Fiona Tapp is an Ottawa-based writer.
My favorite part of any audition-based reality show is when the contestants can’t sing at all, or have truly terrible ideas. It makes for delightfully cringe-worthy TV. But the other night, when I caught a Season 6 rerun of Dragon’s Den and saw Oakville, Ont., resident Tom Rumble laughed out the room for pitching his company, Room and Boardroom, I was, for once, rooting for the underdog. Truth be told, I actually thought it was a pretty ingenious idea.
Billed as a housing solution for millennials – many of whom feel shut out of this country's housing market – Mr. Rumble proposed that office space left vacant every evening and on the weekend could be repurposed and rented out to people who may find traditional rental spaces too expensive. Buying a house is an unachievable fantasy for most young people today, as wages decline and house prices soar, and even rental units, always the go-to housing solution for students and young professionals, are now becoming unaffordable, with Toronto and Vancouver listing one-bedroom apartments for more than $2,000 a month.
Mr. Rumble’s idea is that unused workspace such as boardrooms and offices could be used by renters from 7 p.m. until 7 a.m. for a fraction (he estimates a third) of the cost of normal rent.
If rented out to people who work in the office space, this solution could also tackle rising commuting costs and is an eco-friendly choice for saving money and resources on heating, water and other commodities.
Of course, the proposal is not without challenges, namely that office space is usually not zoned to be lived and slept in and that sensitive data would have to be protected from prying eyes once a work space is transformed into a living space.
There would also be practical considerations, such as where renters' belongings would be stored and whether this would put an unfair burden on the office cleaners.
However, it remains a solution worth exploring, especially as affordable housing continues to become less and less attainable for most young people.
Dan Connerty, a 24-year-old financial planner, reluctantly moved back home with his parents in North York, in northern Toronto, after living alone while at college. “I don’t pay rent, but I help with other household expenses. It’s quite the adjustment coming back, I am not happy about it,” he said. Owning a home or, even renting, feels unrealistic to Mr. Connerty who works in Toronto. The cost of living, combined with extortionate rents and the weight of his student loan repayments make living at home with his parents his only option right now, a fact that feels unjust. “The working professional in Toronto is struggling to live the life their parents did on all domestic fronts,” he said.
On the other side of the country, Corinne Mason, 33, a married teacher and mother of three, lives in a rented basement suite in Coquitlam, B.C. Ms. Mason and her husband owned a house in Ottawa, but when they relocated to British Columbia, they found that, despite having a generous double income as professionals, owning a home was out of their reach. “We are a growing family and feel very crowded where we are currently living. Rental options are so limited here,” she said.
Ms. Mason said that average single family homes in her area sell for $1.3-million while townhouses start at $600,000. “Our mortgage would take most of our salary. Plus the cost of daycare here is $800 to $1,200 per child. My husband and I have decent paying jobs and we still find it expensive and difficult.”
For Mr. Rumble’s Room and Boardroom concept to work, we would have to have a cultural shift around our understanding of home. If your living space is shared with others, it changes how you view privacy. It’s a bit like staying at a hostel – you have to be less precious about what is yours and enter into the experience with a collaborative, co-operative attitude. Already users of house sharing through sites such as CouchSurfing and Airbnb, millennials might actually be the perfect demographic to start thinking differently about where and how they live.
Many people will find Mr. Rumble's proposal to be impractical. Yet, we do need to start thinking creatively to solve the housing crisis. Repurposing other spaces to be used as living quarters is just one idea. There are others, such as the Toronto HomeShare pilot project, where elderly homeowners rent out rooms to younger people in exchange for a small monthly fee and help around the house.
With property prices at an all-time high, wages stagnating and the new mortgage stress test imposed by the federal government, having the opportunity to climb the property ladder is sadly no longer an inevitable part of early adulthood. Young people working hard to afford a home might already feel like they live at the office; they might as well make it official.