Two families' modern take on the multi-generational home

"It was really about setting up an ecosystem for our lives that really was self-sustaining."

"It was really about setting up an ecosystem for our lives that really was self-sustaining."

Rendering of future Tang household and Hoi Bo flagship space (Courtesy Sarra Tang)

In September, the average selling price for a home in Canada was approximately $515,500 — an amount that can make home ownership seem out of reach, especially for those living in a major city, where prices are often much higher. No doubt, the rising cost of housing and the parallel rise in the cost of living are behind a growing number of Canadians who are considering innovative co-ownership arrangements as a way to pool both financial and social resources, at least in part. 

One such arrangement is a multi-generational household, which houses three or more generations of one family. According to Statistics Canada and the Vanier Institute of the Family, it was the fastest-growing type of household in Canada between 2001 and 2016. 

Jason Davenport, a branch manager for Meridian Credit Union in Toronto, says larger mortgages are driving the need for sharing financial resources. Meridian is one of a handful of lenders, including Vancity and DUCA Credit Union, that facilitate having multiple people on the title of a home. "I would say it's more a niche than a trend, but there is this requirement for these sort of products now certainly in places like the GTA," says Davenport, who has seen the number of people choosing Meridian's friends and family mortgage increase in his five years with the company. 

Multi-generational living isn't new in Canada (it was even more common before the Second World War than it is today). In fact, the term might immediately conjure images of the in-law suite, created expressly to house an aging parent. But the in-law suite is only one setup for multi-generational living, and the motivations for choosing a multi-generational living situation can vary greatly. 

Some are designing their multi-generational households in a less conventional way to suit varying lifestyle needs and pursuits, and to care for all. Such is the case for Sarra Tang and Lulu Phongmany. We spoke to them about why they chose multi-generational living, how they executed their visions and how it has impacted their day-to-day. 

Sarra Tang is the founder of Hoi Bo, a Toronto-based sustainable clothing and accessories brand. Hoi Bo is set to open a new flagship store and community space in Toronto's west end — on the ground floor of Tang's home. 

Rear view, rendering of future Tang household and Hoi Bo flagship space (Courtesy Sarra Tang)

Sarra Tang bought her semi-detached, 1,800-square-foot home in the early 2010s. She moved in with her son and partner, with the idea of undertaking a renovation, in stages, to the living space and to turn main floor into a retail space for her business. But shortly after they took possession, Tang's sister moved in, and the family realized the renovations would be better achieved in one go.

That's when they made the decision was made to move everyone into Tang's mother's house while they undertook the larger, full-scale renovation, which would involve adding another floor and engineering balconies that could double as spaces to grow their own vegetables. 

As well as the ground-floor flagship retail space for Hoi Bo, the home's interior will consist of a communal living area and kitchen, plus four studio-style apartments that will give each family member their own private space within the larger home. The rooms will vary in size from 230 to 280 square feet, and each will have its own three-piece bathroom. When construction is complete, they plan to sell Tang's mother's home. 

"What the project was really about for our family was how it is that we are all supporting each other," says Tang. She adds that she envisioned the space as one that would give each family member the flexibility to pursue their interests — something that might not be possible if they were each responsible for their own individual dwellings.

"We were able to pool our resources together to make sure that no one person was over-burdened financially, which was really important to health and wellness … it was really about setting up an ecosystem for our lives that really was self-sustaining." 

This flexibility means, for example, that Tang's mother can be freed of housekeeping responsibilities. It also means that Tang's 24-year-old-son can be spared the full blow of Toronto's crippling rental prices. While every family member is contributing to financing the project, they also contribute to the household in other ways. For her part, Tang enjoys being the cook for the family. 

Tang's philosophy of living sustainably is one that carries through all aspects of her life, from Hoi Bo to this new living space to the design of the home's long driveway, which is slated to become a green space open to the community, with market stalls for small business and emerging artists. 

