Check out single living options

Walter Greene’s wait for affordable housing is hard on him and his bank account. The 82-year-old has been on a waiting list for the last five years for an apartment within his means. If he doesn’t find one soon, he’s going to run out of money.

“I feel sick about it,” Greene* says. “It bothers me so much, I can’t sleep.”

His financial struggle is not uncommon. In 1999, Statistics Canada reported the annual average income of single male seniors was $20,000. Female single seniors made even less, only $16,100.

Greene has lobbied against rising rents in Toronto (his own has increased to $840 monthly). He’s written to major newspapers and rallied seniors in his area to develop strategies to fight increasing rents.

He has no children and says living with relatives is not an option. He only hopes they’ll be able to support him when his funds are gone.

Senior housing statistics
Seniors are one of the fastest growing population groups in Canada. In fact, Statistics Canada has projected that by 2021, there will be almost 7 million seniors.

And when 50 per cent of all single seniors are renting their accommodations, as Stats Canada rorted in 1997, growing demand and decreasing supply have produced higher rents.

Combined with the trend of converting rental units into profitable condominiums, it’s no wonder seniors have a difficult time finding a place to live. But it’s not impossible, as these creative options show.

  • Sharing a home
    The Housing Help Centre in Toronto helps seniors explore the possibility of house-sharing.

The centre also finds and maintains housing, conducts referrals for subsidized housing, counsels and advocates for tenants, and assists people who have been evicted.

The centre introduced house-sharing eight years ago and housing manager Carolina Gajardo says many 50-plus adults find the arrangement economically and personally satisfying.

The most common reasons for house-sharing are loneliness, low incomes and long waiting lists for senior housing.

Moreover, many single seniors choose house-sharing because they don’t have family members to depend on. In such cases, Gajardo matches the needs and lifestyles of the homeowner (the provider) with the tenant (the seeker).

For example, if the provider has mobility problems and is unable to clear snow, he might rent a room at a cheaper rate to a seeker willing to pick up the shovel.

Next page: Access entire house

Access entire house
The average cost of house-sharing in Toronto ranges between $200 and $400 a month. For that price, the tenant has a private bedroom and shares the common areas of the house.“That’s what makes it different from a rooming house,” says Gajardo. “In house-sharing, the tenant has access to the entire house.”

For 57-year-old Carlina Rojas, the match has been successful. With her outgoing, friendly personality, she wanted to find someone who would be a companion as well as a housemate. For the past two years, she has been paying $350 a month to share a two-bedroom apartment with another woman. But their relationship has developed beyond just that of a landlord and tenant.

“She’s my friend,” says Rojas.

Match lifestyles
Rojas wasn’t always this lucky. She house-shared with others, but personality clashes made the arrangements intolerable.

“They were only happy when I gave them money,” she says. “I couldn’t live like that.”

This kind of conflict is one reason Gajardo recommends providers and seekers analyze their lifestyles and determine where they need their privacy.

“This is a 24-hour living situation,” she says. “If you don’t like to be around people, it’s not going to work.”

But when the match works as well as it does in Rojas’ case, house-sharing can result in friendships and long-lasting bonds.

  •  Women’s housing co-ops 
    Although all Canadian seniors are living longer, women still have a longer life expectancy. In the year 2000, 57 per cent of all people aged 65 and over were female.

In an executive summary, The Housing Factor Project: Housing Needs of Mid-Life and Older Women, The Older Women’s Network in Toronto concluded single women had concerns about finances, transportation and mobility, proximity to amenities and the option to age in place.

Lee Ann Johnson is a non-profit housing consultant. She works for the Access Building Association in British Columbia, which built Brambles and WISHS, two housing co-operatives that focus on the needs of single seniors.

The co-ops were started in the mid-80s by the Mature Women’s Network, to respond to older women’s housing problems and their needs.

“Demographically, the group is poor,” says Johnson. “And there’s a very strong desire to connect and be part of a group–to form friendships and have easy access to friends.”

Next page: Building won award

Building won award
Johnson estimates 80 to 90 per cent of the seniors living in Brambles are single women.

The building, in Burnaby, B.C., won the Canadian Housing Design Council Award for its adaptable and secure units.

The design allows residents to look out their kitchen windows and see anyone entering the building. This creates both a sense of security and community.

The co-op is complete with a shared garden, as well as a social room for residents. Several units are wheelchair-accessible. Others are easily adaptable.

Residents manage the building, select new members and track finances. All this helps build friendships, says Johnson.

“They form bonds which provide additional support so often missing for people who live in rental buildings,” she says. “They know when someone is sick and when someone needs help.”

About 30 per cent of the 42 units are government-subsidized. Tenants in these units pay 30 per cent of their gross annual income. The remaining 70 per cent of the units rent at market price. A one-bedroom costs about $620 a month, a two-bedroom about $800.

Second project built
Because of its personal appeal and low cost, Brambles became extremely popular. Soon, the Mature Women’s Network was bombarded with women who needed low-income housing. That’s when WISHS (Women in Search of Housing) started.

Built in Vancouver in 1993, WISHS is aimed at older low-income single women and remains exclusive to that group. The maximum annual income is $27,000 but the majority of the tenants make less than $16,000.

It doesn’t have all the amenities offered by Brambles, but WISHS does have an adult centre run by Cross Reach, providing daycare for seniors with special physical, mental and emotional needs. The centre uses a number of volunteers — most of them members of WISHS.

Security big feature
Located in Vancouver, WISHS is within walking distance of doctors’ offices, coffee shops and shopping areas. As with Brambles, security is a big feature. All inside doors are complete with intercoms. Outside doors are secured with heavy-duty locking systems and the parking area is accessible only to residents. Tenants in both buildings have received special police training on how to identify strangers while remaining friendly.

“If residents see someone they don’t recognize, they will stop that person and ask,” says Johnson.

Next page: Controls on rent

Controls on rent
Toronto’s OWN co-op, built by the Older Women’s Network in 1997, was developed in response to problems women had finding affordable housing. However, when the organization realized others were in the same predicament, the focus shifted to anyone in need.

Today, the co-op, with 70 per cent of the units subsidized, is open to all. 

On the front doors of OWN, a sign reads, Don’t be offended, but if we don’t know you, we won’t let you in. It was both the physical and financial security that enticed 79-year-old Eleanor Matlin to the co-op after 22 years in her own apartment. She could no longer afford the increasing rent, and she yearned for a sense of community.

“Now, I feel more secure financially,” she says. “I can take heart in knowing that my rent won’t increase by 18 or 20 per cent.”

Matlin enjoys participating in various social groups operated by members of the co-op– book clubs, drawing classes, exercise and dance groups.

“It’s a great support to a lot of people,” Matlin says. “And there’s a village-like feeling to the co-op. I love the area. As far as the location, I’m even safer than where I lived before.”

* Name has been changed.