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Knocking on the wrong door: “Overhousing” is not the problem

A new vocabulary is gaining popularity in the fervent public discourse on Canada’s prevailing housing crisis – “overhousing”.

This notion characterizes a situation in which households occupy homes that are larger than what is deemed necessary. Often, the elderly and empty-nesters bear most of the burden of this label – being accused of living in allegedly spacious homes that exceed their supposed needs.

“Overhousing” is gaining acceptance as a policy concern among municipal decision-makers. The Toronto City Planning Division considers nearly 500,000 households to be overhoused. The Canadian Centre for Economic Analysis deems half of the population of Vancouver to be overhoused – resulting in some 800,000 “empty bedrooms”. The mayor of Mississauga, Bonnie Crombie, takes a step further, attributing overhoused families and seniors as a contributing factor to housing shortages in her city.

Although Canada faces an undeniably urgent housing crisis, labeling certain households as “overhoused” is oversimplistic and patronizing. It risks reducing our multi-faceted challenge to finger-pointing at a generation who worked hard for their own homes – hindering constructive dialogue and consensus-building.

In many respects, the concept of “overhousing” carries a subtle hue of socialism, suggesting that households – particularly the elderly and small families – living in larger homes than deemed necessary are somehow in the wrong. This perspective assumes that their choices are inherently harmful, both to them and the broader society.

It is important to acknowledge that people should have the right to determine their living arrangements, including the size of their dwellings.

The “overhousing” concept disregards the intricacies of people’s lives and the myriad reasons that might lead them to occupy larger homes. For the elderly, their homes carry the sentimental value of cherished family memories, or serve as venues for reunions. Empty-nesters may eagerly anticipate their children’s return during breaks, and small families may value the extra room for guests or anticipate future growth.

Not all rooms are created equal too. Differences in size and functionality can render a supposedly “extra” bedroom less useful.

At a practical level, this notion presupposes that downsizing is easily attainable for Canadians. Many individuals and families stay in their existing homes because they struggle to find suitable alternative housing options. We should reflect upon the ever-shrinking size of new apartments. Ontario’s Municipal Property Assessment Corporation reports that condos in the province are, on average, 35% smaller than they were 25 years ago. Many condo bedrooms have no window; some dens are now merely a nook that barely fits a desk. It should be unacceptable for everyone – willfully or not – to raise children or to “age in place” in the absurdly compact condos within our cities.

The polarizing rhetoric about the “overhoused” class of grandparents, moms and pops in sensationalized social media content and news headlines distracts us from the core of this crisis.

Fundamentally, Canada’s rapid population growth is outpacing the expansion of housing supply. While a slowdown in our country’s ambitious immigration targets could offer respite, what we need most is a swift increase in the supply of livable, family-friendly housing stock. We have ample land and sky. Yet, we lack good public transit to open the lands, leadership to ‘get things done’ – and sound governance to not break the Greenbelt in the process. These lackings are the stem of the crisis that demands our undivided attention.

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