The COVID-19 pandemic uncovered some of the many disparities affecting Canadian society today. One of the most outstanding examples of this are the deficiencies exposed in senior care facilities and the subsequent calls for aging in place from experts and seniors alike. (Quebec, Manitoba, and Alberta observed the highest rate of seniors who perished as a consequence of COVID-19 while living in long-term care or retirement homes.)
But according to Sue Lantz, founder and managing director of Collaborative Aging, a Toronto-based consulting firm helping seniors “shape [their] own aging experience,” the options available to age in place are limited—and the price tag high.
To age in place, seniors need more than wheelchair- accessible ramps and automatic doors. “You also need to combine that with the right support. And those right supports take the form of social connections, a caregiving team, including home care, and your healthcare access,” Lantz says.
In Options Open, her five-strategy framework, Lantz defines the foundations to age in place as health, housing, social networks, caregiving teams, and resources. “The resources can be everything from your money—but also government funding or insurance plans, or other ways to resource the care or even the house,” she says, highlighting that housing is “like the platform on which the other supports can be mixed and matched.”
As nearly 50 percent of millennials in Canada seem to be delaying their entry into the housing market for various reasons, their retirement options may be undermined. In Canada, access to home ownership is increasingly limited by student debt and precarious employment. For many Albertans, the boom-and-bust economy in the province makes home ownership even harder to attain.
To thrive, seniors need to live in accessible and affordable housing located in walkable neighbourhoods with easy access to services and amenities. But if finding these conditions can be a challenge for anyone earning less than the median income in Alberta’s largest cities, what can less affluent millennials expect when they start turning 65 in 2046? Many young Albertans are anxious for what lies ahead.
For Inés Hernández-Virla and her husband, Luis Virla, home ownership seems a far-fetched dream. Originally from Venezuela, the couple has lived in Calgary since 2014, when Virla was accepted to a PhD program in chemical engineering at the University of Calgary.
Seven years and two children later, they’re still unable to afford a home in any of the walkable neighbourhoods that suit their needs and aspirations in Calgary. Part of the problem, Hernández-Virla says, is that many immigrants are starting from zero. “People born here started working and accruing wealth very young.… This is very difficult for immigrants who arrive here when they’re 30.”
Despite both being employed in chemical engineering, the couple worries about their future prospects—and their children’s. “Lacking access to home ownership limits the capital our children will have to thrive when they grow up,” says Virla.
But at least the Virlas don’t have outstanding debt. For other young Albertans, such as Mitch Dexter, paying back student loans undermines his expectations for building a future. “I don’t feel that it’s really a financial feasibility for me to be planning more than a year in advance,” he says.
After completing a bachelor’s degree in education at the University of Alberta in 2014, it took Dexter two years to land a position in his field of study. “I spent five years not paying those loans back, so now I’m a little bit behind some of my peers,” he says.
Dexter thinks that when he settles his student debt in the next decade, he’ll be able to think about the future—and perhaps even home ownership. “The stability offered by owning a home would be spectacular,” he says. “Especially the sense of pride of ownership, of building a space,” he says. By the time he pays off his student loans, he estimates he will be in his early forties.
But if millennials like the Virlas and Dexter aren’t eventually able to afford to buy a home, their retirement prospects are discouraging .
Today, Alberta is the province with the youngest population in Canada. It also has the highest rate of home ownership among seniors in Canada, but as the province’s population ages, some have raised concerns about dealing with a larger and less affluent senior population today and in the future.
“I don’t feel at all that this government is doing what it needs to do to support seniors in Alberta,” NDP MLA Lori Sigurdson told the Edmonton Journal in February, highlighting the need to support Alberta’s growing senior population. “A lot of housing is quite old, and we need to make sure that those are properly maintained.”
In Alberta, seniors on average spend nearly half their monthly income on expenses related to housing: rent, taxes, and household operations. Furthermore, seniors living in rental accommodations are more likely to live in inadequate housing due to issues related to affordability and dwelling conditions.
With the Alberta government seemingly planning to offload the provision of affordable housing to private organizations, co-operative housing could be part of the solution to a looming problem and allow millennials to age in place when the time comes—even without a nest egg.
Designed with community in mind, co-operative housing offers an alternative to home ownership that’s affordable, accessible and stable. According to Blair Hamilton, program manager at the Co-operative Housing Federation of Canada, “[co-op housing] looks at a different set of priorities and gives people the freedom to still exercise together some of the responsibilities and decision-making without having the personal wealth that [home ownership] requires.”
To become a co-op member, all residents have to do is purchase a share. “It’s sort of a cross between renting and owning, and so when you leave you get your share back,” says Beth Nielsen, the president of Sundance, a housing co-op in Edmonton. A share in Sundance costs $2,000.
While co-op members don’t have any equity in their homes, they get “sweat” equity, explains Catherine Leviten-Reid, an associate professor of community economic development at Cape Breton University. “You’re actually contributing some of your time to the functioning of the co-op.”
Housing co-ops are democratic organizations that rely on their members for decision-making, as well as for the operation and maintenance of their premises. According to Hamilton, co-ops allow members “to get a level of control that you won’t get in the rental market.”
Sandra Kendrick has lived in Sundance since 1978 and she’s never felt like a renter. “I believe that a big part of that is that every member has the right to participate in the decision-making. So if something was happening that I didn’t agree with, I had a voice.”
Furthermore, the ability of a housing co-op to remain affordable depends on the volunteer work of members who join the committees that help manage and operate the co-op. And often, the value of this “sweat” equity exceeds the financial benefits for members, as collaborative work helps members develop a strong social capital and a sense of ownership, Leviten-Reid says.
