By Rob Turnbull
United States Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy recently released a new Surgeon General Advisory calling attention to the public health crisis of loneliness, isolation, and the fundamental human need for connection. There are physical health consequences in the absence of sufficient connection with others, including an increased risk of heart disease, stroke, developing dementia, and premature death. Loneliness and isolation also contribute substantially to mental health challenges, including an increased risk of depression and anxiety. Social connection is the antidote.
Evidence shows that communities where residents are more connected with one another fare better on measures of population health, community safety, and prosperity. Social connection is beneficial for individual health, while also improving the resilience of whole communities. Dr. Murthy concludes that “given the significant health consequences of loneliness and isolation, we must prioritize building social connection…our relationships are a source of healing and well-being hiding in plain sight—one that can help [people] live healthier, more fulfilled, and more productive lives.”
Chosen family pods are a shared housing model in which tenants consciously choose to live with “family members” that are either friends, fellow students, coworkers, relatives, or even ex-partners to form a bond and share in each others’ lives. It comes with advantages that include comradery, a sense of belonging, safety, and built-in social supports. This starkly contrasts with a landlord, property manager, or other third-party renting individual bedrooms to different people who know nothing about each other and are essentially strangers.
Beyond social connection and support, chosen family pods provide a wide variety of benefits, including physical and economic security. Sharing household items contributes to a lower carbon footprint than living alone, also making it an environmentally-conscious choice. Private bedrooms and communal common areas provide options to embrace or to limit social interaction according to changing preferences. The model also promises increased housing affordability and accessibility for low-income individuals, including those at-risk for, and/or with lived experience of, homelessness.
This shared housing model could enable individuals to remain in their neighbourhood despite rising unaffordable rents, or alternatively, choose to live in a nicer neighbourhood that they otherwise would be unable to afford. It all starts with chosen family pods being an option on the housing continuum. In general, this model is not on the radar of individuals at risk for or with lived experience of homelessness, low-income tenants, landlords, developers, municipalities, or provincial and federal governments—yet.
Currently, the only choice for low-income citizens is an isolating studio apartment—if they can find one, and if it is within their financial means. But with the right enticements, chosen family pods could be built by the private market rental housing sector. With increased density and affordable rent by design, chosen family pods could unlock the power of connection. As T.J. Klune aptly wrote in The House in the Cerulean Sea, “A home isn’t always the house we live in. It is also the people we choose to surround ourselves with.” Chosen family pods can house more people, faster; dramatically impact housing stability; and change lives, building better futures.
Our hope is that this shared housing concept emerges to provide increased choice on the housing continuum for low-income individuals. Ideally, municipalities and provincial governments learn to embrace this opportunity—and social service providers serving youth, seniors, supportive housing tenants, immigrants, refugees, students, and the low-income workforce find a way to partner with developers and landlords to create a pipeline of chosen families.
Rob Turnbull is president and chief executive officer of the Vancouver-based organization Streetohome Foundation. Streetohome has authored a business case that identifies potential impacts of chosen family pods on stakeholders; its challenges, facilitators, and best practices; policy snapshots; development examples; financial modelling; promotion options; and recommendations for BC.