A pair of young entrepreneurs have taken an old concept and turned it into an app for intergenerational living — to alleviate the financial strain of housing costs for both seniors and students.

Toronto-based SpacesShared platform is the brainchild of founders Rylan Kinnon and Jackie Tanner, a gerontological social worker. The idea is to match homeowners who might need a little help around the house with students who need housing. But it isn't a hard and fast rule – the homeowners don’t have to be seniors, as long as they live in the house and the students have the option of doing chores for a discount, or not. Each arrangement can be custom designed.

“The best way to think about SpacesShared is to think of a dating app and listing service — and combine those elements of both together,” says Kinnon, the Chief Executive Officer. “We designed it with older adults in mind, but we see the state of the housing market, and we don’t want to exclude anybody who could benefit from extra income and assistance around the home."

The company launched in the spring of 2022 and is growing, with about a dozen matches, and an eye to establishing more partnerships with post-secondary schools throughout Canada. They’ve just entered into a memorandum of understanding with Global University Systems Canada, which brings the platform to Vancouver. The international school also has campuses in Niagara Falls and Toronto. By partnering with schools, the co-founders tap into the student populations in need of safe, affordable housing near their campuses.

SpacesShared Founders Rylan Kinnon and Jackie Tanner.

It’s not a new idea. For years, Europeans and Americans have used intergenerational housing models, and in Canada, the model goes back at least to the 1970s. For decades before that, homeowners opened their extra bedrooms to boarders.

“There’s a cool one I visited in Sweden, called Sallbö. I am a creative living nerd,” says Tanner, the company’s Chief Experience Officer. “They took an old shutdown care home, renovated it, and turned it into small residential units. Half are under 25 and half are older adults, and every floor has a themed giant kitchen,” she says of the 51-unit not-for-profit-run home in the city of Helsingborg.

“When I went they had filled it and were in the beginning stages, but they were seeing even then with research how meaningful that was for integrating with these new youths. A lot were from Syria, unaccompanied minors, and the older adults were really excited about new experiences, new ways of living.”

As the former National Manager, Clinical Lead for Canada HomeShare, Tanner used to do the same work manually, without the advantage of tech. At the height of the pandemic, it proved to be a particularly supportive arrangement for people who would otherwise have been isolated, she says. Those positive impacts, she says, are difficult to measure. However, the Swedes obtained research that showed isolation proved dangerous to one’s health.

But the problem with making the matches manually was that it was cumbersome, slow, and dependent on grant funding, she says. With little staff, it became difficult to expand, even though the demand was there.

“It becomes hard to scale,” says Tanner. “You need a team, and then the manual matching process becomes cumbersome [….] Grant money relies on quotas.”

And although they’ve discovered a demand for their service, the obstacles include overcoming ageism and establishing trust. That takes some ingenuity.

Hosts and students can establish criteria around who they’d like to partner with, such as matching a retired nurse with a nursing student, for example. When a potential match has been made, SpacesShared does the due diligence required to ensure safety for both parties. The parties enter into an agreement and if one party doesn’t live up to it, SpacesShared will intervene. If things aren’t working out, the arrangement ends. Because the student isn’t considered a tenant, residential tenancy acts don’t apply.

“This is not Kijiji or Facebook, the Wild West. This is a managed system of verified users,” says Kinnon.

“I think a lot of people worried about living with a stranger, but by the time you’ve gone through the process they don’t feel like a stranger — that’s my goal,” adds Tanner. “What I’ve heard from matches time and again is they are always so surprised at how similar they are. This generation gap is not real. It’s socially constructed. We think we’re so different, but oftentimes we are quite similar.”

Patricia Collins, Associate Professor in the Department of Geography and Planning at Queen’s University, co-authored a study that explored the topic of intergenerational home-sharing programs. They surveyed graduate students, an age group more likely to live with a senior, and received 464 responses.

In her mind, intergenerational living makes sense considering the housing crisis and the number of seniors in Canada living alone. Loneliness plays an ongoing role in the lives of seniors who’ve lost partners and friends over the years.

“What we are seeing more and more, is that older adults are over-housed. As they become empty nesters, a lot of them are living in fairly large homes and with the housing affordability crisis we are facing now, they often can’t afford to move.”

But there are nuances to be considered.

The survey asked students if it was a housing arrangement that interested them, and they divided the results into very interested, moderately interested and not interested. Only 13 percent of respondents were very interested; 30 percent were moderately interested and the majority, 57 percent, were not interested.

“What we learned about the people very interested is that they tended to have a background of volunteering with older adults, maybe not the same prejudices that people who didn’t have those experiences might have,” said Collins. “It helped to dispel myths that people have toward older adults.”

The moderately interested group tended to have lower rent costs, were more likely to be living in an existing shared arrangement and probably dissatisfied with their roommates.

The fact that people with low rents would be interested was counter-intuitive, but there seemed to be a connection between a constrained budget and an openness to non-traditional living arrangements, said Collins.

“If you can afford a higher rent, why would you choose such a different living arrangement?” she explains.

“Across the board, regardless of level of interest, the three most common concerns articulated is that their guests wouldn’t be welcomed, they wouldn’t have the same privacy as they would have without older adults, and the awkwardness,” said Collins.

The hopeful part is that 43 percent showed an interest, which is where Kinnon and Tanner come in.

“Half the battle is normalizing the concept, and the other half is making them feel safe doing it,” says Tanner.

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