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As COVID creates urgency around homelessness, frontline workers say the affordable housing solutions fail to address the root causes
The phrase is a favourite for municipal and federal governments alike, but its meaning has become deceptively confusing over the years: affordable housing. The term has been used to describe rental rates for middle-class households, to gesture widely to a “crisis” plaguing Toronto and to refer to housing supposedly made for the city’s most vulnerable communities.
But who is affordable housing really for? Housing advocates say that the term has changed so much that it has become meaningless, vaguely pointing to a level of affordability that is nowhere near accessible for the city’s currently unhoused population.
Affordable housing in Toronto could refer to a variety of housing structures, including subsidized, modular, supportive, rent-geared-to-income and social housing. Each has a slightly different purpose and represent different levels of “affordable.”
A Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives report found that a renter would need to make $27.74 per hour to be able to afford a one-bedroom in Toronto. And a minimum-wage worker would need to work 79 hours per week. When you consider a vacancy rate that, in 2019, hovered around 1.5 per cent (a healthy rental market should have a minimum rate of three per cent), you have all the makings of an affordable housing crisis.
The government defines affordable housing as shelter expenses that represent less than 30 per cent of pre-tax (or gross) income.
Though the crisis is one that hits most income levels, its effects are most vividly seen among the more than 10,000 people currently unhoused in Toronto any given night. And with a chronically low supply of affordable housing options, they have nowhere to go.
At the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, shelter capacity went down in order to allow for physical distancing, and encampments began to pop up in parks as people experiencing homelessness looked for alternative places to stay.
The city has been reluctant to allow the encampments, citing city bylaws that don’t allow people to inhabit parks overnight. But with limited shelter capacity and the pandemic resulting in more unhoused people due to job loss and evictions, options are slim.
In recent weeks, the city has announced initiatives to tackle the shortage of affordable housing options. It plans on building 250 supportive modular homes over the next two years, and has also received funding from the federal government for the Rapid Housing Initiative (RHI), with the goal of creating a minimum of 417 new permanent affordable homes.
However, housing activists say these plans are insignificant and, ultimately, not truly affordable. The demand for affordable housing vastly eclipses the meagre supply being proposed by the city, and activists say that very few of these units are genuinely affordable for the people who need it most.
Since federal and provincial governments pulled out of social housing funding in the 1990s, the rental costs of so-called affordable housing funded by the municipal government have often been much higher. In Toronto, units that start off affordable don’t stay that way, meaning that the city is losing its current affordable housing supply while barely adding to the new supply. Activists are calling for a commitment from the city to rent-geared-to-income and supportive housing, coupled with a real effort to control the city’s rental market.
The way we think about homelessness needs to change, says Greg Cook, an outreach worker and housing advocate with Sanctuary Toronto.
“The term ‘chronic homelessness’ is problematic, because it individualizes a systemic issue,” he says. “It’s actually a failure by the media and the government to acknowledge that we have a crisis because people can’t afford housing.”
Cook says government officials are quick to point to mental health and addiction as the “complex” issues fuelling homelessness, but he says all that does is obfuscate the real economic problem.
“Basically, we’re not willing to, at the very least, regulate a runaway real estate industry that’s making tons of money,” he says. “Meanwhile, people just cannot afford rent on minimum wage or the Ontario Disability Support Program (ODSP) or Ontario Works (OW).”
The way we think about – and regulate – rent prices also needs to change, says Melissa Goldstein, a local housing advocate. She argues that a lack of vacancy control and eviction prevention has turned Toronto’s rental market into the wild west.
Vacancy control would limit the amount landlords can raise rent in between tenancies. In Ontario, landlords can only raise rent on existing tenants every year by a provincially mandated residential rent increase of 2.2 per cent. But landlords can also raise rent between tenants, and without vacancy control, they can scale up rent prices by 30 or 40 per cent.
“If we had vacancy control, I think it would not be nearly as important that we don’t have adequate social housing, because we just wouldn’t have the rising rents that we’re seeing,” she says. “Housing would just be more affordable.”
The city’s modular housing project takes shape at 11 Macey Avenue in Scarborough.
David Hulchanski has studied homelessness and housing affordability in Toronto and Canada for over 40 years. He’s tracked how social housing spending has gone down over the past few decades. From 1965 to 1995, the city of Toronto added an average of 3,900 new social housing units per year to the housing market, meaning social housing made up around 12 per cent of the total housing supply.
At the time, the federal government was responsible for funding most social housing initiatives, recognizing that municipalities had nowhere near enough cash to keep up with demand.
