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


This First Person column is the experience of Lise Watson who lives in Toronto. For more information about CBC’s First Person stories, please see the FAQ

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’s fiercely independent, and even after my dad died, she insisted on living alone. 

So instead of trying to find her a new home close to me, I packed up my bags and moved into her building. 

The co-op has been our home for over 20 years. We live in an attractive, well-maintained red brick building. We are blessed with two lovely rooftop gardens, a central location close to all amenities and public transit, and a membership that cares deeply about social justice and environmental sustainability. We know and care about all of our neighbours and have a diverse membership of seniors, young children, and differently abled people. Everyone is welcome.

Most importantly, our home is affordable.

A rainbow forms in the distance over green spaces from an apartment overlooking the city.
The view from Lise Watson’s apartment in downtown Toronto. (Lise Watson)

As members all pitch in and work together to maintain our building, the co-op can keep rent levels lower than market rates. 

We pay $1,160 monthly for a two-bedroom apartment, and that means we can continue living in a city which is becoming increasingly expensive. Just across the street, a two-bedroom apartment that is not in a co-op building is renting for almost $2,500 per month with heat and hydro on top. And that’s the norm. 

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

While my co-op has savings for capital projects such as this for now, it’s built on leased property and its future isn’t secure. I’m also constantly reminded of the pressures that 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 charges. Others need to go to banks to secure new financing or are applying for government assistance

If my co-op is unable to maintain its sustainable rent, my family will be forced to look outside the city for affordable housing. 

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

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

Growing up, I never wanted to be a homeowner. 

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

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

Farmer’s fields, ravines, and forests surrounded our family home. After finding local cows one day trampling our neighbour’s patio, my parents realized that good fencing 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 severely stretched. My parents couldn’t lay down grass in our backyard until a few years later, so we kids trailed into the house with red clay muck on our shoes regularly, much to my mom’s dismay. As children we spent hours each summer climbing trees and jumping into piles of yellowed grass and leaves, checking out the tadpoles and frogs in the creeks, and picking and eating sour apples from abandoned orchards. 

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

There was a sense of isolation and it was emotionally detrimental to a city gal like my mom who became a homemaker after her marriage. We were a one-car family and my dad drove to Hamilton every day for work. We were bussed several miles to school each day. 

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

I wanted a different kind of life. I dreamed of going to university and travelling. So I struck out on my own after high school and funded my own part-time university education at the University of Toronto at the downtown campus. The city was an oasis for me, and I never left except to travel. 

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

I have had a rich and rewarding life.  But the financial consequences are beginning to take a toll as Toronto becomes unaffordable.

A woman cuts a cake while a man and child look on.
Lise Watson, right, got married in Gambia in 2013. In this wedding photo, Watson cuts a cake with her husband and his son from a previous relationship. (Submitted by Lise Watson)

Today I wonder if I made the right decision by investing in education and life experiences rather than housing security and material possessions. I admit that I have been privileged to make this kind of a choice. Home ownership was low on my priority list. If I had a safe, clean home, that was good enough for me. I never dreamed that some day affordable housing would become scarce. 

Some of my oldest friends made different decisions than me. They focused on home ownership, paying off the mortgage and raising families. Today they are retired, sit in their gardens — some even have pools —  and enjoy the grandkids and travel to all-inclusive Caribbean resorts. They appear relatively content and clearly not worried about housing security. 

I envy the peace of mind they have but still contend that this was not the life for me. I know I did the right thing for me — and my mom — at the time. But now I fear for our housing future.


Do you have a similar experience to this First Person column? We want to hear from you. Write to us at firstperson@cbc.ca.



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