Toronto is becoming unlivable. With a growing segment of its population suffering from precarious and inadequate housing, some would consider the city to be in the midst of crisis of housing affordability, however, this is fundamentally a city in crisis.
The cost of living in Toronto, even for those who obtain access to social or subsidized housing, has become increasingly unmanageable. According to the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives (CCPA), the living wage in Toronto stands at $18.52 per hour, while the current provincial minimum wage slumps to $11.25. The living wage computes what it costs for a family to meet their most basic and fundamental necessities in order to live, but it also incorporates the costs associated with being able to actively participate in the economic and social fabric of the community. Essentially, what it costs to maintain your human dignity. This all begins with access to a home that is affordable, a home in which you feel safe, and one that enables you to connect with the community in which you live.
A median priced Toronto home, according to the Demographia International Housing Affordability Survey, is 6.5 times the city’s median household income. Demographia defines any multiple higher than 5.1 as being “severely unaffordable.” In comparison, for Vancouver, the second most unaffordable housing market in the world (second only to Hong Kong) home prices sit at 10.6 times median income. However, Toronto seems to be closing the gap; over the past decade while Vancouver’s price-income ratio has risen by 50 per cent, Toronto’s is up by 65 per cent.
Traditional home ownership has become a pipe-dream for most Torontonians. According to a recent Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) report, Canada’s rising housing prices have disproportionately worsened housing affordability for renters. This crisis of affordability is occurring in tandem with the city experiencing extremely low vacancy rates. According to the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corp Toronto’s vacancy rate currently sits at 1.6 per cent. Renters, who have a tendency to be either the young, (who are having to pay off high levels of student debt with only precarious employment to help them do so) or seniors trying to live off of a fixed income. Neither with a family financial safety net to fall back on.
So what can explain the root causes of the current affordable housing shortage? For one, the proliferation of luxury condo construction. In 2013 there were 55,000 condo units under construction, and by some estimates this volume exceeds the demands of population growth threefold. Since 2009 condo pricing has gone up by 29 per cent. Considering condo living is essentially the only housing option for the downtown core, and developers havecno inventive to build larger family-sized units, it effectively pushes families out of the market. This is especially consequential for new immigrants, who tend to have a larger family unit, for not only can they not afford economic price point of the downtown core however, even if they did there are essentially no units being made available to them.
While high-end condo development is booming, it is being accompanied by a bust in the new construction of social housing units, and rent-geared-to-income residential development. There are currently 91,000 households on the Toronto Community Housing Corporation’s (TCHC) wait-list. TCHC only has 60,000 units currently in use. Effectively, these new condo developments are pricing people out of what should be their fundamental human right, the right to an affordable home.
There are, however, efforts underway that are trying to alleviate aspects of this crisis.
One such effort is Evergreen CityWork’s, in partnership with the Centre for Urban Growth and Renewal’s, Tower Renewal Project. Essentially, Tower Renewal is a large-scale urban planning; building rehabilitation and community reinvestment initiative that seeks to offer not only an economic solution to aspects of the city’s housing crisis, but also a social and environmental one as well.
The project targets the city’s stock of mid-century apartment tower complexes. These tower neighbourhoods are high-density enclaves with a vast area surrounding the complexes which are under-utilized. There are nearly 2,000 of these apartments located within the GTA, comprising 20 percent of the city’s housing stock, and they are what nearly a million Torontonians call home. The project aims to retrofit these aging towers in order for these communities to become more economically, socially, and environmentally viable.
Economically, this project has the potential to create opportunities for community-led economic development. Currently, these communities lack access to local amenities and social services. In addition, thanks to the city’s restrictive land-zoning policies, residents are unable to establish small commercial businesses in the area. Socially, these communities tend to suffer from high rates of unemployment, residents tend to be economically disenfranchised, and these communities are located within an area prone to high levels of crime. By investing in these spaces livability can be greatly enhanced. Lastly, on the environmental front energy retrofits could have the potential to create both better energy efficiencies, while also lowering carbon emissions.
While Tower Renewal does offer solutions for the social needs that concerns precarious housing, it does not speak to the city’s current crisis of affordable housing stock; however, there is a project that does.
Regent Park is one of the oldest and most densely populated public housing communities in the country. Built over 50 years ago on the east-side of the downtown core, this community is home to 7,500 residents living in 2,087 social housing units. Since the 1940s, this neighbourhood has been stigmatized for having high rates of crime, grossly inadequate social conditions, and poor infrastructure The average income per year for residents living within this community is averaged at $15,500; making it impossible for residents to meet the cost of living.
Starting in 2002 the TCHC began the Regent Park Social Housing Redevelopment Project. The promise was that this three-phase revitalization project would transform the community into a mixed-income neighbourhood with improved services for its residents, and more accessible and green public spaces. The expansion would include 5,000 units consisting of rent-geared-to-income social housing units, market rentals, and privately owned condominiums. Rather than remain a social housing project, the make-up of Regent Park will soon be 70 per cent market rate units and 30 per cent social housing units. Construction efforts are still underway.
In both of the projects discussed however, while the physical transformation and social integration goals should be lauded, there are potential unintended consequences that need to be addressed. One of the most pressing consequences for both projects is gentrification. As these areas revitalize and redevelop families who are still socioeconomically under-served could potentially be priced out of their own communities. As new amenities and commercial businesses begin to emerge within these neighbourhoods there is a real concern that they will tailor to the needs of the middle class, making the area unaffordable to its former residents.
In terms of Regent Park’s redevelopment efforts it has forced former residents to temporally relocate. For vulnerable, low-income residents’ this forced displacement has ripped them apart from the community in which they work, go to school, receive healthcare and childcare services, and ultimately where they have built their lives.
TCHC has promised that those who have been forced to relocate will be guaranteed one of the new units that are being built in the redevelopment construction efforts.
The housing affordability and accessibility concerns of Toronto’s most economically vulnerable residents are still not being met. While there are projects currently underway that are trying to provide innovative solutions to alleviate those concerns, we still have a long way to go. When we consider just how fundamental those concerns are for not only maintaining a basic standard of living, but also for preserving our human dignity, time is not a luxury we can afford to waste.
Shelby Challis is a 2016 Master of Public Policy candidate at the University of Toronto’s School of Public Policy and Governance. She previously completed an Honours Bachelor of Arts degree in Political Science at the University of Toronto, and has since worked for the Ministry of Health and Long-term Care. Her policy areas of interest include healthcare finance, labour relations and security management.