As Canada continues to grapple with a shortage of affordable housing, international students are turning to new resources to find places to live. Parth Makwana, who’s 19, moved from Ahmedabad, India, to Canada last year to study culinary management at Georgian College in Barrie, Ontario, where the rental vacancy rate is 2.2 per cent—well below the healthy vacancy rate of three to five per cent.
After a year in crowded student housing and a few months crashing on a couch, Parth signed up to SpacesShared, an online platform that connects students looking for affordable homes with older adults who have spare rooms. That’s where he met 48-year-old Karen Tiveron, a media archivist who spent 25 years in Toronto before moving to Barrie, Ontario, five years ago. Last month, he moved into her spare room, where he pays an affordable rent—$450 a month—in exchange for household chores. Here, Parth and Karen explain how they came together as roommates.
Parth Makwana: Last year, I lived with seven other guys in a four-bedroom house because that was all I could afford. I didn’t like the experience. Then I slept on a couch for six months, because I was doing night shifts at Burger King and didn’t want to wake my roommate up.
At one point, I saw my college promoting SpacesShared on their Instagram. Before coming to Canada, I’d thought about living with local residents anyway, so that I could learn more about how things are done in the country. I created a profile on the platform and got in touch with Karen.
Karen Tiveron: SpacesShared looked intriguing to me because I had a spare room. I live with ankylosing spondylitis, which is an inflammatory disease in my spine. I get a lot of joint and muscle aches, so I can’t lift heavy things or garden and do housework for too long. I have fibromyalgia, too, which means that I get a lot of pain flares at random times and in random parts of my body. So I liked the idea of having a bit of extra help around the house—just someone to take the bins out on garbage day and do a bit of cleaning or moving things around.
Parth: I paid $400 a month for my rent last year. My rent at Karen’s is slightly higher—at $450 a month—but I have my own bedroom and bathroom.
Karen: I was worried about having someone else live in my home at first because I’m a private person. I also wanted to make sure that whoever was going to live in my home was kind to my cats. But my cats gave Parth their stamp of approval when he first arrived at my home. I think animals are a good judge of character.
Parth: Milo is the cutest cat that we have, and he’s my best friend here. He will never let on that he likes me, but he lets me pet him all the time.
Karen: Luckily, my house is big enough that Parth and I can co-exist without encroaching on each other’s personal spaces. He has his own bedroom and bathroom downstairs, while my bedroom, bathroom, and home office are all upstairs.
Parth: I appreciate that she gave me a personal bathroom. She even bought me a shower curtain and shower head (it used to just be a bathtub).
Karen: Living with Parth has challenged my routine, which is good. We just have one TV in the house, for example, which I try not to hog so that Parth can watch it well. When I’m having a bad pain flare and can’t do much physically, I tend to just sit on the couch for hours and watch movies. Now, I’m making more of an effort to get up and walk around.
I try not to mother Parth too much, but I also want to make sure that I’m there to support and guide him, asking him if he needs help with any of his assignments or proofreading, things like that.
Parth: Karen has been helping me a lot with my resumé and made a list of all the nice restaurants in Barrie where I can apply for jobs.
Karen: Parth has been helping out around the house too, which is nice. I’ve been lucky to taste some of his food. I happen to love Indian food, so when he’s making stuff, he lets me try it. Because of my disability, I rely more on pre-made food kits and take-out than I should, and tasting some of Parth’s home cooking re-inspired me to cook and make some proper food for myself again.
Parth: A few days after I moved in, I cooked some chicken for us. She made the rice. I made the curry. We sat down and had our first dinner together, which was great.
Karen: That first weekend, I also took him to one of my favourite restaurants for dinner, a burger place. I wanted to show Parth a good place to go to if he wanted to get casual meals go out with friends.
Parth: My family is relieved that I have someone in Canada who can guide me as a parent. They know that if I make mistakes or need some guidance on big decisions, there is someone who I can count on.
Just yesterday, my parents sent a package to me from India, and inside was a sari set for Karen, too—the whole Indian outfit with jewellery and everything.
Karen: It was very kind of them to send a gift for me. It was a beautiful outfit. I was not expecting that. I’ve waved hello to Parth’s parents when he’s been talking to them on video chat, but I would like to be able to learn a few words in Gujarati so I can say hello or thank you.
Parth: I really appreciate all the things that Karen has done and keeps doing for me. There are just not enough places for students to live in Barrie. I saw a house that had 16 people living in it. It was really depressing because I thought that we came here for a better life. The reality is different from what I expected.
I didn’t realize how expensive it is to live in Canada. I didn’t think that I would have to share a room with someone else, or that I would have to work 40 hours of night shifts a week on top of my full-time studies—which is what I did last year once the government lifted the work limit for international students—to make ends meet. I just constantly thought about paying my rent, tuition fees, and daily expenses.
Sharing rooms is pretty common among international students. My best friend—who lives in Mississauga—shares a basement bedroom with another person and pays around $525 a month, and that room is half the size of my private bedroom. I have another friend in North York who shares a bedroom with someone else and still pays around $600 a month.
Karen: A big part of why I signed up for SpacesShared is to also provide safe and affordable housing for students, because renting in Barrie is so expensive. Barrie is in the top ten most expensive cities to rent in Canada. Rent for an average one-bedroom apartment in Barrie costs $1,800 per month, and rent for one bedroom in a multiple-room housing is around $800 per month.
I had a lot of student debt when I graduated from university, but I never had to worry about being unhoused. Moving to a different country and not knowing if you can secure housing is such a big risk, and I have a lot of respect for people who make the decision to do that. So, if I can help out with that, even though it means stepping outside my own comfort zone a little bit, I’m happy to do it.
I don’t have kids of my own, so in a way, it feels like I am helping the next generation of students. It’s a win-win for both me and Parth to live together.
—As told to Alyanna Denise Chua