The evidence in Toronto is clear: overcrowded housing is associated with increased COVID-19 infection rate. When people have insufficient space to socially distance or self-isolate if they are sick, it makes people more vulnerable to contracting COVID-19.
In the City of Toronto, overcrowded housing conditions have left 12 per cent of private households more vulnerable to contracting the virus. It is reported that the number of COVID-19 cases is nearly four times higher among people living in areas of the city with high levels of overcrowding. Data also shows that these are the same areas with high concentrations of poverty and racialized communities.
In response to this evidence, the Toronto Board of Health recently approved a recommendation from the Medical Officer of Health for all three levels of government to support and fund the establishment of a volunteer quarantine centre. This centre will provide individuals who test positive for coronavirus with a place to self-isolate if they are not able to at home due to overcrowded housing conditions. This is an important step to address health disparities and mitigate vulnerabilities to the virus.
But the question remains: How are we going to protect and promote the health and well-being of residents in overcrowded housing post-COVID-19?
COVID-19 has shed light on the adverse health impacts of overcrowding, but they’ve always existed. Overcrowded housing increases residents’ vulnerability to the spread of other infectious diseases and bacteria, such as the common cold or flu. It limits privacy and personal space to work, play, learn and relax. Further, it can place added strain on relationships both inside and outside of the home.
If we want people to be healthy – physically, mentally, socially – then we need healthy homes, and must consider and create the conditions that allow for this.
To address overcrowded housing, we can start by making housing more affordable in the City. Overcrowded housing is tightly linked to affordability. When people are unable to afford a place on their own, or a place that would provide enough space for the size and make up of household residents, they are more likely to live in overcrowding housing. It is often not a choice, but required in order to reduce housing costs and increase savings available to spend on other goods, resources and services that are needed for health and well-being.
To improve housing affordability in Toronto we must invest in three key policies and begin to consider new approaches to policy that include a public health lens.
The first and quickest would be extending rent benefits to more households in need. One hundred sixty-six thousand GTA renter households are living in severely unaffordable housing, and yet the recent expansion of the Canada-Ontario Housing Benefit only added 5,000 new housing benefits for all of Ontario. Expanding rent benefits would allow more people to afford homes with enough space to live healthy lives.
A second policy change that would improve affordability is rapidly expanding construction and acquisition funding so that more affordable housing can be created. The National Housing Strategy has provided increased funding for construction, though again it doesn’t meet the need. Acquisition programs could also help expand the affordable housing stock by helping non-profit housing providers purchase existing rental buildings and preserve their affordability.
Third, rent control in Ontario could be expanded to help stabilize rents in private rental buildings. Currently, when a tenant moves out of a rental home, landlords can raise the rent on new tenants to any level the market will bear. This often means a 50 per cent rent increase and the loss of private market affordable homes. One solution is to limit the rent increases between tenants to a reasonable level. This would help to stabilize rents and improve affordability.
In addition to overcrowding, a fulsome response should also consider quality, safety, and comfort. We know that investing in good quality, suitable and affordable housing is an investment in health and if we want to protect the health and well-being of our residents beyond COVID-19, we need to think about larger and more permanent solutions. We also need to explicitly embed more solutions informed by public health research and best practice into housing policy.
Healthy housing is a broader public health issue, not just an issue during a pandemic. It’s time we seriously evaluate the health impacts and invest in affordable housing and new approaches, including public health, to address them.