Posted May 6, 2019
Maize Blanchard, 68, remembers working as a personal support worker in the day and cleaner at night.
It was hard work, but it paid the bills, she set money aside for retirement, and had money to send to family back home in Jamaica.
Then in 2004 she was involved in an accident that caused an injury that forced her to stop working. She didn’t qualify for the Ontario Disability Support Program (ODSP), so she started her Canada Pension Plan early through its disability benefits program.
The money disappeared fast, and her current benefits barely support her living expenses.
She receives nearly $1,300 a month in pension and housing support benefits and spends $960 a month on her one-bedroom apartment at a Jane and Finch highrise.
“All my money is going in rent,” she said. After rent, the rest goes into groceries and there’s nothing left over after that.
“I don’t have money for recreation. Whatever I do is free.”
She does, reluctantly, get some help from her church, such as in the way of grocery store cards.
“One of my friends tells me I’m too proud,” Blanchard said. “For me now to be in a position where I have to ask for help, it’s not something I like.”
In Toronto, Blanchard is not alone in spending such a great portion of her income on housing. Toronto’s housing situation has both city officials and advocates worried about the future.
A recent report by Zoocasa shows that to buy a house in Toronto families need an annual income of nearly $125,000, or $75,000 to buy an apartment.
In terms of rentals, an Urbanation report for the Federation of Rental-housing Providers of Ontario says Toronto has a 1.1 per cent rental vacancy rate at purpose-built rental buildings and 0.7 per cent rate at condo rentals.
As demand goes up, so do prices.
Scott Guzman, a Disability Support Program recipient who lives in a Toronto Community Housing building in the Scarborough Bluffs area, says he doesn’t know what he would do if he wasn’t in subsidized housing. He had been living in a rooming house downtown before ending up in a homeless shelter, from where he ended up at his current building three years ago. He spends $149 on rent and has $600 for living expenses, which is essentially a Metropass, groceries and internet.
“Without TCHC, that would be hard. I would have to be taking some of my food money for rent so that would be hard,” he said.
John Stapleton, a housing advocate in Scarborough and a policy adviser with Open Policy Ontario, says there is no silver bullet to solving Toronto’s housing situation. He said it will take many small solutions and politicians will need to make some unpopular decisions.
Since the city is not in the position to build more TCHC units — the organization is currently undergoing a $2.6 billion capital repair plan — the city will have to make it easier for private landlords to offer more affordable housing stock, Stapleton said. Legalizing rooming houses in Etobicoke, North York and Scarborough, where they are currently not allowed, would be a start. If the city collects rental tax revenue from those units, that revenue could be used to offer further incentives to developers to build affordable housing.
Section 37 — which is money paid by developers to the city for community improvements in the wards where the development occurs — would go a lot further if it was spent on affordable housing projects in the suburbs where land costs are cheaper, he said.
“We’re creating little privileged areas of Toronto,” he said of development heavy neighbourhoods.
West-end artist Hiba Abdallah partnered with Etobicoke’s Lakeshore Arts on a project called the Neighbourhood Trust Mimico Housing Coalition. They converted Lakeshore Arts’ Mimico space into a hub where people could talk about their housing troubles, recent changes in the neighbourhood and housing help resources.
What the 29-year-old heard was surprising. Many people who came in didn’t even care about owning a home, they just wanted to feel secure in the place where they are renting.
“The majority of people have this feeling of ‘I don’t feel secure where I am’,” she said
“Owning is not a goal anymore, but they want to have a sense of security so that if they are renting a place that not, at any given moment, they’re asked to leave.”
She said a recent trend of “renovictions”, by which a landlord can ask a tenant to leave so they can renovate the place has people scared.
Abdallah even met some people working full-time jobs who are homeless and can’t leave the shelter system, either because rent costs have become so high or because vacancy rates are so low.
The city is currently undergoing a review of its affordable housing strategy, called Housing TO 2020-2030 Action Plan, which is intended to address those worries.
Sean Gadon, director of the city of Toronto’s Affordable Housing Office who is preparing that report, said there’s a lot going against the city in its efforts to alleviate the housing situation.
In the past five-years, 80,000 condo units, half of which are owned by investors, came on the market, but only 4,500 rental apartments.
“The good news is there’s a lot of prosperity; the bad news is there’s a lot of prosperity that has left a lot of people in this city behind,” Gadon said.
“We’re not talking about a small group of people … We’re seeing a lot of people in Toronto who are feeling stuck, looking for housing and don’t feel they have opportunities to move up to better accommodation or from rental to ownership. Many people are stuck in our shelters unable to move into temporary or rental housing because of its shortage and its price.”
Gadon said the city alone can’t solve the problem and will need help from Ottawa and the province. The city is conducting public consultations toward the 2020-2030 plan.
Toronto ACORN (Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now) is deeply concerned about the housing situation in the city. ACORN spokesperson for housing Alejandra Ruiz Vargas says the situation will become unmanageable and action needs to be immediate.
“We are living in a society, here in Toronto, where you see so much money for so many things, but not housing,” she said.
The province passed an inclusionary zoning law that allows municipalities to require developers to include 10 per cent of their units to be affordable, but that’s just not enough, she said.
“We really wanted 40 per cent.”
She said 40, or even 30 per cent immediately, could have made immediate change and when the situation is stabilized, it could be lowered to 20 or 10 per cent.
She said the provincial government needs to establish real rent controls, to stop landlords from raising rents as high as they want when a new tenant comes in, and to not allow loopholes such as renovictions. She said more rent-geared-to-income housing needs to be developed, and more purpose-built rental buildings need to be built too.