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Comment: Coming together, literally, can solve our housing crisis

We can create the friendly, inclusive, and affordable intergenerational housing that as humans we crave and, as a society, we need
Charan Sethi, president of Tien Sher Group

Multigenerational living can help reduce financial burdens for all family members, which should be a priority in Metro Vancouver’s expensive and undersupplied housing market.

Shared housing expenses, such as mortgage payments, utility bills, and maintenance costs, can be divided among multiple adults, allowing for cost savings and a higher quality of life for everyone.

Living in a multigenerational household also creates opportunities for intergenerational learning. Elderly family members can pass down wisdom, traditions, and cultural knowledge to younger generations, while the young can explain technology and social media to their elders.

This transfer of knowledge helps preserve cultural heritage and values while promoting a sense of identity and continuity in a modern city.

Then there is the emotional aspect. Multigenerational living contributes to improved emotional well-being for all family members. Having a close-knit support network reduces feelings of loneliness and isolation and fosters a sense of belonging and security.

But government policy often works against multigenerational living.

Six years ago, when some Metro Vancouver municipalities banned the construction of what was called ‘monster homes’ on agricultural land, they did not recognize that the large homes were a template for affordable, intergenerational housing.

Lower Mainland farmers, mostly Indo-Canadians, were building houses for their immediate families and others working in the fields. The subsequent ban reduced the maximum house size from 20,000 square feet or more to just 4,300 square feet.

So today, instead of one building housing a score of people, the workers and their families are scattered and competing for more expensive homes during a region-wide housing shortage.

There is a lesson here that, if we dare consider a societal shift by coming together in our living spaces, we could banish B.C.’s housing crisis.

This year a unique combination of government policy and soaring immigration levels could help that happen.

The recent B.C. government Homes for People program, the first of its kind in Canada, calls for the rezoning of all single-detached lots in the province to allow at least four housing units. This is an opportunity for people, regardless of age or family ties, to share the same space and co-operatively reduce the cost of housing for each of them.

The 2021 census showed that Metro Vancouver seniors have more than 400,000 empty bedrooms in their houses, but many don’t want to downsize or move into seniors’ housing.

These owners recognize that housing which welcomes a mix of older and younger people is better physically, psychologically, and financially. The largest proportion of Canadian seniors already live in vibrant, multigenerational, multi-ethnic cities like Metro Vancouver, and they could embrace that by sharing their lives with younger people from around the world while trimming their housing costs.

Canada has swung open its immigration gates, with more than 500,000 newcomers welcomed annually over the next few years. The top five source countries – India, China, Afghanistan, Nigeria, and Philippines – all share the bond of intergenerational housing and could form a vanguard for shared housing here.

As of 2021, nearly one million households in Canada were composed of multiple generations living together, with or without family members.  As well, there has been a shift towards non-related roommates, Statistics Canada reports, which now represent four percent of all households.

Therefore, more than one in 10 Canadians already lives in a shared space, in or outside the traditional family. Bring that up to two or three in 10, and we have sparked a revolution that could solve the housing shortage and reduce the cost of homes.

A reported one-third of Vancouver residents live alone, even though solo living is more expensive here than anywhere else in Canada. This is absurd, especially with loneliness now seen as a growing urban affliction.

Coming together right now, we can create the friendly, inclusive, and affordable intergenerational housing that as humans, we crave and, as a society, we need.

- Charan Sethi, founder and president of Tien Sher Group of Companies, is a leading residential developer based in Richmond, B.C., and best known for his affordable condominium and townhouse developments across the Lower Mainland.