The evidence of families and individuals in need of affordable housing in the Toronto region surrounds us – growing numbers of homeless people, crowded hostels and long waiting lists for social housing.
Some 260,000 households in the GTA pay more than 30 per cent of their income on housing, which is considered to be the maximum that a low-income family should pay given their needs for food, clothing and other necessities. The waiting list for social housing in the GTA is about 71,000 households. In Toronto alone, some 30,000 homeless individuals pass through the emergency shelter system every year.
The recent rise in the rental housing vacancy rates in the GTA has provided some relief in finding accommodation, but little relief in the rent being charged. In fact, the average rent has risen a cumulative 21.4 per cent over the past five years, compared to a rise of 12 per cent in the Consumer Price Index.
Affordable housing is a particular problem for families and individuals in the GTA who depend on social assistance for their income. Many of these households rent in the private rental market. In 1994, a family of four received shelter assistance of $700 a month when the average market rent was $780 in Toronto. Today that family receives $544 a month to cover rent, while the average market rent in Toronto has risen to $1,055. As a result, these residents currently live in poverty and regularly face the choice of whether to eat or pay the rent. In fact, growing family dependence on food banks is driven by lack of affordable housing.
The shelter allowance is not only inadequate but is also inequitable. It covers roughly 70 to 90 per cent of the average rent in small to mid-size cities, but less than 50 per cent in Toronto, where the cost of living is the highest in the country.
Reports from the TD Bank, the Toronto Board of Trade, the Federation of Canadian Municipalities, the Toronto Financial Services Alliance, the Centre for Urban and Community Studies, the United Way of Greater Toronto, the Mayor’s Homelessness Action Task Force and the Prime Minister’s Caucus Task Force on Urban Issues have all weighed in with serious concerns, and practical solutions to deal with the challenges of homelessness and lack of affordable housing.
The response of senior governments has been to introduce a rental housing program that creates a small amount of new housing at average rent levels between $800 and $1,000 per month. This is well above the level that poor families can afford. Our governments have also taken some measures to improve the investment climate for rental housing through regulatory and tax reform.
In February, 2004 at the Mayor’s Affordable Housing Summit, the city, the province of Ontario and the federal government announced a $24 million allocation of funds from the Canada-Ontario Affordable Housing Program Agreement to build 903 new units of affordable housing in the City of Toronto. In addition, community contributions of $4.7 million, an allocation of more than $8 million in low interest loans from the City’s Capital Revolving Fund, $2 million in development charge and planning fee waivers and over $17 million in property tax waivers were announced.
The federal and provincial government must deliver on their election promises and stated plans. The Ontario Liberals must deliver on their election commitment of 35,000 rent subsidies and 20,000 new affordable housing units. The federal government must deliver on its commitment of $1.5 billion in addition to previous commitments. The Speech from the Throne in October, 2004 reaffirmed that funding will be extended. On the other side of things, municipalities, communities and local groups need to develop affordable housing proposals and partnerships that can make use of newly available funding. Important first steps are being taken and hopefully this is the beginning of sustained investment in affordable housing in the Toronto region.