How to survive the long wait for affordable housing in Ontario

By Aaron Broverman - Published on September 1, 2016
affordable housing condos in Toronto
The average wait time for affordable housing in Ontario is 5.2 years. (Reynaldo Vasconcelos/Canadian Press)

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As the wait for rent-geared-to-income housing in Ontario continues to grow, the provincial government recently pledged to end chronic homelessness in 10 years. Part of this pledge includes proposed legislation that could make it easier for municipalities to build more affordable housing. But until those laws take effect, some cities are trying out new strategies of their own.

The Ontario Non-Profit Housing Association’s 2016 Waiting List Survey found that the number of families wait-listed for subsidized housing this year increased by 1.6 per cent, at 171,360 households. When the survey first started in 2003, that number was 126,103.

“There’s not as much rental housing being built,” John Wilson, manager of strategy and advocacy at Ontario Non-Profit Housing, says. Recent developer focus has largely been on home ownership, he says. This has contributed to an average provincial wait time of 3.9 years for households on the list — but since fewer housing units are available each year, the average wait for new applicants is 5.2 years.

Part of the province’s renewed commitment to affordable housing, announced in 2015, was to update the Long-Term Affordable Housing Strategy, originally released in 2010.

This update maintains the same goals — decreasing the number of homeless individuals and increasing the number of households with housing stability — while acknowledging that many people require different levels of support to reach those goals. It includes proposed legislation, the Promoting Affordable Housing Act, which would allow service managers to explore housing models outside the currently dominant rent-geared-to-income. This act also includes inclusionary zoning legislation, which would allow Ontario municipalities to require developers to include affordable housing in new development projects.

Though Bill 204 may be some time away from making real-world differences — it has yet to define what constitutes affordable housing and allows municipalities a say over how inclusionary zoning will work, if they choose to adopt it — a few cities are already implementing initiatives to reduce their housing waitlists before this bill has passed.

Instead of assigning people to one of several buildings meant for social housing, for example, Peel Region is allowing clients to stay in their current living situation or move into market-rent apartments and condos by providing them with housing supplements that move with them.

“Choice-based housing is where it’s most obvious to people that we’re doing something different,” says Juliet Jackson, director of strategic planning, policy and partnerships for Peel Region. “Just because you need financial assistance to live, doesn’t mean you can’t live in a nice place.”

Residents also get to live in newer buildings. Instead of grouping low-income populations together in one building, a number of local governments — including Peel, Toronto, Ottawa and Halton Region — are buying condo units at market rent and allowing low-income clients to live there either at subsidized rate, or allowing them to only pay condo fees and utilities.

“This gets clients off the waitlist and places them in a mixed-income community. If the last 30 years of social housing has taught us anything, it’s that if you place a bunch of low-income people in one community, among a series of buildings and isolate them, you’ll have some negative consequences,” says Alex Sarchuk, commissioner of social and community services for Halton Region.

“We think that kids growing up seeing their neighbours going to work every day and taking care of the common grounds will pay dividends in the long run. It’s also quite cost-effective for the region to buy units from developers who have a finely tuned expertise in building housing with low margins,” Sarchuk says.

But David Hulchanski, professor of housing and community development at the University of Toronto, cautions that Sarchuk’s point is a bit of an oversimplification.

“He’s well-meaning, but there’s an implication in his comments that low-income people will learn from higher-income people how to behave. That’s very patronizing and there’s no evidence to support it,” Hulchanski says.

While there’s no magic formula for what a neighbourhood’s income mix should be, Hulchanski says, any mix is better than none at all — on both ends of the income spectrum. A neighbourhood of mixed incomes promotes overall diversity and respect of differences.

Peel Region also waives fees and provides renovation credits for seniors who want to convert their basements into affordable social housing — allowing the participants to stay in their own homes, while creating additional housing stock.

Discussion and collaboration have also been taking place between the private and public sectors. In Ottawa, where the city plans to create 1,5000 affordable homes in the next five years, Broadening the Base has been holding regular public-private partnership consultations to figure out what these homes should look like. Each meeting features stakeholders in charge of five planning categories: housing development, land, philanthropy, social impact and communication with the community.

Similarly, the City of Toronto’s Open Door Program provides land-planning support and various incentives to any private developer who dedicates a portion of its build to subsidized housing.

“We’re talking about not charging development fees and not charging property taxes, so all the savings from these incentives are passed on to the tenant who are able to get lower and lower rates,” says city councillor Ana Bailão, chair of Toronto’s Affordable Housing Committee.

However, Peel Region’s Juliet Jackson points out that beyond supply, there are other long-term issues with affordable housing that will take more than just funds and zoning policy to address.

“I think all municipalities are struggling with mental health. At the end of the day, you can’t force support on someone who isn’t ready for it. For a lot of people who end up chronically homeless, mental health is a significant factor and I think figuring out how to help them is going to be our biggest challenge moving forward,” she says.

The struggle isn't just finding housing for someone; it’s also keeping them consistently housed. When mental illness affects a tenant, landlords must make impossible decisions such forgiving non-payment of rent, or interference with other tenants. The impact of mental illness on Ontario’s subsidized housing system is becoming a universal problem that requires help from social service and health systems to address.

“Ontario is finally seeing that the need for housing is really great and not addressing that need is actually more expensive than keeping people housed,” says Mike Bulthuis, executive director of the Alliance to End Homelessness Ottawa. “We’re now seeing that those Canadian values of compassion are still there, even though sometimes I think they need to be acted upon a little more strongly.”

For example, Bulthuis says that Canada’s capital city has actually decreased its overall funding of affordable housing at the municipal level over the last three years. There’s also concern that the $250 housing allowance provided by municipal governments in Toronto and Ottawa to subsidize rent while a resident waits for placement can’t make much of a dent in today’s rates.

“The main question is, is it enough? Right now, the answer is no,” Bulthius says. “There is funding flowing and it’s good what they're doing, they just need to do a little bit more.” 

Aaron Broverman is a Toronto-based freelance journalist.

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