THE COHOUSING REVOLUTION
IT’S NOT UNUSUAL for neighbours to organize and block a development from moving into the community. While lamentable, it’s also understandable; after all, even the most community-minded people don’t want a methadone clinic, a halfway house for sex offenders or recycling plant nearby. Anywhere else, yes – but not in my back yard!
But when the project that causes the neighbourhood to get up in arms is a newly renovated house with four quiet seniors living together, then there’s clearly something wrong.
Or “It’s a clear case of ageism,” suggests Gwen Kavanagh, chair of CARP’s Barrie Chapter.
Negative attitudes or discrimination against people because of their age is what Kavanagh and local realtor Shelley Raymond say they’ve continually run into as they’ve tried to introduce senior co-housing into Barrie, a once-rural community that has seen huge population growth as it has become a bedroom community to Toronto, one-hour’s drive south.
The co-housing concept is a simple yet effective model that’s slowly gaining traction. The idea is to find an investor to buy an existing house, renovate it for adaptive living and then sell it to a group of seniors (four seems to be a number that works) who would reside in it as joint tenants in common. Not only would the cost of the home be split four ways – allowing the tenants to live in a million-dollar home for a fraction of the cost – but so would the expenses: maintenance, property tax, utilities, groceries, etc.
Using an updated form of an old economic adage – four can live as cheaply as one – co-housing is a timely solution to the high cost of living for seniors. A nice home in a quiet community, occupants would get a bedroom and bathroom and share living, dining and recreation spaces. While independence and privacy is ensured, the shared aspect of this model fosters feelings of safety and companionship.
“It’s just like a family living together,” says the feisty Raymond, who, as president of Solterra Co-Housing set up a highly successful project in nearby Bracebridge, Ont., for her ailing father. “The only difference is that they’re not related.”
Raymond’s co-housing model has met challenges all along the way, primarily from Bracebridge town council, which tried to regulate it. After an eight-year battle, she defeated
City Hall’s objections, her victory centring on a 1979 federal law that stipulates people are free to choose whom they share a house with, regardless of their race, colour, religion, sexual orientation – or age.
Encouraged by this victory, Kavanagh and Raymond attempted to bring the idea to Barrie. After several false starts, they found a local investor who was willing to buy an existing house in an upscale, closeknit community. The sale was finalized late last year, and all that was needed were renovations to be completed before the four units would be put on market in the new year.
But just as renovations were set to get underway, all hell broke loose. Area neighbours caught wind of the project and united to fight it. “None of them wanted a ‘seniors boarding house’ in their neighbourhood,” says Raymond. Showing up to a town-hall meeting ready for war, the neighbours vociferously complained about declining property values and issues of safety that they felt the cohousing unit would bring to bear.
“They said that the seniors would not look after their property, that the home’s residents would be constantly changing, that they’d run over children with their cars and that there would always be ambulances taking them to hospital,” says Raymond. “One person objected because she didn’t want ‘people in diapers’ living on my street.”
“We knew we were going to get some flack, but this was degrading and insulting,” says Kavanagh of this unfair and damaging litany of stereotypes that is encapsulated in these attitudes. “Four seniors were going to destroy the neighbourhood. I have never seen ageism like this.”
Two days later, the angry residents then sent a delegation to City Hall in an effort to quash the development. Their efforts were eventually rebuffed, with council saying they can’t dictate who lives in a house. And the mayor, Jeff Lehman, even apologized to Kavanagh for the rowdy reception at the townhall meeting, saying he’d never seen anything like that before.
Unfazed by the angry reaction, Raymond feels that her cohousing victories in Bracebridge and Barrie “will open doors” to future similar developments across Canada. “Affordable rental housing is scarce. Seniors are desperate for solutions,” she says.
And both she and Kavanagh feel the negative reception she’s received from area residents comes from a lack of understanding. There was a time when residents banded together to block certain ethnic groups from moving into the neighbourhood. Now, it seems, older people are going to have to overcome the same prejudices.
But Kavanagh is confident that once they see the development in operation, all objections will melt away. “They’re going to realize they’re living by four quiet seniors who will take care of their property and go to bed early,” she says. “Cohousing not only saves the government money by keeping people out of long-term care but it will also be good for the community.”
Because traditional models of seniors housing just aren’t cutting it, CARP supports a Canada-wide rollout of innovative solutions like the Barrie chapter’s [cohousing] proposal. Ideally, Gwen Kavanagh, chair of CARP Barrie, would love to see all provinces allocate enough money to solve seniors’ housing needs. But because that isn’t likely to happen anytime soon, Kavanagh has made an interesting proposal to the Ontario government. The government would provide a five-year interest-free loan to build 100 co-housing units as well as handling renovation and maintenance costs. When completed, the units would go up for sale, and the monies paid back to the province to cover the loans. Everybody wins. —PM
Gwen Kavanagh Shelley Raymond