Jennifer Keesmaat is chief executive of the Keesmaat Group, working with corporate and political leaders to advance change in cities around the world. She is the former chief planner of Toronto.
Last fall, my husband, Tom, and I dropped our daughter Alexandra off at her new dorm at Western University, and as she negotiated the arrangement of her books, coffee maker and laundry hamper with her roommate, making her bed and nervously plumping her pillows, we stood, large and awkward in the tiny room, unsure of whether it was time to leave or if we should linger a little longer. I surveyed the cool greys of the cinder block as she began madly taping photos to the wall to ease the sterility, and it hit me: She doesn’t live with us anymore.
And when we came home, like so many other parents at this stage of life, I became acutely aware of the quiet, empty bedroom down the hall. Her door, as always, was left ajar. I peeked in and the light caught the jumble of rowing, running and ski-racing medals dangling from her bedroom mirror, a little testament that she did live, and lived large, here. A memento of childhood – a scuffed pair of toddler’s shoes – sat neatly on her book shelf beside a photo of a gaggle of girls trying hard to look grown-up at prom, anticipation filling their youthful faces. But her bed was rumpled from the previous night’s rest – and maybe for the first time I was glad to see it left unmade; I knew she was here. But now she’s not. It was deeply unsettling, these remnants of her life, held in abeyance, waiting for her return.
Until these sad moments, there wasn’t really a square inch that we didn’t use in what we called our “forever home” when we bought it 13 years ago. Our main floor was a perpetual cacophony of neighbours popping by, kids pounding out their homework and dinner being pulled together on the fly. Our basement was a triple threat: laundry, playroom and office combined. We didn’t really have a place for our bikes, so house guests would sometimes have to weave around them just to get through the front hall.
We liked it that way. Both Tom and I had been raised in the suburbs, where there was space to spare, but we had moved into the heart of the city to be near transit and to have the option of living with just one car. We had grown up with the long commute and we were prepared to do anything to try and avoid it. We had visions of our kids walking and taking transit to school, and we knew a different kind of home than what we grew up with would be a part of that package deal.
Our daughter had left home with strict instructions to leave her room exactly as it was. She would be back, she said, first for summers to work in the city, and then for grad school; it was still her room, she insisted. Her little brother, of course, almost immediately descended and created a Fortnite haven for his 13-year-old friends.
Secretly, though, I was relieved that the space was being used. It took the edge off knowing that we had an empty bedroom, despite the fact I knew full well that empty rooms such as hers could offer real relief to a major issue I touched almost every day in my work: the housing crisis in our region.
According to a report by the Canadian Centre for Economic Analysis, there are five million empty bedrooms just waiting to be filled in the Greater Toronto and Hamilton Area today; more than two million of them are in Toronto alone. In a city that often feels like it’s bursting at the seams, that’s a lot of empty living space.
Eighty-five per cent of Canadians over the age of 65 in Canada, meanwhile, are moving less frequently and remain in a house that’s too big for them, and while we’ve lauded the idea of aging in one place, doing so can mean an undue burden of a home for those least able to maintain it, both financially and otherwise. If these unused bedrooms could be put to use, through policy that incentivizes and rewards renting out existing rooms – or, taking that logic further, adding more rooms to existing homes, or turning one house into multiple homes – we could add a significant amount of affordable living space to the region, at a relatively modest cost.
We frequently lament the lack of affordable housing in our cities, and yet rooms in existing homes are an underutilized opportunity hidden in plain sight. Even if only a fraction of the millions of empty bedrooms across the country were introduced into the market and made available as a viable housing opportunity, it would far exceed the paltry amounts of new affordable housing that municipalities have been able to deliver. And providing rooms to rent helps in two ways: It makes housing more affordable for people living alone with rooms to spare, as it does for those looking for a place to call home.
Overhousing is, in part, driven by the immense market demand for detached housing in cities, and the capacity of the wealthy to both protect this housing and gentrify existing stock. But it’s also partly driven by what is probably the most compelling argument against this data- and trend-driven logic: emotion. These vacated rooms and these family homes are suffused with stories and sentiment – how could we think about renting these out to strangers?
I know this feeling keenly, because the data I look at in my professional life collide painfully with my home life, where I miss my daughter every day, and the emotional weight of that emotion is convincing, hard facts or not.