Nielsen describes co-op housing as a big family. “Everybody looks out for one another, and you have some of the family members [you] don’t necessarily get along with so well, like most families. But we all try and look out for one another,” she says.
Co-op members look after one another not only by participating in the upkeep of the co-op, but also by providing internal subsidies that allow for a healthy mix of incomes and backgrounds. “I think the biggest reason that I love living here is because I can help somebody who can’t afford to live here,” says Sherry Kozak, a resident of Sunnyhill Housing Co-operative in Calgary. (The average rent of a two-bedroom apartment in Sunnyside, the neighbourhood where Sunnyhill is located, is $2,000; in Sunnyhill the monthly housing charge for a similar unit is $982.)
This model helps house a segment of the population that would struggle to find suitable housing within their price range: households whose earnings are below the median, yet above the provincial low-income threshold.
“Many of our members, even though they’re not in the subsidized units, are still working class, lower-middle-class families without tons of money, and so they need affordable housing,” says Hamilton. “There’s a benefit to making sure that that proportion of the market is served, and [co-ops] are really good at serving that portion of the market,” he says, noting that housing co-ops give people stable housing, improving educational outcomes for children and community engagement—which also allows members to age in place.
“We’ve got members in different co-ops who’ve been there 25, 30 years,” Hamilton says. “They have their friends, they’re used to their neighbours, they’re active in their co-op and sitting on the board sometimes—and they don’t want to move, but age catches up with all of us.”
For this reason, Sundance members worked to develop senior-friendly, accessible units in their co-op. “We wanted to have a place where we could say, ‘Well, if I can’t do the stairs anymore, I’d like to be able to move over to a building with an elevator and lots of room to turn my wheelchair around if I needed it,’” Nielsen recalls.
Having lived in a townhouse in Sundance for 30 years, Kendrick developed health issues that compromised her ability to go up and down the stairs. “I didn’t actually have to leave my community in order to find accommodations that suit me, which was wonderful,” she says. She was able to remain in her community by moving to an accessible unit in the new building as soon as it was completed in 2009.
For Kendrick, it wasn’t just the accessibility features that allowed her to stay—affordability played an important role too. “I would probably be in an apartment in not a great neighbourhood. And probably just a studio instead of a one-bedroom,” she says. “I honestly don’t know how I would have coped if I didn’t have the co-op.”
Sundance is in Riverdale, a central neighbourhood in Edmonton, located in the city’s river valley and adjacent to downtown. Its location allows residents easy access to an assortment of amenities and activities, important factors for aging in place, according to Lantz. But while it can be hard to find a one-bedroom rental in Riverdale for under $1,000, the monthly housing charge for a unit like Kendrick’s at Sundance is $884.
Similarly, in Calgary, when Kozak lost all her income and savings due to health issues, she was able to remain in her home of nearly 30 years, but the financial aspect was only part of the support she received. “I don’t know how I could have managed if I was somewhere else, because all my neighbours here at the co-op were just so incredible about helping me,” she says. Her neighbours helped her with her groceries, brought her food when she couldn’t cook, and drove her to doctor’s appointments. They still do. “Paying someone to look after you is not the same as your neighbours caring about what happens to you,” she says.
The social component of housing co-ops is especially relevant in provinces that, like Alberta, lack tenants associations, Leviten-Reid says. Both Kendrick and Kozak benefit from remaining active in their communities, being surrounded by a diverse mix of incomes, backgrounds, and ages. This diversity keeps Kendrick feeling young and energized, she says.
Moreover, the nature of the community ensures everyone is looked after. “I love the fact that if my washer breaks down, I just call somebody in the co-op and arrange to have it fixed,” Kendrick says, aware that if she were a homeowner, she wouldn’t be able to afford to pay for any repairs.
“When I’m in the co-op I don’t need to worry about those things because the co-op has put aside money to do that kind of stuff,” she says. “For somebody like me … sort of on the lower end of the income scale, the co-op life was so much better than being a homeowner.”
Co-ops have the potential to effectively support the needs of an aging population, Lantz says. This is especially true if they are based on a solidarity model that includes municipalities and senior services in decision-making, as recommended by Leviten-Reid. Building more co-ops would add to the existing range of housing options—the problem is getting in. Both Sundance and Sunnyhill have long waiting lists ranging between 2 and 10 years, especially when it comes to senior-friendly and subsidized units.
“Sundance doesn’t have a lot of turnover, we generally have maybe two or three moves in a year, which is partly why we have such a long waiting list,” says Kendrick, who also chairs the residence committee. “But what it says to me is that people are here for the long term.”
One of the problems with that is, compared to B.C., Quebec, and Ontario, the number of housing co-ops in Alberta is small. Hamilton says this is because home ownership remained relatively affordable in the Prairies, “but that’s changed over time.”
The main challenge to developing new housing co-ops, and to expanding existing ones, is funding. Since the federal program that supported the development of existing co-ops ended in the 1990s, “there wasn’t a lot of investment in affordable housing for quite a while,” Hamilton says. And while the adoption of the National Housing Strategy (the federal government’s program meant to fund the provision of affordable housing across Canada) may help, to reap the benefits provinces and municipalities should be on board. So far they have been slow to recognize housing co-ops as affordable housing providers because of the existing income mix. Co-ops’ target is at 80 percent of the median market, Hamilton says. “We need to keep talking to municipalities that don’t understand [the co-op model] and be our own best spokespeople.”
If more government funding were available to develop new non-ownership co-ops in Alberta, in which shareholders aren’t required to pay a hefty down payment, millennials like the Virlas and Dexter would have fewer reasons to worry about the future. According to Hamilton, “if [millennials] organize in co-ops now, and they build ones that they think about in terms of aging in place—they won’t have to leave when they get to be 55 or 60.”