While the design and renovation process to date has not been without its challenges⁠ — Tang says she has learned a lot about "working with other people and communicating and managing expectations⁠"⁠ — she credits her family for being "enormously supportive" throughout the process. 

"I think that it's such an amazing gift that immigrants bring to Canada — this different perspective and these different ideas on how it is that you can approach life and how you can support each other as a family," says Tang. "It doesn't have to just apply to family members. It can apply to friends as well." 

Tang says that she doesn't consider her family remarkably close in the way people might expect — nor does she consider that a necessity to sustain this type of living arrangement.

"I think what is essential is to come at the project with people who are open-minded," says Tang. She hopes her example can help change the narrative around who can afford to own a home, and how, despite complex issues of affordability. 

"I'm optimistic that people will reimagine a different approach to homeownership. Toronto is ripe and ready for real change, and I look forward to seeing the creative approaches that people come up with to tackle the problem."

Lulu Phongmany is a growth consultant based in Vancouver. The Phongmany family made the decision to design and live together in a home with three distinct spaces.

Phongmany house (Courtesy Lulu Phongmany)
(Courtesy Lulu Phongmany)

Lulu Phongmany lives with her father, sister, brother-in-law and two nephews in a custom-built home and says that while multi-generational living was uncommon among people she knew growing up, it was "not an unusual concept" to her. 

"This might be a trend to other people, but it's not a trend to us. This was something that was inevitable, and we see it all the time. "

Phongmany and her sister always knew that they would eventually end up caring for their parents in their old age, but didn't know what form that care would take. When their mother passed away, the family decided to give up their individual dwellings in favour of finding a space that could work for them all. 

Phongmany says deciding to live together wasn't a matter of saving money or pooling financial resources to get something that was otherwise unattainable. 

"It wasn't less money to do this, and it definitely took a lot of time," she says. "The biggest thing was that we wanted to be together. That was the core motivator of this project."

Though they weren't originally interested in taking on such a large endeavour, they were unable to find an existing home that fit their needs. Ultimately, the family decided to purchase a property in their preferred neighbourhood and built a five-bedroom, three-bathroom main house for her sister's family, with a two-bedroom basement apartment for Phongmany and a one-bedroom laneway house for her father. 

Phongmany's work takes her away from Vancouver often, and she was living abroad when the home was completed, which is how she ended up living in the spare bedroom in the main house. She plans to move into the basement when the current tenants vacate. 

"The idea was that we would always have space to be separated with … the three different spaces, but [that we could] also be together in one place," says Phongmany. The family worked with an architect to design a home in which they could live communally. 

The situation lends itself to evolution in the future, depending on how the family's needs change, for example, if her nephews want to move into the basement when they're older. It also offers them convenience now. Phongmany and her father can provide childcare for her nephews during the evenings and days respectively, and the family members take turns providing dinner. 

"It's a joy when everyone comes home. We have family dinners together almost every night," says Phongmany. She remembers feeling jealous of the time her family was spending together when the home was first completed and she was still living abroad, saying that living in a large city alone can feel lonely and superficial.

The design of the home, which contains both private and communal space, has helped her adjust after living alone for 18 years. 

"This concept that you can't have your individual time when you live with your family, I think needs to be revisited … I think if people understood that you can do both, they would probably be more open to this." 

Phongmany says that while they've all benefited financially from access to more disposable income and flexibility to travel since living together, it's the generosity their new living situation has reintroduced to their lives that is most notable.

"The one thing that I think it brings out in you, when you live this way, is that it really makes you much more generous. Our parents were always really generous with their home, in the sense that if anyone needed a place to stay, they were always the first people to offer it," she says, adding that that generosity of space was not as prevalent when they all lived independently. At the moment, they also have a cousin staying with them.

"I just feel more connected to not just my immediate family but my extended family."

Eva Voinigescu is a freelance journalist and producer. She writes about health and science, careers, and culture.