Cities need to give up on the myth that seniors are going to naturally transition out of their houses, because the reverse trend is happening, experts say. They also say that seniors are not to blame.
Economist Mike Moffatt is one expert interested in the topic. According to him, Ontario is seeing a “bottleneck of growth” and a lack of housing inevitably leads to significant labour shortages, which is his major concern.
“We are seeing big housing shortages here and there has been this idea that seniors will leave their homes and that will free up family housing. But that is really not happening,” he says. Dr. Moffatt is a senior director at the Smart Prosperity Institute, a think tank based at the University of Ottawa, and an assistant professor of business, economics and public policy at Ivey Business School.
Besides studying the city of Toronto, he’s taken a look at B.C. as well, where he sees the same shortage of family-friendly housing options.
“I decided to look at all the provinces, one by one,” he says, “and noticed that when it comes to shortages of family-friendly homes, Ontario and B.C. really stand out from the rest.”
And the pandemic will very likely accelerate the trend of seniors aging at home instead of downsizing into apartments or entering seniors’ care homes, Dr. Moffatt says.
He’s not the only expert to notice the trend.
Andy Yan, director of Simon Fraser University’s City Program, recently found that 44 per cent of homeowners over the age of 65 in Metro Vancouver are living in detached houses, according to the most recent census data from 2016. In raw numbers, he says, that represents 73,410 homeowners.
Only 21 per cent of homeowners 25 to 34 years of age lived in a detached house. But back in 2006, 31 per cent of homeowners in this age group lived in a detached house, indicating that there has been a significant decline in the number of young families living in that particular housing type.
For Mr. Yan’s study, a homeowner is defined in the census as a “primary household maintainer” or person responsible for the bulk of housing costs.
Statistics Canada reported that people over 65 are the fastest growing age group in Canada, according to the 2016 census. The census also reported that 93.2 per cent of seniors live in private dwellings, as opposed to group homes. They are the least likely age group to move.
Mr. Yan says all data point to seniors choosing to age in the house where they’ve lived their lives, at an increasing rate. And with the ideal for many young families still being ground-oriented housing, such as the detached house, there’s significant pressure.
“The theory is that you climb that property ladder to a detached home, but what if that ladder is broken?” Mr. Yan says. “You have a group of people who can’t get onto the ladder, and another group who are stuck at the top. That breeds resentment.”
Dr. Moffatt points out that the expectation of a major demographic shift is also unfairly putting the onus on seniors to clear the way for more housing. Once we accept that seniors want to remain in their homes – and may do so in increasing numbers – we can come up with more realistic policies.
“Cities themselves are creating this narrative: ‘Oh well, we don’t have to build as much because baby boomers are going to leave.’ That fuels the resentment, I believe. Cities are saying this will solve itself, and then younger people are saying, ‘Ok, let’s get on it. If that’s the solution, then I don’t want to wait 10 years for a house, so please leave now,’ ” he says.
“I think that’s really problematic.”
When Dr. Moffatt tweeted about his conclusions, one person responded that cities could impose a square-footage tax to encourage seniors into smaller spaces. Others have recommended that the City of Vancouver put an end to deferring property taxes, a common practice among seniors on limited incomes.
“We need to have some real conversations about densification and demographic change, but it shouldn’t begin with eviction-by-taxation. That’s the Logan’s Run approach,” says Mr. Yan, referring to the sci-fi film in which residents of an idyllic society are snuffed out by the age of 30 to conserve resources.
Vulnerable older women would also most likely be hardest hit by these approaches, Mr. Yan added.
“We need housing policy where aging in community is a part of one’s life cycle,” he says. “You want to thrive in your golden years, not descend into your end of days.”
When Teresa Brown, who is 80, moved into her 1,521 square-foot split-level North Vancouver bungalow in 1983, she never planned to move out. She and her husband, who died in 2017, had planned ahead, renovating it so that they could age in place.
“If there was a happy alternative to move elsewhere, we might do it,” she says of people her age. “But the plan is I’m going feet first. I’m sorry, but that’s just the way it is.”
It’s easy to see why Ms. Brown has no desire to give up her house, which sits on a large lot and is centrally located. She has a garden where she visited with friends throughout the pandemic. She has community, including long-time friends who are neighbours, as well as newer neighbours who look out for her.
And financially, her house is the best option. They endured the 22-per-cent interest rate of the 1980s and managed to pay it off years ago. She can always hire a caregiver when she needs one – and because she has the extra space, she can hire a live-in caregiver if needed.
Ms. Brown says she knows of high-end seniors’ residences that start at around $7,000 a month. And she has seen friends move into condos and wind up with unexpected expenses, including anything from higher insurance premiums to a new roof.
“If you’re spending that, you wouldn’t want to go on living,” she says, laughing.
“I’ve heard some horrible nightmares. We all know nothing is perfect, but at least here I know what the problems are. And I have absolutely wonderful neighbours and I have the backyard which, during COVID, was a blessing because a couple of the neighbour ladies and I would sit well spaced and drink wine on a Sunday afternoon and it was quite the utopia.”
Ms. Brown is well aware that there’s a tide of resentment against older people who are living in their houses.
“I hear it all the time, I have to admit. I know young people think we take up too much oxygen, but I’m not responsible for that either,” she says with a laugh. “The problem is, as soon as they sell my house, they will tear it down. They will put up an enormous house and the house will have marble this and hardwood that … and be totally priced out of any young person’s pocket.
“There’s a huge gap between what comes on the market that young people starting out can afford, and what’s available. This house as a teardown would cost a fortune because it’s a bigger property and they could have a much bigger house. It doesn’t make sense.”
Dr. Moffatt agrees that land values are a problem, exacerbated by a combination of scarcity and investor activity.
“It’s a loop. The scarcity exists, then the investors come in, they make it worse, and drive prices higher, which attracts more investors to it, and so on,” he says. “So it’s a general lack of housing, and the investors are capitalizing on that, and making a bad situation worse.”
Instead, he says we should be looking to policy, not seniors, to fix the housing shortage. His own parents, he says, remain in a four-bedroom house because it makes the most sense for them. Simply put, seniors need better housing options.
“We need to build those housing forms in the communities that seniors want to be in,” Dr. Moffatt says. “Oftentimes, the apartments that do get built are highrises right downtown, and that’s often not where the seniors want to be or the housing form they want and the location they want to be.”
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