Ontarians on the Move, 2021 Edition #17 — Waiting for Seniors to “Age Out” of their homes is not a solution to Toronto’s family housing crisis.

Seventeenth in (what I hope) will be a series on population growth, migration, and what’s going on with Ontario’s housing market. Previous piece: Ontarians on the Move, 2021 Edition #16 — Housing demand and the growth in the number of households.

TL;DR version: An oft-cited solution to the City of Torontos lack of family-friendly housing is that family-sized homes will “free up” as the population ages. The data tells a different story: Seniors rarely move out of the City of Toronto, they rarely transition into other housing forms, and show a strong preference towards “aging in place”. Turnover of family-sized homes typically does not happen until the residents are well into their 80s, as there has been a strong preference shown to ‘age in place’. In short, population aging will not solve the housing crisis.

A common response I receive on Twitter to pieces talking about population growth and Toronto’s housing crisis is “but Mike, how can population growth be the problem if many neighbourhoods are experiencing population decline?”

The neighbourhood level population decline part is true! Many neighbourhoods have seen little population growth over the past three decades, and some have even gone into decline:

Source: Toronto Star.

The primary driver of the population decline is straight-forward: Back in 1986, many families in those neighbourhoods were raising kids, so there were many 3–5 person households. The kids grew up, the parents stayed, and households went from 3–5 persons in size to 1–2. That’s your depopulation right there.

But this does raise a question: Nobody lives in the same home forever. When will the current residents of these homes leave, and their residents replaced with young families, causing population densities to rise again?

The answer: It takes longer than you might think. The City of Toronto has a very comprehensive body of work on this, which they call Right-Sizing Housing and Generational Turnover. Instead of simply replicating their work, I thought it would be interesting to answer this question using the data sets we’ve examined in this series.

To begin, there’s three paths families may take out of their family-sized homes:

  1. They may move out of the city of Toronto entirely.
  2. All residents of the home may pass away.
  3. They may move to smaller housing forms, long-term care facilities, or other non-family sized homes within the city of Toronto.

Let’s consider each of these.

Population Changes by Age in the City of Toronto

By examining changes in Toronto’s population by age over time, we can get an idea of how likely it is for a current Toronto resident to still be in the city a few years later.

We have population data, by age, up to 2020, which we’ll compare to data from 2016, the year of the census. With that four year difference, we can examine the number of, say, 71 year olds in Toronto in 2016 to the number of 75 year olds in 2020, with any differences being attributable to mortalities or persons moving out of the city (on net).

Here’s the data for individuals that were 55 years or older in 2016 (or, to put it differently, all individuals born before July 1, 1961):

Source: Statistics Canada.

On net, almost 90% of the people born before July 1, 1961 who lived in the City of Toronto in 2016 were still there four years later in 2020. There was a net decline of about 85,000 residents born before July 1, 1961, with nearly a third of that decline coming from people who were 85 years or older in 2016.

These population decline figures do not distinguish between people moving from the city (path 1) or people passing away (path 2). Statistics Canada has Components of population change data that allows us to make that distinction. Let’s take the July 1, 2018-June 30, 2019 period as a sample year. I could have chosen July 1, 2019-June 30, 2020; it turns out the data is pretty much the same but I wanted to ensure that there was no “pandemic effect” going on:

Source: Statistics Canada.

For every 60+ group, the primary source of Toronto’s population decline by age is mortality rather than net migration. Out-migration, on net, drops sharply around age 70. If you haven’t moved out of the city of Toronto by age 70, chances are, you never will.

We should keep in mind that these are pre-pandemic patterns. It’s certainly possible that housing and location preferences for seniors could be different in a post-pandemic world.

That still leaves Path 3 — households moving into different housing forms. Census 2016 has data on the number of people who are the “primary household maintainer” by both geography and housing type. By examining the ‘head’ of households, we can get a sense of where families are choosing to live, and how that might change as they age.

Here is the data for the City of Toronto in 2016, broken down into apartments (including high-rise, low-rise and flats in duplexes) and non-apartment forms:

Source: Census 2016.

I’m using apartment vs. non-apartment as a very weak proxy of ‘family-friendliness’, though obviously there are many apartments which are family friendly, and many non-apartments that are not. There’s probably a better way to differentiate ‘family friendly’ vs. ‘not’, but this should work well enough. For more detailed data, the City of Toronto report breaks the numbers down into multiple forms:

Source: Right-Sizing Housing and Generational Turnover

Not surprisingly, the proportion of the population between the ages of 15–24 that are the primary household maintainers is rather small, as a substantial portion of that population is still with their parents. We also see very few primary household maintainers in non-apartments (semi-detached, row housing, etc.) under the age of 35 in Toronto, which is not surprising given the city’s high housing prices and lack of housing.

The proportion of individuals who are ‘primary household maintainer’ in non-apartments is relatively stable above the age of 45. In fact, it rises between 65–74 and 75–84. This is a ‘widower’ effect, as persons who were not considered the primary household maintainer have a spouse who passes on and takes up the position.

It is not until the age of 85 where we see the proportion of household maintainers in both apartments and non-apartments start to decline. This is where we start to see some individuals move into long-term care facilities and other residences geared towards seniors.

Final Thoughts

When it comes to the City of Toronto, and family-sized homes getting ‘freed up’ due to population aging, there are three basic trends:

  1. Net out-migration of older residents from the City of Toronto is relatively modest and primarily happens between the ages of 55 and 69. If you’re still in Toronto at age 70, chances are you are not leaving.
  2. There is relatively little movement of seniors out of non-apartments in the City of Toronto until they reach the age of 85 or older.
  3. As such, mortality, not out-migration or movement into other housing forms determines housing supply. Toronto residents show a strong affinity for aging in place.

In short, we’re not going to solve Toronto’s lack of family-friendly housing through seniors leaving their homes, no matter what population density maps may show us. Or as John Michael McGrath put it back in 2019, in a piece you should all go read right now, Waiting for baby boomers to die is not effective housing policy.

Senior Director, Smart Prosperity. Assistant Prof, Ivey Business School. Exhausted but happy Dad of 2 wonderful kids with autism. I used to do other stuff.