It’s nearly impossible to find a place to rent. But retirement homes have room to spare

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Cost of Living8:22Looking for a deal on a rental? Try a retirement home

While Canada’s average national vacancy rate sits at a record low of 1.5 per cent, there is one kind of property that likely has a “for rent” sign out front: retirement homes.

The Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation (CMHC) said vacancy rates for standard spaces in retirement homes averaged 15.6 per cent the last time it surveyed them in 2021, ranging from as high as 26.8 per cent in Alberta and low as 6.3 per cent in Nova Scotia.

Although that CMHC data reflects conditions at the height of the pandemic, numbers from the private sector seem to indicate the trend is continuing. 

Chartwell, the largest operator of retirement homes in Canada, said in a press release its forecasted February 2024 vacancy rate was around 15 per cent. That number encompasses a range of options, from apartments for independent living to long-term care homes. 

But many seniors are steering clear of residences geared to them, citing reasons such as an increased desire to “age in place” in their own homes or the cost of renting at retirement homes.

As a result, some retirement homes are offering incentives like three months of free rent and amenities like saltwater pools and pickleball courts to persuade seniors to sign on.

In addition, some organizations are even starting to open the parameters to allow students and other young people to live there.

A sign outside a building depicts an older couple laughing and reads, "Seniors' suites available. Visit us today."
A sign advertises vacant suites in a Calgary retirement home. While Canada’s rental market has record-low average vacancy rates of 1.5 per cent, vacancies at seniors’ residences are hovering around 15 per cent. (Ellis Choe/CBC)

The pandemic effect

Also contributing to high vacancy rates is confusion between retirement homes — also called seniors’ residences — and long-term care homes. During the COVID-19 pandemic, the latter were often in the news because of high rates of deaths among residents.

Long-term care homes, sometimes called nursing homes, are for people who require a high level of round-the-clock support from personal support workers and other health professionals. Seniors’ residences, on the other hand, usually feature independent or supported living in individual apartments with the addition of amenities and optional shared dining.

Both got a bad rap during the pandemic, when they were plagued with outbreaks or shut down to outside visitors.

Public health measures during that time restricted people from moving in, according to Arlene Adamson, president and CEO of the Alberta Seniors and Community Housing Association, which represents private and not-for-profit seniors’ housing operators in the province.

It’s been tricky to entice people back in the wake of COVID-19, Adamson told Cost of Living. Residence operators try to do so by emphasizing both their safety measures and the sense of community and connection people can find in retirement homes.

“The number one thing that our residents say is, ‘[I] should have moved in a lot earlier and love the services and the sense of community. And I certainly feel safe in our community,'” she said.

A man in a dark suit, blue shirt and striped tie poses for a portrait.
Francis Cortellino, an economist at CMHC and lead author on the organization’s most recent paper about senior housing trends, said Canadians are staying longer in the homes they own. (CMHC)

Hanging on to homes

Francis Cortellino, an economist at CMHC and lead author on the organization’s most recent paper about senior housing trends, said Canadians fortunate enough to own their homes are staying in them longer and longer. 

“What we found, basically, is that most senior households will stay in their home as long as they can,” he said. The rate at which this cohort sells their homes has been trending downward for 30 years, the report found.

“If you look at the more recent years, there’s not a lot of supply on the market,” said Cortellino. Faced with little choice and hefty price tags when they do eventually want to downsize to a condo or apartment, people are more likely to stay put, he said.

Retirement homes, too, are often far from cheap.

Prices vary depending on where you are in Canada. In Quebec, you could get a heavily subsidized spot for as little as $900 a month. But on the other side of the spectrum, most anywhere in Canada you could pay more than $10,000 per month at a private residence with lots of amenities.

In Ottawa, Eleanor Abra said she’d love to move out of her house and into a retirement home but can’t afford it.

“The retirement residence next door to my church, which is supposed to be reasonable, is $7,000 a month,” she told Cost of Living‘s talk-back line. “‘Now, granted, I’d get amenities. But still, $7,000 a month is far more than my monthly pension, so I won’t be going to any place like that soon.”

Rental prices aside, another factor driving the trend away from seniors’ residences is that people are able to live independently for longer, said Cortellino.

“If you look at people from the [1990s] compared to people now, maybe their health is better when they age … so they have more options to stay at home than they used to.”

A woman with white hair dyed with a purple streak poses on a patterned armchair.
Dorothy Bagan, seen here at a senior centre in Calgary where she volunteers once a week, is still living in her family home and says she has no intention of moving into a retirement home. (Unison, for Generations 50+)

Dorothy Bagan, 75, has lived in her three-bedroom Calgary house for 42 years and said she has no interest in moving into a retirement home.

“Absolutely not. I don’t want to live with seniors. Seniors are wonderful. I’m a senior but I need the diversity of young people, children. That gives me a vitality that I love,” said Bagan. “I have kids on the block that come and visit and say, ‘Hi, Dot.'”

Bagan raised her family in her home, so she said it’s full of happy memories for her, even though her children moved out long ago.  

“This house is alive and keeps me alive. And I love it.”

Intergenerational living

Brett Sargon and two teammates from his New Zealand curling team wanted to train and compete in Calgary for a few months but were having trouble finding somewhere affordable to stay.

After sharing their situation on social media, Chartwell Colonel Belcher Retirement Residence reached out to propose a “win-win situation,” he said. The athletes would stay there without having to commit to a year-long lease, and their presence would liven up the place during their stay. 

A  young man and older woman smile while posing for a photo in a dining room with many tables.
Brett Sagan, left, sits with Pat Larson at the retirement home where they are both living. Sagan said he and his teammates have loved their time with the seniors. (Ellis Choe/CBC)

Sargon and friends hit up happy hour at the retirement home pub, and busloads of residents come to watch the team play.

“We are genuinely loving it,” he said. “I was really close to my grandparents back home, so spending time over here has been really special, as well, and meeting a lot of interesting people and getting a lot of words of wisdom and, and life lessons, which is really cool.”

Efforts are in the works to open doors to other young people as well.

Bonita Paquette founded the Canadian Alliance for Intergenerational Living in June 2023 after noting both the lack of affordable housing for students and the social isolation experienced by many seniors in retirement homes.

“I thought, well, why wouldn’t you match students with seniors that have rooms in these homes? So I did a bit of research and found that they have been doing these intergenerational living projects in other countries like the Netherlands, the U.S., and I tried to find something in Canada, but I couldn’t find anything that was a sustained program.”

The Calgary-based organization is beginning a pilot program that will soon see two post-secondary students move into a retirement home where they’ll pay cheap rent in exchange for spending 30 hours a month socializing with seniors, said Paquette.

“I think it’s good for both the students and the seniors. They both have different perspectives in life.… And they can learn from each other,” she said.

“Residents will have years of wisdom that they can share with their younger residents. And then the students can share, you know, things like how to make TikTok videos or whatever it is that they are wanting to share.”

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