David Wimberly is in the middle of fixing up the spare bedroom in his house — but the project’s been put on hold, because the person doing the renovations hasn’t been available to finish them.
And, Wimberly said in an interview, his experience speaks to the trouble with focusing too much on trying to build our way out of the housing crisis.
“There are just not enough construction people to go around to build the housing that is necessary for people that need housing right now,” he said.
Wimberly, who has lived at the head of St. Margarets Bay since 1987, is co-founder of Transition Bay St. Margarets, a non-profit which “aims to create stronger, happier communities through actively building resilience at the community level.” On Saturday, November 4, the group is hosting an event on home sharing called Housing Outside the Box. (I was paid an honorarium by Transition Bay St. Margarets for offering a fermentation workshop early in the pandemic.)
“It’s kind of frustrating to go into a home sharing thing that I’m hosting, and my room is not functional for someone,” Wimberly said, laughing.
The November 4 event is free and open to all, whether they have registered or not. It will also be recorded for later viewing. Transition Bay St. Margarets is holding a follow-up event called Why Home Sharing Really Matters: An Open House, at the Halifax Central Library on Thursday, November 9.
Home sharing (Wimberly said Transition Bay deliberately chose that term over the more impersonal “house sharing”) involves renting out a room at reduced rent, usually in exchange for some services, like household chores. Ideally, it’s also a community-building exercise that brings people together. And it’s often pitched as an inter-generational solution, potentially pairing young people who need housing with older residents who want to stay in their homes but could use some help.
“We actually have a housing emergency, and we’ve got 130,000 empty bedrooms in Nova Scotia alone. Wow — if we used every one of them, we wouldn’t have a housing emergency anymore,” Wimberly said.
He has been involved in two home sharing arrangements, and sees them as an untapped resource when it comes to solving the housing crisis. He said a young woman he had met who knew he had a spare room asked if she could stay there, before the pandemic. “She rented that space from me, home shared and contributed in different ways to things we were doing around the house. And we had parties together, and all sorts of things. It worked out really nice.” The second home share was with “an old friend” who helped out with gardening and other tasks.
Housing challenges in St. Margarets Bay
Home sharing may be an attractive option in communities — like St. Margarets Bay — with few affordable housing options.
“We have an aging population in St. Margarets Bay,” Nancy Gilbert, chair of the St. Margarets Bay Housing Coalition and one of the Housing Outside the Box speakers, said in an interview. “And when we speak to the Chamber of Commerce and such, they say there’s no place for the young people to live, so they can’t afford to live where they work. When we started the housing coalition, we weren’t saying ‘we just have to build affordable housing.’ It’s a multi-pronged approach to housing. With Transition Bay doing the house sharing, that’s one of the approaches. Now, is that long term? I don’t know.”
Gilbert said St. Margarets Bay is losing people who can no longer afford to live there.
“We’re losing people from the St. Margarets Bay area continually, because they get renovicted, or their rents have gone up too much,” she said. “We had a volunteer fair, and I spoke to half a dozen people who had to leave because of the price of housing, and live out in Larry Uteck or wherever. But they’d love to be able to come back.”
Fred Dolbel, who has been involved with the Seniors Association of St. Margarets Bay for years, said in an interview that when older residents leave the community, that has a knock-on effect.
“They take their pensions with them and their spending… That money leaves our local area and all the local shops. They provide jobs for other people. This is really a young people, senior people, middle-income family people, spectrum of need,” he said. And, Gilbert added, “We’re losing history. We’re losing people that have lived here all their life. And we’re losing great volunteers as well.”
Gilbert said in some ways home sharing is a return to an old form of housing: taking in lodgers, something she’s been told used to happen fairly regularly in the Bay.
Asked how housing has changed in the area since he moved in nearly 40 years ago, Wimberly said, “Well, there used to be a lot more houses available. They were a lot less expensive. A lot of places have tripled in cost during that time frame, and some [have gone up] more.”
The health benefits of living with others
Gerontologist Lori Weeks, a professor of nursing at Dalhousie University, said in an interview that while she’s not an expert on home sharing, there is considerable research on the health benefits for seniors of not living alone.
“I think we can generalize some of those findings [on various forms of co-housing] to anticipate that this is a model that reduces social isolation and increases contact with other people,” she said.
Part of that comes down to diet and activity, and part of it just to having other folks nearby.
“There are always people around. It’s like, ‘Do you want to come for a walk with me?’ ‘Come to the yoga class, it’s down in the common room’, or ‘Let’s go biking.’ There’s this positive peer pressure,” Weeks said. “Diet and exercise — I definitely saw that [when visiting co-housing groups] and that’s shown in the literature, that those are some of the benefits. And also, just having people to look out for you, other people around who can say ‘You’re not looking very good, is there something going on?’ Or, ‘Maybe you should get that checked out.’ So that sort of early identification of things going on, having other people around you, can really help.”
Back in 2007 and 2008, Weeks was part of the Atlantic Seniors Housing Research Alliance, which surveyed people 65 and over in all four maritime provinces. A couple of the survey questions dealt with home sharing: were people aware of it, and would they be interested in it?
“Almost 29% said they’d heard of it. That’s interesting because a lot them hadn’t heard of such an option… The more awareness they had, the more likely they were to say it was of interest to them. So, 19.2% said they would consider it in the future,” she said. “That means it’s not something for everybody… I kind of thought that embarking on that study, we would find there’s one thing that everyone wants, and that’s what we should do. But we basically found we need to develop a wide array of different housing options. And [home sharing] is one that I would say hasn’t gotten a lot of interest in the region until now. So it’s really exciting that this group is paying attention to home sharing now. And I think this intergenerational model is really very compelling.”