So the only antidote might require another argument from the heart in favour of this housing solution – and for this, I look to the story of my grandparents, Alexandra’s great-grandparents, who share a story similar to so many Canadians across the country in moving here to find a better life for their families, and whose willingness to share a home allowed them, and others, to live out the Canadian dream.
My grandparents moved here from the Netherlands in the early 1950s and they, like other immigrants in those times, longed to own their own home. But they were not wealthy people. The Second World War, in which my grandfather fought as a resistance fighter, was less than a decade behind them and it had devastated them economically. At one point, they sold the family silver just to buy food to survive. They came here with nothing but a dream and little kids in tow. Still, they were able to work hard, save for a down payment and buy a home. They were among the many, however, who couldn’t afford the mortgage payment on their own. So they did what they found sensible: They took on boarders to help pay the bills.
Households were bigger back then, and more flexible. People lived with more people, and less space. There were just more than three million households in Canada at the time, and of those, fewer than 10 per cent consisted of only one person, while just more than 30 per cent consisted of five people or more; the rest consisted of a roughly equal share of two, three or four people. People were having more children, yes, but these numbers were so high because it was not uncommon to have multiple homes within a house: multigenerational households, households that included extended family members or households that included boarders.
Today, this is almost completely reversed. There are now just more than 14 million households in Canada, and while the proportion of two-person households has grown over the past century, from around 20 per cent to 34 per cent today, and the number of three- and four-person households has stayed relatively consistent at around 15 per cent each, the number of one-person households has more than tripled, to 28 per cent; the number of five-person households has tumbled to around 8 per cent. The number of one-person households has been higher in Canada than the number of five-person households since at least 1981. And while programs such as Toronto HomeShare, which matches older adults with spare rooms with renters who can help around the house, offer a partial solution, they don’t tackle the reality and the growing trend: Nearly one in three Canadians live alone.
When families such as that of my grandparents sought to fill gaps in their budgets with boarders – a practical approach borne of necessity to take advantage of their biggest asset – it happened to also create a significant stock of affordable housing for people who otherwise couldn’t afford (or didn’t want) a place all to themselves.
There are additional social benefits, too, as researchers find that solo living, exacerbated by trends around high-rise housing, can breed social isolation and threaten quality of life in cities – with some doctors arguing that loneliness, especially among seniors, has become a burgeoning public-health crisis. One of our first tenants in the first home that Tom and I bought had grown up just down the street, with her grandparents on one floor, her family on another, and an aunt and uncle and two kids on a third, an arrangement that effectively provided eager and cost-free childcare. And to this day, my 98-year-old grandmother has a long list of pen pals around the world – boarders, who, as they passed through, became dear friends.
So what’s changed, to make boarding so much less appetizing over the decades? By and large, it’s our expectations around what we need. A postwar mentality that more stuff, more buying and therefore more suburban sprawl to house it all meant a healthier economy dug deeply into the collective psyche. Growing wealth among middle-class families allowed for luxuries such as increased quiet and privacy to catalyze into baseline asks when buying a new home.
Despite the Small Is Beautiful movement of the 1970s, which was intrinsically linked to the rise of environmental awareness and a recognition that we are overconsuming the resources of the planet, we live with the contradiction today of knowing that the average size of a detached house in Canada is roughly twice as big as in the 1970s, with our household sizes considerably smaller.
A more palatable option than boarding or room rental, for those who can afford it, might be splitting existing houses into duplexes, triplexes and beyond, offering more privacy to all involved while still unlocking housing space for renters in an effective, relatively simple way. And yet debates around “secondary suites” in existing housing often focus on the suggestion that renters in some way compromise the character of a neighbourhood, or that less space is inherently a bad thing. Battles over housing policy have come to reflect that attitude. In a recent Toronto city-council debate, councillors went so far as to draft and approve a motion restricting entrances to secondary suites from being visible from the street – as if having renters is shameful and ought to be hidden from view.
Meanwhile, population is growing and declining across Toronto and other cities like it. While the overall population in Toronto continues to steadily increase, huge swaths of it have seen population declines, sometimes significant ones. According to Canadian Centre for Economic Analysis CEO Paul Smetanin, 52 per cent of Toronto’s land mass has seen a decline in population of about 201,000 people over the past 18 years, while other parts have grown by 492,000. Said another way: While Toronto is the fastest-growing city in North America based on population growth, most of the land area in the city is actually experiencing population decline. Just as the Vancouver region and Toronto are both spiky and flat in their physiognomies, with tall and super-tall towers surrounded by an unrelenting sprawl of low-rise housing, our density is spiky and flat when charted out, too: Some parts of the city are absorbing significant amounts of growth, while others are bleeding density.
