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The CatalystConversations on Mental Health

The lack of housing options brings its own kind of homesick feeling. We look at the link between housing and health in the second of the series for Financial Literacy Month.

I recently received an all-too-familiar mass text from a friend: “Do you know anyone moving out of a 2-bedroom? Our landlord got a permit to renovate, and we have to be out asap.”

Unfortunately, leads are hard to come by. This is Halifax. While it has an easygoing seaside city reputation, the rental market is giving off a different vibe. With no real solutions, I texted my friend back with good luck wishes, knowing very well that it wasn’t going to help.

If it could, I would ship it in great quantities to Canada’s largest province, where an Ontario Chamber of Commerce housing report found that 1.85 million units would be needed — beyond what’s already in the development pipeline — to restore housing affordability.

These massive numbers loom large for Canada’s young people — a cohort I am part of as a university student looking at my future. For many, faith in an affordable future has been shaken. Yet those with a more optimistic outlook are seeking ways to find agency and new ways of living.

Head, heart, house
A home is more than just a house; its psychological value far surpasses its four walls. It’s about reliability and routine, says Madeleine Hebert, who works as a senior housing specialist with Happy Cities, an urban planning, design, and research consulting firm in Vancouver.

“What’s most challenging for mental health is when affordability causes renters to live in more transient situations,” she says. “We’ve found a really strong link between how long you live in a place, your ability to build social connections, and a sense of belonging and meaning. Forming roots is difficult for renters in cities with little housing security from private landlords, who can ask them to leave at any time.”

Affordability pressures push people to make tough life decisions like leaving their communities, finding a new home for a pet, or moving in with a partner sooner than they’d like.

“There’s a huge variety of needs for different people,” Hebert notes, citing availability and affordability as key needs when looking at housing. “Choice gets removed from the equation for many lower-income renters, and that’s where we start to see mental health struggles.”

It’s this lack of affordable options that intersects with other barriers people face. Valery Navarrete experienced the crux of it in 2022. That was the year her mother died. Her mom had been the primary caregiver for Navarrete’s brother, who lives in Toronto and has a serious mental illness and substance use issues. When Navarrete started looking for supportive or subsidized housing options for her brother, she hit a wall.

“If you’re lucky enough to find something, there is no guarantee it will be close to the person’s medical and personal support,” she says. Navarrete is a consultant for nonprofit organizations and has spent decades working in health policy and advocacy. She has also produced a podcast about communal housing models. But while she understands the access points and barriers, this knowledge is up against the reality of the demand. Wait-lists for supportive housing in Toronto are in the double digits — 14 years — leaving her family without options. Her brother is currently in family care with a support person who is elderly. So, the situation is not long-term.

“Most families are not in a place where they can afford long-term medicalized options,” Navarrete says, “and many people want to preserve their autonomy.” For her, Canada needs more public housing — and fast.

As people grapple with the high cost of living, calls for more affordable housing are getting louder and becoming an election issue in Canada. At the same time, long wait times for systemic change in the face of immediate housing needs are spurring new models and reviving old ones.

Diana Lind offers details on co-living models and micro-house communities in Brave New Home: Our Future in Smarter, Simpler, Happier Housing. Her 2020 book focuses largely on New York City, first looking back at epic growth in the 19th century, through tenement models, and finally into Airbnb and other temporary forms. In Lind’s view, the single-family unit we are socialized to aspire to is unsustainable. Just entering the market requires a large investment, and the units themselves have an inefficient use of space. For many people today, that white picket fence has become an image from another era. And Lind believes that the time has come to give up the American dream of a house with a two-car garage. Not only are they overpriced and lonely, other housing models would be better at helping us live together as communities, given that many people live alone, marry later in life, have smaller families, and are more virtual and mobile. In other words, housing models are lagging behind our current needs.

Hebert speaks of one such project, which Happy Cities calls “co-housing lite.” Tomo on Main in Vancouver is a housing model without major upfront costs (and with “tomo” standing for “together more”). The complex houses 12 families under one roof with a common structure and courtyard. The smaller individually owned units leave room for large common spaces, including a shared kitchen, dining room, and living room. Shared meals are available three times a week, with residents rotating kitchen duties, and multiple committees making various self-governing decisions.

“It’s about building mutual support and helping people take care of each other,” Hebert says, “and the benefits are significant,” noting that such buildings have high retention rates and stronger communal ties. “People also tend to feel a greater sense of ownership and take better care of the spaces,” she adds. “Neighbours who have better relationships settle disputes more easily among themselves.”

Getting older
As we age, our housing needs also change based on compounding factors, from mobility to health to loneliness, and more of us are living longer. According to Statistics Canada the number of people 85 and older has been steadily increasing as a share of the total population over time. In 1971, 139,000 people in Canada were over 85; by 2021, it was more than six times that at 871,400. Projections show that between 2031 and 2050, this cohort will grow even further as baby boomers enter their golden years. Will they do so with their typical countercultural leanings and independence?

One model leans that way. NORCs — that is, naturally occurring retirement communities — have been growing in popularity. The term designates a street block or apartment building that happens to house a large population of older adults. These communities can include support services such as health, social, and recreational activities, which may be offered through public or private funding or a combination of the two. The reasons for each vary and can include the desire or inability to maintain a single-family home, economic pressures, or a wish to be closer to people and amenities. They’re a promising option for building a community while letting people maintain their independence and receive support.

Having a place to call home is key to our stability and building a foundation for life. The connection to mental health is also undeniable, as the Housing First movement demonstrated. Its underlying principle — that people can better move forward with their lives if they are first housed — allows them to invest in their social, occupational, employment, and recreational activities to support recovery, and well-being, and stem the cycle of homelessness.

In fact, the Housing First model was found to be the most effective way of reducing homelessness. This was a key finding of the At Home/Chez Soi study launched by the Mental Health Commission of Canada in 2008. The four-year, five-city project aimed to provide practical, meaningful support to Canadians experiencing homelessness and mental health problems.

What’s next?
I’d like to say that we’re all in this together, but clearly some of us are more in crisis than others. Housing isn’t a one-size-fits-all situation, and one’s sense of housing security can shift based on life circumstances. We’ll need a range of housing options to ensure we can address a diversity of needs – without relying on luck alone. Until that happens, I may still feel cynical at times. But with new options to housing affordability becoming available, I’ll also try to stay hopeful when I text my friends back.

Further reading: Money & Mental Health series

Elsewhere in The Catalyst: Home Alone: Aging Without Support is Becoming More Prevalent for Older People in Canada. How Can We Stem the Tide?

Author: studies humanities and psychology at the University of King’s College in Halifax, Nova Scotia.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the official policy of the Mental Health Commission of Canada.

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