In August 2023, the Nova Scotia government announced a “partnership” with Happipad, a home-sharing service out of B.C. Under the terms of the partnership, the province agreed to give Happipad $1.3 million over two years. That money was, as Michael Gorman reported for CBC, to “go toward the cost of two employees based in Nova Scotia and to waiving fees renters would otherwise be charged for background checks and homeowners would be charged for processing transactions.”
The organization essentially facilitates transactions between renters and people with extra rooms by providing background checks, matching people according to perceived compatibility, and taking care of collecting rents.
Gorman reported that Lohr called Happipad “sort of the 21st-century version of the sticky note on the Superstore or the grocery store wall.”
Blayne Robinson is one of Happipad’s two employees in Nova Scotia. (He used to be the sales and marketing co-ordinator for the Zatzman Sportsplex in Dartmouth, and ran its social media.) In an interview, he said the company normally takes five percent of the rent paid by people using the service, but in Nova Scotia hosts get to keep the full rent, since the government is covering the fee.
“We really want to see home sharing go mainstream. It’s not the most mainstream solution in Canada, but it’s not a new idea,” Robinson said in an interview. “Boarding and home sharing has been around for a long time, but at some point we decided living in your own detached single-family home was the way to do it — but that’s not sustainable.”
A visit to the Happipad website shows very few properties available in and around Halifax (and none in St. Margarets Bay).
Some of these listings seem more like standard rental arrangements than the kind of home sharing Wimberly describes. A North End basement apartment for $1,500 a month. An owner renting out three rooms in a house in “Hammonds Plsins,” for $1,200 each. Confusingly, one of these rooms also appears on the map as being located near Lantz and Dutch Settlement.
Zoom out farther, and the pickings are even more sparse. Outside HRM, Happipad has one rental available in Lockeport, one in Port Williams, one in Windsor, and one in Cape Breton — an unfurnished room in Port Caledonia for $525 month (utilities included). And that’s it.
Asked about the $1,500 basement apartment in the North End, Robinson said that while Happipad can provide advice on rents, ultimately the choice is up to the landlord (or “host”). He said that if you tried to list a Honda Civic on Auto Trader for $30,000 the publication probably wouldn’t let you, but that Happipad has no such controls.
Robinson seemed to indicate that it’s been a challenge to get homeowners to sign up. He said Happipad needs to work on “getting the awareness out there” and that the company is advertising online, “but advertising online, you only reach the people who are online.”
He said there are “technology barriers” for some potential hosts. “They would like to meet us in person and come down to our office. We don’t have an office. Not right now, anyway.” He added, “The biggest bottleneck for us is hosts. We always need more hosts. We have lots and lots and lots of interested renters.”
But to the direct question of whether it’s hard to get hosts to sign up in Nova Scotia, Robinson said, “We have lots of hosts, I can’t give you numbers, but we have lots who are in the stage where they need to create listings.”
The Examiner asked Robinson if he home shares, and he said no, but that he lives in a two-bedroom house with his wife and three dogs. “It’s not for everybody,” he said.
“A desperation solution”
Asked if he thought the kind of home sharing Happipad touts was a long-term solution or a stopgap, Dolbel of the Bay Seniors said, “I call it a desperation solution for those immediately involved.”
He and Gilbert expressed concerns about the possibility of exploitation, either by renters or homeowners. Gilbert, who has “worked in the disabled community for aeons” (she’s on the board of Inclusion NS), said she’s seen “problems” with programs run by the Department of Community Services that involve people moving in with each other.
When it comes to home sharing, in addition to background checks, she thinks “you would have to have someone that would be sort of like a facilitator for these folks… You have to have someone you could go to, to maybe help resolve the issues. So it’s not just ‘let’s move in together,’ especially if you have vulnerable people. You maybe have a person with a disability, you have a senior who could be vulnerable. And on the other hand, the young people too, if they’re asked to do too much or things that they don’t want to do. So, yeah, I think it’s a good idea, but I do think you have to have some checks and balances.”
Wimberly agrees that home sharing is about more than people living together. And he was dismissive of the Happipad approach: “Their thing is an app. Our thing is not an app.” Wimberly said he was “really happy” that Robinson of Happipad was going to speak at Housing Outside the Box, but that ultimately, “I don’t think an app is appropriate for here… It’s better if it’s actually handled locally, and not from British Columbia.”
Anecdotally, Wimberly said he’s heard of people unwilling or hesitant to supply personal information to the website. Instead of funding Happipad, Wimberly said the provincial government “should be investing that kind of money — or more — into community-based organizations that support home sharing in various ways.”
He added, “What I think we need is a combination of an app, but more importantly, a community-based, public, fully funded organization that provides community-based supports… They can personally check in on people… based on their needs. So, someone in their late 80s or 90s might need more checking in. Or you might know what the medical issues are, and if the person is concerned they could just call someone local to come in and talk with them about it. It could be a nurse or VON or whatever… That’s when it becomes a community-based local thing. That’s when it really starts to work”.
While Wimberly recognizes that home sharing can go wrong, he says it’s important to recognize its potential to help solve the housing crisis and improve people’s lives: “This can help build our community. We can work together. Just imagine all the things that we can do in a community and make this work really nicely. It’s a beautiful thing.”