Ontarians on the Move, 2021 Edition #19 — If Ontario built housing at the same rate as Quebec, we could have an additional 250,000 households.

Nineteenth 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 #18 — Ontario’s pre-pandemic housing shortage was a uniquely Ontario problem.

TL;DR version: By examining “primary home maintainer” (PHM) ratios, we see that Ontario and British Columbia have far fewer homes, of all forms, than their population sizes and demographics would predict. If Ontario had identical PHM ratios as Quebec, we’d have the same population, but an additional 250,000 households, as far fewer people under the age of 45 would be living with roommates or parents for economic reasons.

My last couple of pieces have examined the number of households, though I think it’d be helpful to step back for a moment and understand what the data is, where it’s coming from, and what it’s telling us.

For the purposes of these pieces, I’ve been considering a household the same way the Census does — roughly speaking, people who are living together. Here is how the 2016 Census considered who is in, and not in, a household for Census purposes:

  • All persons who have their main residence at this address on May 10, 2016, including newborn babies, room-mates and persons who are temporarily away;
  • Canadian citizens, landed immigrants (permanent residents), persons asking for refugee status (refugee claimants), persons from another country with a work or study permit and family members living here with them;
  • Persons staying at this address temporarily on May 10, 2016 who have no main residence elsewhere.


  • STUDENTS who return to live with their parents during the year should be included at their parents’ address, even if they live elsewhere while attending school or working at a summer job.
  • SPOUSES OR COMMON-LAW PARTNERS TEMPORARILY AWAY who stay elsewhere while working or studying should be listed at the main residence of their family, if they return periodically.
  • PERSONS IN AN INSTITUTION for less than six months (for example, in a home for the aged, a hospital or a prison) should be listed at their usual residence.

Under that definition, about 98% of people residing in Canada are in a household, with the rest typically being persons in an institution for longer than six months. Note that college and university students that routinely return to live with their parents are still counted as part of their parents’ household, even if they live somewhere else during the school year.

The long-form census collects data on whether a person’s primary residence is owned or rented, along with the type of dwelling. In 2016, there Census found that there were nearly 5.2 million inhabited residences, or households, in Ontario:

Source: Census 2016.

For each household, the Census assigns someone to be the “primary household maintainer”, often colloquially called the “head of the household”:

Primary household maintainer — The first person in the household identified as someone who pays the rent, or the mortgage, or the taxes, or the electricity or other services or utilities for the dwelling. When more than one member of the household contributes to the payments, the first person listed is chosen as the primary household maintainer. If no person in the household is identified as making any such payments, the first person listed is selected by default.

Ontario’s population was around 13.5 million in 2016, and of those, 5.17 million, or 38% could be considered the primary household maintainer (PHM), since there are 5.17 million households.

Of course, that 13.5 million population figure includes children, so it’s more instructive to break the population down by age to see what percentage, of, say, 35 to 44-year-olds are PHMs, which we did in the previous piece:

Source: Census 2016.

The proportion of the population that is a PHM can (and does) differ across provinces for a variety of different reasons. Availability (and quality) of long-term care (LTCs) facilities is a potential reason; a province where the elderly have access to high-quality LTCs is likely to have a lower proportion of the 85+ population to be a head of household. Culture could be another, with some families preferring to have intergenerational households that include grandparents instead of kids. Divorce rates, of course, matter. Higher education is another — a province with high numbers of students may have lower PHM rates for under-25s, as they would often still be counted as living with their parents; I suspect that’s one of the causes of Ontario’s very low PHM rates for that cohort.

One of the biggest reasons for differences in PHM rates is the availability of housing. If individuals cannot find quality housing that they can afford to rent or buy, they are more likely to continue living with their parents or with roommates.

I thought it would be interesting to find out how many more (or fewer) households Ontario would have had in 2016 if it had the same PHM percentages, by age, as other provinces. I applied each of their percentages to Ontario’s population (by age) and got the following:

Source: Census 2016. The average here is unweighted (that is, it is not weighted by population size).

If Ontario had the same PHM rates as the average province, we’d have an additional 120,000 households, with Quebec’s rates giving us over 250,000! On the other hand, British Columbia’s rates would see our number of households decline.

It’s important to note where the differences lie. I thought differences might be driven by the under-25 cohort and explained by a high number of college and university students. That turned out not to be the case, with only modest differences across provinces.

It would be a mistake to attribute all of Ontario and British Columbia’s low household formation rates to a lack of housing and high housing prices. But there are reasons to believe that it’s a primary driver.

Here’s one reason. The 2016 Census also has data on housing affordability, specifically the proportion of households who spend more than 30% of their income each month on shelter. Here’s the proportion for each province:

Source: Census 2016.

Ontario and British Columbia have, by far, the most expensive housing in Canada (and keep in mind this data is from 2016 — it’s almost certainly gotten worse) and also, by far, the lowest household formation rates in all of Canada.

You’re going to have a tough time convincing me that this is a coincidence.

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.