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brampton postcard

Hardeep Singh looks at a five-bedroom home for sale with his real estate agent Tarun Jassi, and his son Navdip Kabli in Brampton, Ontario on Sunday, May 26, 2013. Singh lives in a six person multi-generational home.Michelle Siu/The Globe and Mail

This is part of a series on how the diverse and growing city of Brampton, Ont., provides lessons for Canada's future.

When I pull up to the grey-brick, two-storey on Rollingwood Drive near Sheridan College in Brampton, there's nothing about its exterior that hints at the large cast of characters that inhabits the space.

I'm seeing the house during what is probably one of its rare, still moments. No kiddie spats, no kitchen commotion, no electronic chatter beaming through the TV. All occupants have been shooed out by the agent listing this property for sale. I spot a few stragglers sneaking out through the side entrance of the 3,000-square-foot house while I'm chatting with the agent, but it's just the last three of the 11 who live here.

Yup, 11. That's four families, three generations in one house. To be more specific: two brothers, their mother, their wives and collective group of three children. They occupy the main floor and five bedrooms on the second floor of the house. Down in the basement is a cousin, his wife and their child.

It's an extreme example, but this is becoming the norm in Brampton. Out here, one in 10 households is a multifamily one, according to Statistics Canada data released last fall.

When I scan the MLS listings for houses in Brampton, most boast at least 2,500 square feet of living space. Many have four or five bedrooms and just as many bathrooms. If the basements are finished with a separate entrance, that's trumpeted. Some are explicitly labelled as "multifamily homes."

For many immigrant families, multigenerational living is common; even after you settle down and have children, you live with your parents.

The tradition has cultural roots, but for newcomers, who work odd hours in low-paying jobs, it's also an economic necessity. One homeowner I spoke to in Brampton said having his parents around was essential to running the household. It meant never having to worry about childcare or meal preparation on hectic evenings. As South Asian immigration picked up in the nineties in Brampton, so did the demand for houses that could accommodate large broods.

At this house on Rollingwood Drive, the second floor has five large bedrooms and three bathrooms. The living room is packed with upholstered seating for seven. In the family room are three matching sofas, plus what appears to be a storage trunk with a mattress on top and a sheet pulled over it.

"Is this a bed … or …?" I ask co-listing agent Baljit Ghuman.

"Extra seating," he replies.

Today, Hardeep Singh is doing a walk-through of the house with his real estate agent and his adult son. With five bedrooms above ground and two in the basement, this house might be on the large side for their family of six.

Joe Vaccaro, the chief operating officer of the Ontario Homebuilders' Association, told me earlier this year his group has noticed the trend of builders in Brampton, designing houses with the multigenerational family in mind since the late nineties.

"You sell the first sets of homes to a community and you realize every consumer from a certain culture will ask for this upgrade," he said. Some have now become standard features.

Those upgrades include finished basements on new builds, main-floor in-law suites, separate entrances to the basement via the garage and just one landing on the staircase (rather than two or three), since that's what buyers want for their elderly parents. Many of these features have been adopted by Mattamy Homes, one of the most prominent builders in Ontario.

When combing through listings, I noticed many referred to those extra bedrooms with attached bathrooms as "nanny suites" as opposed to "in-law suites." A few real estate agents I called about multigenerational housing in Brampton insisted these spacious houses weren't at all aimed at South Asian families, but instead any family looking for extra square footage. The simple term "nanny suite" was meant to signal these were houses that could work for buyers of all backgrounds. It hints at the bubbling tension over multifamily living in Brampton.

Many with smaller households gripe about the extra cars that spill onto the street in front of multifamily houses. Others complain about an unfair tax burden on those who live in smaller family units, or those who have basement tenants, says John Sprovieri, a Peel Region councillor who represents Brampton.

"There's a lot of people who are saying, 'My taxes are that much because some people are getting a free ride,'" he says. Other constituents have complained to him about the strain multifamily living is placing on the school system, where portables are multiplying to accommodate higher enrolments.

Often, this style of living is prompted by finances. While the most typical multifamily household, Mr. Ghuman tells me, is a single-family unit plus one set of in-laws, he also sees other combinations.

Three or four incomes might be needed to cover mortgage payments, especially since newcomers often work "survival jobs" upon arrival and affordable housing stock is low in Brampton. But even after they've established themselves and have the financial means to live on their own, some prefer a multifamily dwelling.

The current occupants of this house are moving to the more upscale Castlemore area in north Brampton to a house double the size of their current digs – a 5,000-square-foot mansion. The basement occupants are moving out of province, so all that space will be divided among eight people.

"They're living back home like that. They like to stay together," Mr. Ghuman says.

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