What new rules mean for Ontarians waiting for social housing

The Tories changed provincial regulations with the aim of getting people into housing faster — but advocates say the new approach could create new issues and exacerbate homelessness
By Mary Baxter - Published on Nov 24, 2020
Roughly 6,000 Londoners are currently on a centralized wait-list for social housing. (SkyF)

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LONDON — Seventeen years after she applied for rent-geared-to-income housing, Jean is still waiting for a new place to live. And, starting in 2021, the 47-year-old, one of roughly 6,000 Londoners on a centralized wait-list for social housing, will have only one chance to accept an offer of accommodation.

Currently, she can consider up to three offers before being removed from the list. But an October 21 form letter from the city informed her that, as of January 1, if she turns an offer down, she “will be removed from the centralized social housing waitlist” managed by the city’s Housing Access Centre. 

“I just don’t think it’s right for me or anybody on the list,” says Jean, who receives disability support and works two hours a week as a companion. (Jean asked that TVO.org withhold her full name.) Not long ago, she says, she added to her preferred list a facility that seemed “nice and quiet,” only to learn that stabbings and shootings had taken place there. She removed the selection but worries about what would happen if she were to accept a placement and then discover that there were noisy or violent neighbours who could trigger her anxiety disorder. “That could take 17 years before they put me somewhere else,” she says.

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The new approach is the result of changes to provincial regulations that govern wait-lists for social housing. Introduced by the Progressive Conservative government in 2019, they require all social-housing service managers — the 47 municipalities that manage social housing for their regions — to introduce the “use it or lose it” rule by January 1, 2021.

A spokesperson for the Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing told TVO.org via email that the change is among several intended to shorten wait-lists, get people in need into housing faster, and fill vacant units. At London and Middlesex Community Housing, the area’s largest-social housing provider, 4 per cent of the 3,300 units — 130 in total — are unoccupied, they noted: “This change will help people move up the list and into housing more quickly.”

Social advocates, though, are critical of the move. There’s a need to ensure that social housing is “fully used and fully occupied,” says Kenneth Hale, director of advocacy and legal services at the Advocacy Centre for Tenants Ontario. “It’s heartbreaking to see so many desperate people and social-housing units sitting vacant.”

But many units remain vacant, he notes, because landlords lack the money and staff to keep them in good repair. (In November, 92 of the vacant units at London and Middlesex Community Housing were damaged or undergoing repairs.) Ultimately, however, Hale blames the bottleneck on a provincewide lack of social housing: “We still don’t really see a strong commitment, particularly at the provincial level, to increasing the supply.”

Jacqueline Thompson, executive director of Life*Spin, a London non-profit that advocates for low-income families, worries that the new approach will reduce access to appropriate housing and potentially move families away from their work and their children’s subsidized daycare. “It’s not meeting all the needs of all the people that are on the wait-list,” she says.

And the approach could also exacerbate homelessness, says Abe Oudshoorn, a nursing professor at Western University who specializes in poverty issues. “We know that moving people into housing that’s not of choice just creates that higher risk that they will return to housing crisis,” he explains. “It may mean people who are in recovery from substance use being located close to people they’re trying to avoid to stay clean and sober. It might mean people are being put into buildings where they’ve had traumatic experiences.”

All three social advocates also note that removing people from the wait-list who’ve turned down an offer could end up under-representing the need for social housing. “If they’re bumping people off like this, they’re not finding housing,” Thompson says. “They’re just getting dumped off the list.”

Housing administrators, on the other hand, say the move will ease administrative loads and likely help reduce wait times, too. “Probably after we have a good year under our belt of administering this new policy, it’ll give us a better opportunity to speak to the impact it’s had on wait times,” says Danielle Neilson, the housing and homelessness manager in St. Thomas. The city, which also manages social housing for Elgin County, introduced the new rule in April. Neilson says that 750 people are currently waiting for rent-geared-to-income housing.

Dave Purdy, manager of London’s housing services, notes that the new policy will mean dealing with some things differently. Now when the offer of a unit is made, he says, applicants often provide additional information: “Sometimes we hear things about access to elevators, or not making the request for a ground floor unit — those kinds of things.” Under the new approach, he says, “we need to know that stuff upfront.”

Applicants will still have choice, he says: they will select from among their preferred locations (in London, there are no limits on the number of locations that can be selected), but the onus will be on them to carefully think through their needs and do research about housing communities when they make their initial choices. As people may find it difficult to assess the housing communities at that stage, he says, “We’ve got to figure out [if there are] ways to make sure that people making building selections are well informed to make the right ones.”

In St. Thomas, Neilson says, if a unit that’s being offered doesn’t “for some meaningful reason” meet the person’s needs, staff will “look to make an exceptional circumstance and provide the opportunity to update that application and perhaps keep them where they are on the social housing wait-list.”

Purdy notes that, while service providers can make exemptions to keep an applicant on the list, the province prescribes the qualifying circumstances, such as discovering that a former abuser is located in the same building. But, he adds, people who are bumped from the list can reapply for the housing right away.

For now, Jean is making do with the apartment she’s lived in for seven years. But her rent — which is more than $600 a month — is going up, and she’s not sure she’ll still be able to afford it. A new temporary subsidy of nearly $100 a month from the city tops up the $479 that ODSP provides. If she were to receive an offer of placement in social housing and turn it down, she’d lose the subsidy, too, because she has to be on the wait-list to qualify.

“It makes me feel less of a person — or a lower-class citizen,” she says of the “use it or lose” approach. “They should have left it the way it is.”

This is one in a series of stories about issues affecting southwestern Ontario. It's brought to you with the assistance of faculty and students from Western University’s Faculty of Information and Media Studies.

Ontario Hubs are made possible by the Barry and Laurie Green Family Charitable Trust & Goldie Feldman.

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