Canada continues to face a shortage of affordable housing, and international students are feeling the brunt of it: most schools don’t have enough student housing to accommodate everyone. At the same time, more than five million bedrooms in Ontario alone remain empty, according to a 2017 report by the Canadian Centre for Economic Analysis. There could be as many as 12 million spare bedrooms across the country.
Judith Holman, a retired government worker, and her husband, Peter Gahlinger, had two spare bedrooms in their home in Ottawa. They signed up for Sparrow, an online platform that connects homeowners with spare bedrooms and renters looking for affordable and safe housing. That’s where they met 20-year-old Goodness Ade, who moved from Nigeria to Canada three years ago to study computer science at Carleton University in Ottawa. He’s since transferred to Algonquin College to study mobile application design and development.
Since July, Judith and Peter have been hosting Goodness and another lodger, a working professional in her 30s. Here, Judith and Goodness share their experiences as unconventional roommates.
Judith Holman: My husband and I lived in a housing co-op before buying our house in 2006, so we’ve always been open to the idea of shared living. One day, I read an article about Sparrow and the 12 million bedrooms across the country that are not being used, so we signed up to rent out our spare bedrooms. We filled out a questionnaire that asked us about our lifestyle, household habits, personalities and preferences. From there, Sparrow showed us how closely our profile matched with those of potential lodgers.
Goodness Ade: I lived in a homeshare last year, too. I paid $975 a month, which included meals cooked by my landlord. But my previous landlord kept to himself a lot—which is not a bad thing, but not really knowing who I was living with was a bit weird.
This year, I wanted to move closer to Algonquin College, so I looked for places on Facebook Marketplace, which is where I found Sparrow. I now pay $875 a month to live with Judith and Peter. It’s generally cheaper to live in a homeshare, because rent for an average one-bedroom apartment in Ottawa costs $2,000 a month.
Judith: I retired last year, so my income went down, but my husband and I still have a mortgage to pay. In fact, we’ve had eight mortgage-rate increases since I retired. The price of food and gas have also gone up significantly. So, certainly, the financial incentive to open up my home to lodgers has become more important—but we would’ve opened up our home anyway.
Goodness: Even though I’ve been in Canada for two years already, I still feel pretty new to the country. I still don’t exactly know how to dress for the weather. When I went to meet Judith, I’d never been to her neighbourhood before, so I had to figure out how the transit system in this part of the city worked. I was late a couple of times early in this school year because I’d missed my bus or I didn’t know which bus to take. So, it’s also great to live with people who know their way around.
Judith: I was initially worried about whether our lodgers would be comfortable living with our dog, Benny, and two cats. I remember being surprised that our dog Benny didn’t bark at Goodness when he first came to our house, even though he went right up to Benny. Then Goodness said he also loved cats, so, I really thought he was a winner.
Goodness: My glasses were also broken during that first meeting, and Peter glued them back for me on the spot. He also helped me with my boxes when I moved in and made me chicken stuffed with broccoli. Living with Judith and Peter has been good. They’re pretty nice people.
Judith: Just pretty nice?
Goodness: All right, it’s been a really good experience. I wish I could stay here even after I graduate.
Judith: You can stay forever.
Goodness: Forever? And then take over the mortgage?
Judith: Goodness hangs out with us, which I like. He is teaching himself the guitar, and sometimes he is just in the main family room playing guitar, singing and writing music. We have lots of good chats, and I love hearing him play.
We also found things we had in common. I was reading a Danish novel called Smilla’s Sense of Snow. Goodness saw it on the counter and told me he was reading that book, too. What were the odds that we were both reading a book from 30 years ago at the same time?
Goodness: But we did have to make some adjustments. In my previous homeshare, I didn’t have to think about groceries that much because my rent included prepared meals every day.
Judith: One time, Goodness went away for the weekend, and our other lodger noticed that there were fruit flies in the bathroom. Peter went to investigate the source and found that Goodness had a basket of sweet potatoes that were far gone. We got rid of the sweet potatoes and placed fruit fly traps all over the house. The fruit flies took a long time to disappear, but they’re mostly gone now. After that, we talked about food management and how Goodness needs to check his food regularly. But we were also able to tease him quite a bit about the fruit flies.
Goodness: I really had to learn about the shelf life of my groceries. Since that incident, I ask Peter questions like, “How long can I have a tomato in the fridge before it goes bad?” and “How do you know if this cucumber’s bad or not?”
I was also not great at waste management. I didn’t have a compost bin in my previous homeshare, so I never had to worry about organic waste. But now, I know that putting things with foodstuffs in the recycling bin might attract rodents and other animals. Judith and Peter are particular about recycling, so I had to learn.
Judith: Managing a household is something that people who live together will always have to sort out. But apart from these, we don’t ask Goodness and our other lodger to do things for us. They helped out with our pets when Peter and I were away a couple of times, but other than that, everybody looks after their own things and cleans up after themselves.
Goodness: My friends were surprised when I told them that I was living with a host. Many people my age have told me that their landlords are not nice to them, so I understand their surprise. But I explain to them that I don’t have a parent-child relationship with Judith and Peter. They are not worried about my grades or where I’m going every day. It’s more like living with friends who are smarter and wiser than I am. Because of our age gap, they have more experiences in life, so I go to them for advice sometimes.
Judith: Some of my friends get curious about homesharing, probably because they’ve never considered it. But they’ve met Goodness and our other lodger. We’ve had meals together with them.
Goodness: I don’t know if homesharing would be a solution to the nationwide housing shortage, but it’s definitely a force for good, at least.
Judith: I know I’m making a generalization, but we’re quite focused on privacy in North America. But people might find that when they open their homes up to others, they will still have a lot of privacy. It’s not as though the other person is with you all the time and in all your spaces. They come as adults with their own lives. Homesharing is also a great way to bring in extra income and, at the same time, provide some much-needed housing supply.