Until around the late 1980s, homelessness wasn’t really a well-recognized or much-used phrase, Hulchanski says. In the few reports or studies looking at homelessness from the 60s to 80s, the common phrase was “homeless and transient men.”
“What was going on since the Industrial Revolution was there would be some people, mainly men, who weren’t associated with a family home, who drifted from job to job and lived in poorer areas in the city,” he explains.
However, in 1993, the federal government made the decision to cease funding new social housing. By 1996, the feds announced that management and subsidization of social housing would be transferred to provinces. In Ontario in 1998, the provincial government transferred financial responsibility for social housing to municipalities, and passed the Social Housing Reform Act in 2000 to implement the transfer.
Hulchanski says the downloading of social housing is a major factor in the rise of homelessness as a widespread crisis. “Because of the lack of social supports and the cutbacks of new social housing, you had everyone and anyone – women, men, young and old, families – finding themselves unhoused,” he explains.
“People always talk about how the federal government pulled out of supporting social housing,” Goldstein adds. “The impact of that has been huge because there hasn’t been anything to replace it.”
In December 2019, the city released the HousingTO 2020-2030 Action Plan, a 10-year plan outlining goals for, among other things, building more affordable and supportive housing units. The target is to build 40,000 new affordable housing units over 10 years, with 18,000 of those in supportive housing.
Supportive housing provides a combination of housing assistance and supports, including for mental and physical health.
“The problem with that plan is really just the lack of funds to implement the goals,” Goldstein says.
To make the plan a reality, the federal and provincial governments must fund each action item. The city is asking Canada and Ontario “to provide capital and ongoing operating funding to support the creation and delivery of 18,000 supportive housing homes over the next 10 years, which are anticipated to cost a total of $6.4 billion in capital costs and $300 million in ongoing annual operating costs.”
Even if the city does come up with the money, Cook worries it won’t be enough. “I’m frankly concerned it won’t even keep up to the level we’re at now,” he says. “In the last 10 years, they didn’t even get halfway to what they said they’re going to do.”
In the city’s 2000-2010 action plan, the goal was to create 1,000 affordable housing units annually. Toronto hit that target once – in 2012 – due to additional provincial and federal economic stimulus funding. In other years, the city barely reached 400 units.
“Even then, it was basically making housing somewhat affordable for middle-class people,” Cook says. “I would argue that that trend has continued, so when they say 40,000 units, most of those units aren’t accessible to people on ODSP and OW.”
Compared to the city’s historical social housing supply, Hulchanski says Toronto’s current plan is “totally insignificant.” He notes that while their goal averages out to around 4,000 new units a year, those units won’t count as true social housing.
“I call it fake affordable housing; it’s market housing to help developers who build rental buildings to market their very expensive rental buildings,” he says.
The city has increasingly turned to a public-private partnership model. Developments will often combine not-for-profit, private and public participation on projects, resulting in affordable units being included alongside other units in a new condo or apartment building.
Hulchanski points to Mirvish Village as an example of how Toronto conceives of affordable housing. It’s a for-profit development that includes 916 rental units at “different affordability levels.”
According to a recent report by Goldstein, 85 of the units will rent for 80 per cent of average market rent (AMR) for 25 years, after which point rent can be raised again. Another 281 units will rent at 30 per cent of median before tax total income for households in the area for 10 years.
According to the city of Toronto’s 2020 affordable housing model, 80 per cent of AMR would equal $1,099 for a one-bedroom apartment.
Goldstein writes that the city funding that went toward this development could have funded 65 units of permanently and deeply affordable public housing. These units would rent at the established deeply affordable rental rate of 30 per cent of individual household income, rather than the median before-tax total income for households in the area.
Goldstein says the city is losing affordable housing at a much faster rate than it’s being created.
“We lose it every time somebody moves out and housing gets more expensive, and we lose it through rent redevelopment,” she says. When a unit with rental housing is redeveloped, Goldstein says the redeveloped properties are often rented at a higher rate.
Her report mentions the Queen’s Hotel eviction, in which 27 tenants were mass evicted for redevelopment and renovation purposes after the city failed to secure it as affordable housing.
As mentioned earlier, the pandemic spurred the city to announce Toronto’s first modular supportive housing project, which will see 250 units built over two years.
So how much will they cost to rent?
Ahmed Hussen, the federal minister of families, children and social development and MP for York South-Weston, says the government has different definitions for different affordability levels.
“Some mixed housing units incorporate some market rental units, some somewhat affordable units, and then some deeply affordable units,” he says. Deeply affordable means 30 per cent of the person’s income and somewhat affordable is 80 per cent of AMR in Toronto.
