Did I make a mistake by not investing in a house?

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This first-person chronicle is the experience of Lise Watson who lives in Toronto. For more information on CBC’s First Person Stories, please see the FAQs.

My family and I live down the hall from my 90 year old mother in a co-op building in the heart of Toronto. She is fiercely independent, and even after my father died, she insisted on living on her own.

So instead of trying to find him a new home near me, I packed up and moved into his building.

The cooperative has been our home for over 20 years. We live in a beautiful well maintained red brick building. We are fortunate to have two beautiful rooftop gardens, a central location close to all amenities and public transportation, and members who care deeply about social justice and environmental sustainability. We know and care about all of our neighbors and have a diverse makeup of seniors, young children, and people with disabilities. Everyone is welcome.

Most importantly, our home is affordable.

The view from Lise Watson’s apartment in downtown Toronto. (Lise Watson)

As members participate and work together to maintain our building, the co-op can maintain rent levels below market rates.

We pay $1,160 a month for a two-bedroom apartment, which means we can continue to live in a city that is becoming more and more expensive. Just across the street, a two-bedroom apartment that’s not in a co-op building rents for nearly $2,500 a month with heat and electricity added. And that’s the norm.

I’m grateful to live where I live, but the long-term future of co-ops like ours is uncertain. Established in the 1980s, our co-op needs new kitchens, bathrooms and heat pumps.

Although my co-op has savings for capital projects like this at the moment, it is built on rented property and its future is uncertain. I also constantly remember the pressures many co-ops face in the media. Many are struggling with repair costs; some have been forced to raise rents to factor these expenses into their housing costs. Others have to go to banks for new financing or are apply for government assistance.

If my co-op is unable to maintain its sustainable rent, my family will be forced to look out of town for affordable housing.

Two women smile at the camera.  One of them is holding a glass.
Lise Watson, right, and her mother have a close relationship. (Lise Watson)

I am 65 years old. I am proud and happy with all that I have achieved in my life, but in these troubled economic and social times, I have some doubts about my life choices and my investments.

Growing up, I never wanted to be a landlord.

My father was the son of a fish and chip owner in the north of England. He immigrated to Canada with high hopes and dreams in the 1950s. Dad was a self-taught copywriter and layout artist. He met and fell in love with my mother at an ad agency in Toronto. My parents saved and saved to buy a newly built home in Oakville, Ontario in the mid-1960s. It was a dream come true for them at the time.

A black and white photo of a man and a woman holding glasses of champagne.
Lise Watson’s parents married in 1954. (Submitted by Lise Watson)

Farmers’ fields, ravines and forests surrounded our family home. After finding local cows trampling our neighbor’s patio one day, my parents realized that a good fence was a necessity. I still vividly remember my dad digging post holes himself with a crowbar and it seemed to take forever.

Their budget was heavily strained. My parents couldn’t lay the grass in our garden until a few years later, so we kids were regularly hanging around the house with red clay mud on our shoes, much to the dismay of my mother. As children, we spent hours each summer climbing trees and jumping through piles of grass and yellowing leaves, watching tadpoles and frogs in streams, picking and eating sour apples in abandoned orchards.

It sounds idyllic now, but it lacked a sense of community. There was little infrastructure, no schools, churches, community organizations, public transit or even grocery stores nearby for many years.

There was a feeling of isolation and it was emotionally damaging to a city girl like my mother who became a housewife after her marriage. We were a one-car family and my dad drove to Hamilton every day for work. We were bused several miles to school each day.

A smiling woman with long hair stands on the stairs.
Lise Watson, 22, grew up in Oakville, Ontario. (Submitted by Lise Watson)

I wanted another kind of life. I dreamed of going to college and traveling. So I struck out on my own after high school and funded my own part-time college education at the University of Toronto on the downtown campus. The city was an oasis for me and I only left it to travel.

My quest to find a vibrant and welcoming community led me to the African music scene in Toronto, and later to West Africa where I married my husband. Six years ago, I brought him and his son to Canada. I happily supported them as they adapted to a very different culture and now make remarkable contributions to our community. For decades, I supplemented my career in university student service by volunteering at music festivals and a community radio station, and in 1997 launched my own community arts publication.

I had a rich and fulfilling life. But the financial consequences begin to be felt as Toronto becomes unaffordable.

A woman cuts a cake under the eyes of a man and a child.
Lise Watson, right, married in The Gambia in 2013. In this wedding photo, Watson cuts a cake with her husband and son from a previous relationship. (Submitted by Lise Watson)

Today, I wonder if I made the right decision to invest in education and life experiences rather than housing security and material possessions. I admit that I had the privilege of making this kind of choice. Home ownership was low on my list of priorities. If I had a safe and clean house, that was enough for me. I never imagined that one day affordable housing would become scarce.

Some of my older friends made different decisions than mine. They focused on home ownership, mortgage repayment, and educating families. Today, they’re retired, sitting in their gardens — some even have pools — and enjoying grandkids and traveling to all-inclusive resorts in the Caribbean. They seem relatively satisfied and obviously unconcerned about housing security.

I envy the peace of mind they have, but I keep pretending that wasn’t life for me. I know I did the right thing for me – and my mother – at the time. But now I fear for the future of our accommodation.


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