“We don’t know if we can afford to live in this neighbourhood anymore,” says Barry Gilbeault. He’s talking about Yonge–Eglinton, in midtown Toronto, where real-estate prices are sky high — and getting higher.
“We thought we were going to pass away here,” adds Jim Goodwin, his long-time neighbour in the provincially designated “growth zone.”
Both will be evicted when their apartment building is demolished to make way for a new condominium. And they’re not alone: across Toronto, seniors are being squeezed out of the city’s most desirable neighbourhoods.
Development pressures in such communities have affected tenants in many ways — driving rents higher and fuelling gentrification and a renovation craze. These factors create a precarious situation for renters and have a disproportionate impact on seniors, the least mobile population — and one that’s expected to make up more than a quarter of the city’s population two decades from now.
According to the Centre for Equality Rights in Accommodation, a third of seniors are tenants, and the majority of them already spend more than the recommended 30 per cent of their income on housing. Seniors, like everyone else, are hit with escalating rents — but most are on a fixed income.
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While the Ontario Human Rights Code protects seniors from age-based discrimination, in practice, their housing rights are being curtailed without consequence.
Landlords, for example, are increasingly relying on a tactic known as “renoviction” — renovating their buildings so that they can introduce higher-than-guideline rent hikes that many seniors can’t cover.
Seniors are targeted at a higher rate than their millennial counterparts, says Katie Plaizier, interim executive director at CERA. “A significant [number] sense that landlords are targeting them because they have been living in their homes for a long time, and their rents are lower than what landlords can get at the current market rate from new tenants.”
Some landlords pursue tenants for small rent arrears, sending notices to vacate within 14 days. Seniors sometimes comply, not realizing that the landlord can’t begin to seek redress for 14 days after the notice.
“There’s a sense of shame around this. They’ve lived in their homes for a long time and never thought they’d need any support, so they don’t know where to go,” Plaizier says.
In 2015, more than four in 10 rent-eviction applications in Toronto went uncontested, meaning that the tenant did not appear at the hearing and an eviction order was most likely issued. CERA and other advocates believe a large proportion of those tenants were seniors.
Some older Ontarians will end up homeless, at least temporarily. Dixon Hall Neighbourhood Services, which runs the Out of the Cold program in partnership with several organizations, has seen a 5 per cent increase in seniors over the last three years — they make up almost half of all frequent guests.
Affordable social housing is an option, but the waiting list in Toronto is nearly nine years and 100,000 households long — the wait can be even longer for those who don’t qualify for special priority status.
Elizabeth Slone, who lives in Etobicoke, says she’s been on the list for almost a decade. “And I’m not even close,” she adds. “I’ve attended meetings on the housing crisis, but I don’t see any solution. Housing must be a right.”
“It’s a very small percentage of happy seniors that can travel to Florida in the winter and have a cottage in the summer,” Slone says. “Every Friday the church is making a free dinner — it’s full of seniors.”
If a spot does open up, it’s often in an unfamiliar neighbourhood. “When [seniors] have to find affordable housing, they are advised to move out of the city core,” says Aiko Ito, a client intervention worker from Dixon Hall. “Their health-care communities are all in downtown Toronto. It’s not realistic.”
Studies show that the stress of being forced to leave your home — and moving into a new neighbourhood where you don’t have established community or support services — can have serious health effects, especially on older people. “Isolation has deteriorating effects on well-being, which puts more strain on the system,” says Michael Nicin, executive director of the National Institute on Ageing.
In the report by CERA, seniors surveyed described moving due to eviction as “devastating,” “frightening,” “overwhelming,” and “exhausting.” Only 22 per cent felt they could search for a new home without help.
Governments at all levels have been taking steps to combat the crisis and to encourage aging in place — which the federal government defines as “having the health and social supports and services you need to live safely and independently in your home or your community for as long as you wish and are able.”
The National Institute on Ageing is working with various partners on a National Seniors Strategy, with the aim of seeing it incorporated into a federally mandated, intragovernmental plan. It looks at 12 areas where policy could be changed or created, including affordable housing and income security.
In Ontario, the Liberals introduced the Seniors’ Healthy Home Program, which provides a benefit of up to $750 annually for eligible senior-led households to help them maintain independence and offset housing-related costs. As yet, it’s unclear whether the new Progressive Conservative government plans to preserve it. A spokesperson for the Ministry for Seniors and Accessibility told TVO.org, “The Ontario government is closely reviewing and evaluating all programs and services across the province. Our priority is to deliver better outcomes, more efficient services, and accountable, sustainable supports for seniors.”
The Toronto Seniors Strategy contains 27 recommendations, including the establishment of a Seniors Housing and Services Division, new affordable housing, a fund for housing repairs and accessibility modifications, and a senior-specific homeless shelter.
Plaizier believes the city and province aren’t going far enough — she says seniors need immediate solutions, such as amending and clarifying eviction notices to help them understand their rights. “Prevention is one of the strongest tools to maintain livability,” she says. “We must ensure better access to eviction-related supports, especially for seniors.”