He couldn’t specify at what rate the RHI units would rent for, but even if all 417 units are created within a year, along with the 250 modular homes, the city is still falling far behind its yearly 4,000 affordable housing units goal.
Hussen says that while the federal government is happy to provide funding for initiatives like the RHI, the province needs to step in too.
“We said we will eliminate chronic homelessness, but we’re not going to meet those targets or even exceed them if we don’t have other levels of government come in,” he says.
In response to an interview request, a rep for Parkdale-High Park councillor and city planning and housing committee member Gord Perks said the city has issued the COVID-19 Housing and Homelessness Recovery Response Plan, which is “an urgent appeal to the federal and provincial governments to create 3,000 permanent, affordable homes, within the next 24 months, for homeless, vulnerable and marginalized residents.”
The 3,000 homes would include 1,000 new permanent modular homes, 1,000 new permanent affordable rental homes created through acquisitions and shovel-ready construction projects and new portable housing benefits that will assist 1,000 people secure housing and pay rent.
A spokesperson from Ontario’s ministry of municipal affairs and housing said in a statement the province is providing the city with an additional $217 million through housing and homelessness programs next year and accelerating approval for the two modular housing projects and three developments in West Don Lands. The statement also points to the Canada-Ontario Housing Benefit, a joint federal-provincial housing allowance that will invest up to $1.4 billion over nine years.
The city’s housing plan aims to build 40,000 new affordable units over 10 years, with 18,000 of those in supportive housing.
Since last November, Candace, whose name has been altered for privacy, has been living in a shelter hotel with her two children after leaving an abusive home situation. At the time, she was put on a “priority” list for community housing. But it’s been a year and she says she hasn’t heard anything.
“Picture someone who maybe lost her job and fell behind on her bills and ended up getting evicted. She has nowhere to go, she doesn’t have friends or family, so she ends up at a shelter. The list that she goes on is the housing list for a person who’s homeless,” Candace explains.
“That’s a forever list. That’s 10 years. That’s not emergency.”
A report by Social Planning Toronto found that in 2019 over 110,000 households were on the waitlist for social housing.
“It could take years before [someone] can get out of the shelter system and get housing,” says Roxie Danielson, a street nurse who works with people in the shelter system. “The ODSP rates are just so low, and it’s just not enough for people to afford market rent, for example.
“[The city] announced they’re going to buy some land and put modular housing there, but it was nowhere near enough the amount that’s needed for people that actually do need housing,” she continues. “The city is just not investing enough there.”
The lack of supply means people on waitlists end up in housing that doesn’t meet their needs.
Candace ideally wants to move to Halton. But she’s seen other women at the shelter on the waitlist get housing in neighbourhoods she would never consider.
“I chose somewhere out of town, somewhere quiet, somewhere that I can feel safe to raise my kids and my kids can walk to school and be safe,” she says.
Diana McNally is a frontline worker who works with the Toronto Drop-in Network, and she sees the lack of housing options as a recurring problem particularly when it comes to supportive housing.
“I’ve known lots of folks who really don’t want to be housed in these kinds of units. Maybe they have animals and they can’t have animals. They have a partner, but it’s a bachelor unit. Oftentimes, in supportive housing, you’re not allowed to have guests,” she says. “They’re looking for a place that suits them and there’s not necessarily a lot of flexibility.”
She thinks about the lack of options when people wind up homeless again after being placed in “permanent” housing.
“If you look at folks who are sleeping rough, about 16 per cent of them, once they are housed, return to homelessness within one year, and they return an average of 2.3 times,” she says. “Any idea that it is permanent housing is patently false.”
McNally says part of the solution is to include people experiencing homelessness into conversations around housing needs and housing solutions.
“We really need to actually engage people in a much more fulsome way to ask what are the services that they really need to remain housed, and make sure that those are in place over long periods of time,” she says.
She also notes that while the government can say that projects such as the modular housing units are geared towards multiple equity-seeking groups, the supply is so low that there’s no way for that to match up.
“In fact, this kind of housing does not necessarily make sense for a lot of folks,” she says. “And so I deeply question, how are they going to prioritize who has access? I don’t know.”
Hulchanski points out that the idea of supportive housing being key to getting people off the streets is not new.
He cites a 1999 report on an action plan for homelessness that highlighted the need for supportive housing; then only a few years later, the federal government pulled out of social housing funding entirely.
“A key part of [the 1999 report] was a modest ask for 5,000 additional supportive housing units over a short period of time, and then maybe more depending on if we need more,” he says. “Again, we know what to do. We just haven’t been doing it.”