score.

Prior, too, says her arrangement has allowed her to live within her financial means. But it’s also improved her quality of life. Living in a new city, especially such a large one, can be intimidating, she notes. Prior moved from Newfoundland and Labrador, one of Canada’s least populated provinces, to Toronto 2,300 kms away.

The senior woman she’s paired with has lived all her life in Toronto and quickly became “a really great point of contact”, showing Prior how to use the city’s public transport system, where to find emergency service points, and where to shop sustainably.

And Prior appreciates her presence can serve as a benefit, rather than a nuisance, for her elderly housemate-landlord. “I think a lot of people enjoy having someone to come home to at the end of the day,” she adds.

Pairing students with seniors is not a band-aid solution. It’s an important innovation, says Penny Gurstein, co-director of the Housing Research Collaborative at the University of British Columbia.

“We need more affordable and nonprofit housing, and solutions like SpacesShared are ideas that should be tried out,” she says. “Sharing existing homes is certainly something that could be viable and there is a massive amount of empty bedrooms. This wouldn’t necessarily need government intervention, which building housing would.”

Homesharing helps make better use the city’s existing housing stock, says David Hulchanski, a professor of housing and community development at the University of Toronto. The issue is the mismatch between household size and dwelling unit size, which has been recognised for many decades by Canadian policymakers, he notes, pointing to a highly influential study that’s been at the desk of government officials for many years.

“The dwelling size/people per dwelling mismatch is, of course, directly related to the biggest mismatch: the huge income and wealth gap,” says Hulchanski. “The wealthy have too much of everything and those at the bottom too little of life’s essentials, and in some cases with housing, nothing — as in the dehousing processes producing mass homelessness these days.”

So far, Kinnon says, there’ve been no big disputes from its experiment in students living with seniors. The only exception? One student who told SpacesShared her landlord’s cat meowed too loudly at night. “She wanted her money back,” Kinnon recalls. “We refunded her, and she moved out.”

When I started looking for alternative [housing] options, I came across SpacesShared and their program of connecting inter-generational living. I asked, do you have any housing? And that was it.

Laura Prior


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