Concentrated hypergrowth comes with pressures on local infrastructure such as water mains, parks, schools and roads. The areas of the city that are losing density, meanwhile, become home to infrastructure that sits stagnant. Emptying schools and flailing bus services become hard to justify, since there’s simply not enough demand for them. A contradiction emerges that makes infrastructure delivery inherently inefficient: The high-growth parts of the city, defined by an unending stream of towers, suffer a shortage of the infrastructure that is necessary to ensure liveable communities, while elsewhere, infrastructure is underutilized and, in the case of schools, even disposed. Without a policy intervention of some kind, this trend will continue, as will the traffic congestion and imbalanced service levels that accompany it.
This is part of the story of downtown Hamilton. Despite years of claims about a civic renaissance, reinvestment in downtown Hamilton has actually caused population there to crater. That’s because detached housing in the core that once served as duplexes and triplexes – housing multiple households – has been converted into “singles,” resulting in overall population loss. This kind of gentle or hidden density offered a much-needed kind of affordable housing, and its loss is significant, requiring new approaches and strategies for housing people who are displaced.
That highlights a generational shift in the meaning of shrinking populations in a particular area: Where once it signalled a neighbourhood in decline, it’s now a problem of concentrated wealth, in which the wealthiest few live in greater and more desirable space, while others struggle to access any housing at all.
This is often referred to, by urban-density advocates, as “missing middle housing.” But while this type of housing is needed – for seniors, singles who don’t want to live in a condo in the sky, and families interested in renting or owning in walkable neighbourhoods that already have an excellent mix of services, shops, parks and schools – it’s not missing. It already exists, in houses we need to be willing to share.
Ironically, while we praise ourselves for living in a sharing economy powered by Silicon Valley, five million bedrooms sit empty, practically begging to help solve a systemic need. But here’s the catch: While co-housing programs have found some success, they do not exist at a meaningful scale. Airbnb and other tech titans like it, meanwhile, only facilitate short-term rentals, which actually remove bedrooms and even entire homes from the rental market and exacerbate the housing affordability crisis in our cities. McGill University researchers estimate that more than 31,000 homes across Canada were rented out in the short-term so often that they were likely removed from long-term rental supply.
Airbnb’s origins in the sharing economy have long become warped by profit margins. But it doesn’t need to continue to be. By incentivizing longer-term rentals and focusing on users in need of housing rather than hotel rooms, the company could be a tool for good, facilitating access to the millions of empty bedrooms across Canada, generating access to more affordable housing options for millions of people and restoring population in neighbourhoods where it has declined. Yes, the cost of housing is through the roof. Yes, we need more supply. But we also have a solution that is entirely within reach: existing bedrooms in existing homes in existing neighbourhoods that currently sit empty.
Which brings me back to the hole in our home – the hole in our family’s heart, really. While summer has temporarily filled it, we’re still musing about what our home might look like once Alexandra leaves for good, and her brother joins her. We started thinking about our original vision for our lives – how, after a couple of years living in my in-laws’ basement to save for a down payment on a mortgage for the home we bought before this one, we had bought a place where we were able to rent out the main floor and the basement, and live upstairs, an arrangement not that dissimilar from my grandparents, a generation before. Other than some construction, nothing is stopping us from doing the same thing with our forever home – other than the expectation of our neighbours and some city policy, which, with political will, could easily be changed with the stroke of a pen.
Granted, this is a bit more radical; where we were at one point just musing about renting out a single room, we’ve started rethinking need altogether – not around stuff, but around fit. And if our children wanted to start their lives, where would be a better place to start than here, where they can enjoy support, space, help with childcare, a neighbourhood they love, and their intimate knowledge of every overworked square inch? What better way for our children to live out the best principles of our practice, get a start on their own Canadian dream and help Tom and I achieve a better housing fit for our needs? Finally, we felt: logic and emotion were working together toward the same goal.
So I put it to my daughter: Would she want to turn the house into a duplex, and raise her family here one day?
“Probably not,” she responded. “Too tiny. Can you even do that – build another kitchen? No, I’m not interested.”
Rethinking housing, and what people’s needs really are, will require us to reconsider how we define home. Even in this house.
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