Globe and Mail|June 20, 2023|by Rob Carrick

It’s a hell of a thing to be retired from a meaningful career and realize you can’t afford your rent any longer.

Pat Dunn, a 73-year-old retired public-health nurse, was in that position four years ago. After her husband died in 2014, she found she could not afford rent on her income. “I was going into debt every month, trying to keep a roof over my head,” she recalled in an interview. “A very modest roof.”

Ms. Dunn ended up creating a network for senior women in Ontario that helps them find roommates to share housing costs. But while her story is one of resourcefulness and hope, it also documents the alarming extent of our rental crisis. It’s a plague on all ages, from young adults through to retirees.

The group set up by Ms. Dunn to link solo senior women is called Senior Women Living Together (SWLT). She estimates that so far 47 women – in Peterborough, Guelph, Ottawa, North York and Manitoulin Island – have found an affordable place to live through SWLT, with another five in the pipeline.

“We invite people aged 55 and up, but most of our membership is clustered around 60 to 75,” Ms. Dunn said. “Most are fairly low income, but we’re starting to get a lot more interest from moderate income women because of how horrible rents have gotten and how they’re struggling.”

Average rents across the country are up about 20 per cent from pandemic lows and still rising at levels way above the overall year-over-year inflation rate. Solo seniors, notably women because of their longer lifespans, were already a financially challenged demographic before rents soared. Now, the renters among them are worse off.

There’s an old personal finance guideline that rental costs should account for no more than 30 per cent of your gross pay. Ms. Dunn said people in the SWLT community were spending about 40 per cent of their income on rent a few years ago and are now around 50 per cent or higher in some cases.

Ms. Dunn’s own story shows how retired women can find themselves in a position where they need roommates to make rental housing affordable. She was married, divorced and then remarried a man who died suddenly. Ms. Dunn and her first husband owned a home, but sold it and split the proceeds. She and her second husband bought a boat, where they lived until she was widowed and realized she couldn’t afford costs like marina fees any longer.

Ms. Dunn considers herself lucky because she has a pension to top up her Canada Pension Plan and Old Age Security benefits. But even so, the rising cost of rent in Peterborough eventually drove her to look around for roommates.

She started her search by setting up a Facebook group that ultimately turned into SWLT. “I thought I might get 10 people and there was a total of 50 by the end of the first week and 200 by the end of the first month,” she said. “I thought it was my problem I was trying to fix, but then I realized I couldn’t have all these people come along and not help them, too.”

The house Ms. Dunn and her two roommates share is located in a residential Peterborough neighbourhood with bus links and a nearby Costco. Ms. Dunn’s roommates are of a similar age to her, one of them a lifelong single and the other divorced.

Utility costs are shared and rents in the home are geared to the amount of space each resident has: One roommate pays $550, another pays $1,100 and Ms. Dunn herself pays $700, which is about 35 per cent her income.

Ms. Dunn spends about 10 to 12 hours a week (*error – it’s actually 10 to 12 hours a day) on SWLT and considers it more of a mission than a hobby because of the affordability issues that she and her peers face. To start with, solo seniors are discriminated against by a tax system that considers retired couples more deserving of tax relief.

Because they often outlive their husbands, women must also absorb the loss of spousal Old Age Security and, to a large extent, Canada Pension Plan retirement benefits as well. There’s a CPP survivor’s benefit, but it’s small (stay tuned for an upcoming column on this topic).

Rising rents add to the financial burden on solo seniors, but Ms. Dunn said there’s an additional aspect to SWLT that helps explain its success. It’s the sense of community that having roommates offers.

At the house where Ms. Dunn lives, the three roommates have dinner together nightly. “We’ve had our ups and downs with personality things and so on, but overall things have worked out quite well.”