‘People are stuck’: Report highlights Toronto’s housing crunch as city prepares 10-year plan

Last November, Mark Delisi lost the roof over his head.

The 23-year-old was paying roughly $1,200 a month for his portion of a four-bedroom house in the Roncesvalles area — more than a third of his monthly salary working in the ad industry — when all of a sudden, the ceiling of his room collapsed from water damage.

Two months later, he’s still subleting from a friend while he tries to find a new, affordable place to rent — something he calls a seemingly “hopeless situation.”

“I have all the different alerts set up on my phone from all the different rental sites in Toronto,” he said. “There’s nothing really within a regular person’s budget.”

Delisi’s experience points to a “grim” trend highlighted in a new report underpinning the city’s next wave of housing planning: Toronto residents are grappling with a housing crunch that’s on track to get worse if there’s not enough government action, thanks to low rates of social housing and purpose-built rental construction coupled with rising population growth.

“People are stuck,” said Jeff Evenson, director of the Canadian Urban Institute, one of two outside research institutes behind the report.

“And they’re stuck at every point along the housing continuum.”

Social housing wait is 5 to 7 years

On one end of the spectrum, residents waiting for supportive housing remain in homeless shelters, hospitals, rooming houses or other forms of housing that don’t meet their needs for an average of five to seven years, according to the research team.

Meanwhile, renters hoping to buy are forced to wait more than a decade — typically between 11 to 27 years — so they can save enough for a 10 per cent down payment on a median-price home.

Those are just some of the findings from the Canadian Centre of Economic Analysis and the Canadian Urban Institute’s Toronto Housing Market Analysis report. Commissioned by the city’s affordable housing office in 2018, the 53-page document is meant to offer insight as city staff develop the next long-term housing and homelessness action plan for the decade ahead.

So what will the current housing crunch look like as the city grows?

The report projects almost double the rate of population growth to 2041 from what the city has experienced since 2006, “resulting in a significant increase in housing demand.”

“In the absence of government intervention and action across the housing continuum, Toronto’s low — and moderate — income households will face a grim housing situation,” the document continues.

The researchers found Toronto’s population will hit 3.5 million people by 2031 and nearly four million a decade later. Similarly, the number of households on the social housing wait list will spike as well, increasing nearly 30 per cent to just under 120,000 by 2031 and to more than 135,000 by 2041.

The report also suggests the rental market hasn’t kept pace with the rising need, with most of the city’s purpose-built rental housing, including social housing, constructed during the “postwar rental apartment boom” of the 1960s and 1970s — and more than 90 per cent of all available units built before 1980.

“Unremedied, the housing situation in Toronto will produce consequential challenges for equity, cohesion, and economic prosperity in the city,” the research team warns.

‘It’s absolute misery out there’

The findings come as no surprise to housing experts, and those who spoke to CBC Toronto stressed the need for broad action to combat the spectrum of issues.

​Ginelle Skerritt, executive director ‎of the Warden Woods Community Centre in Scarborough, said the report hit home based on the “unprecedented” number of people she knows personally who have recently struggled to find affordable places to live.

She said around 10 community members have couch-surfed with her family in the past two years, including mothers with children, a woman struggling with addiction, and multiple people who are working “but not making enough to afford the price of housing.”

“It’s absolute misery out there right now,” echoed tenant advocate Geordie Dent, executive director of the Federation of Metro Tenants’ Associations.

Renters now report spending three or four months trying to find a unit, and often wind up forking over a large chunk of their income on rent, he explained.

“Either the feds and province are going to start building housing the way it was built before, or the whole thing is going to come crashing down,” Dent said.

Graham Haines, research and policy manager at Ryerson University’s City Building Institute, said the big challenge Toronto faces right now is fixing existing public housing stock, with the latest draft budget from the city noting Toronto Community Housing faces a “funding shortfall” as repair costs continue to rise for the aging buildings.

“That’s a big problem,” said Haines. “We have this shortfall of social housing and yet we continue to defer the maintenance of what we already have, which is going to take more and more of that housing offline.”

The draft budget also includes a 2.55 per cent property tax increase for residential homes, tied to the rate of inflation and a campaign promise from Mayor John Tory, but Haines questioned how far that goes.

“We’ve consistently tried to hold taxes low, but if we want to start addressing these housing shortfalls, it does require some leadership.”

Haines did call Tory’s Housing Now program — a plan to turn 11 surplus city sites into housing, with thousands of units offered for below-market rents by private and non-profit developers — a “great start” when it comes to boosting affordable stock.

Simone Swail, manager of government relations with the Co-operative Housing Federation of Canada, agreed the initiative has potential but said it must prioritize community partnerships, with non-profits and other agencies, to actually work.

“It’s particularly clear the low ends of the [housing] spectrum have not been well-served by the private approach to housing we’ve taken over the last 20 years,” she said.

City aims to develop ‘comprehensive strategy’

Now, as the city gears up to develop its broader 10-year housing plan, Sean Gadon — director of the city’s affordable housing office — said the latest findings will inform that process.

“There are a heck of a lot of challenges here,” he added. “We have to come back with a comprehensive strategy and one, we hope, that will attract the federal and provincial governments.”

Gadon said the city needs to scale up its housing efforts on all fronts, be it improving data collection, boosting supply, or tackling the housing inequity that leaves “hundreds of thousands of people” across Toronto living in unsuitable or unaffordable units.

“The prosperity of the city itself is at risk if people can’t come here and work because there’s not an affordable place to live,” Gadon said.

Delisi believes that’s the reality as well, and worries the high rental prices could force him to move elsewhere and spend hundreds of dollars a month on a lengthy commute, with Toronto being the epicentre for his advertising and writing career.

Or, if he stays long-term, he said the lack of any major financial support from his family could leave him spending lots on rent — and saving little for his future.

“To me, it seems that Toronto is just becoming a place whether you have to be well-off, you have to have a family with money to live here,” he said.

“I think that’s what we’re going to start seeing more and more: It’s an exclusive place to live.”


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