Q&A: Raza Mirza and Andrea Austen on helping seniors rent their spare rooms to broke students

Q&A: Raza Mirza and Andrea Austen on helping seniors rent their spare rooms to broke students

Come September, cash-strapped students who struggle to pay rent have the option of bunking with seniors as part of a new pilot project, Toronto HomeShare, that aims to tackle the city’s affordable housing crisis. We spoke with organizers Raza Mirza, a senior research associate at the University of Toronto and Network Manager for National Initiative for the Care of the Elderly, and Andrea Austen, project lead on the Toronto Seniors Strategy, about the pilot, the participants and the future of housing in Toronto:

Let’s start at the beginning: how did the idea to house students and seniors together come together? 

Andrea: The idea came from a senior who was part of a consultation we did as part of developing the Toronto Senior Strategy—which looks at ways to make the city more age-friendly—and we thought, “Wow, this really ticks a lot of boxes.” So many seniors end up living in a house with more space than they need, and there are so many people who would love to have access to those bedrooms.

It’s no secret that Toronto is facing an affordable housing crisis. This year, condo rent prices  jumped 11 per cent. How much does this program ease financial pressures on students? 

Andrea: Students are expected to take on 4-5 hours a week doing things like walking a pet, cleaning, yard work or snow shovelling. It’s important to distinguish that this isn’t a personal support or health care service, it’s just an exchange to offset rent costs. 

Raza: The actual cost depends on the area of the city and the space, but on average it’s about $300 lower than the standard monthly cost of rent. 

Come September, you’re planning to test the project with 15 students from U of T, Ryerson and York. Assuming everything goes well, what happens next? 

Raza: The pilot is just a four-month placement. We’ll be studying those living arrangements and from there, figuring out the logistics of matching more students. The interest is beyond what we expected, and we’re hoping to eventually scale the project on a national level.

Andrea: From a financial perspective, we’re also trying to find ways to make HomeShare sustainable. There’s currently no budget from the City of Toronto and we want to develop a service model so we can advocate for a government-led, non-profit-run program. 

Canada has an aging population. Does that work to your advantage when it comes to trying to make this a long-term project? 

Raza: Absolutely. Right now, there are about five million empty bedrooms in the province with almost 40 per cent of them belong to seniors in the GTA. The seniors population is going to double over the next 20 years, so that number of vacancies could go up. 

How are students and seniors paired? Is there any sort of compatibility test?

Raza: It’s more than just a financial exchange. The quality of the relationships is important, and we’ve shaped the matching process around that. 

Andrea: We look at a lot of different living habits: Some people want a more social arrangement, while others are more comfortable with a, “we’re going to leave each other alone” approach. Other students have talked to us about wanting to live with a senior from their culture.

Have there been any funny requests or concerns that respondents have listed?

Raza: We didn’t really hear or see anything anomalous, but at one of the city hall information sessions some of the seniors and students hit it off and came to our team ready to be matched.

Students and seniors tend to have pretty different lifestyles when it comes to things like sleeping schedules and social lives. Does that create any concern on your end? 

Raza: That’s a generalization. There are all these ageist stereotypes floating around about seniors being boring, or senile. But there are actually a lot of similarities between older adults and students. 

In what ways are students and seniors alike?

Raza: A lot of the students and homeowners are living alone for the first time, for various reasons: some seniors have lost a loved one, and a lot of the students are new to the city. Both groups want new friendships, but they also tend to value their independence and autonomy.

I know it’s early, but have you met any of the participants yet? 

Andrea: There’s this one woman who owns a huge house in Rosedale who told me she’d feel safer sleeping at night knowing someone was nearby. She wants to retain her independence for as long as possible and is excited to have a new roommate. 

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.