Toronto City Council will consider a plan to sell about 500 “scattered” affordable homes that are owned by the city on November 20, 2007. The sponsors of the scheme say that that some of the millions of dollars that would be generated from the sale could be used to re-house the 500 households, and the rest could be put into a repair fund to help deal with the estimated $300 million repair backlog at Toronto Community Housing Company. The problems that Toronto is facing in keeping up with a huge maintenance bill for the 90,000 social housing units that it either owns or administers are an inherited mess. When the federal government downloaded most social housing programs starting in 1996, and the provincial government followed suit in 1998, they dumped the responsibility for these homes on Toronto without giving the city the financial resources to pay for years of wear and tear.
Municipalities across North America are facing huge problems due to years of funding cuts and downloading by senior levels of government. Some have been forced to adopt a strategy similar to that proposed by Toronto: Cannibalize the existing stock to cover the unfunded liability. At a time when the need for truly affordable housing is growing, the Toronto scheme – like others elsewhere – would lead to fewer homes.
Here are four reasons why cannibalizing existing affordable housing is a bad idea:
First, Toronto desperately needs every affordable home that it can get. The city’s waiting list for affordable housing is growing longer, and fewer people are being housed. Only about one in every 100 new homes built in Toronto in the past five years has been truly affordable. For more details, see the quick facts below.
Second, the 500 homes that some councilors want to sell are scattered in neighbourhoods throughout the city. Mixed-income neighbourhoods – like the St. Lawrence community – are dynamic and healthy. Segregating the poor in some neighbourhoods, and reserving the rest of the city for wealthier households is a bad idea.
Third, conversion of part of the Toronto Community Housing Company’s portfolio has been tried in the past, and has been successful when the homes are converted to co-op or non-profit management. The Sonny Atkinson Co-op (formerly Alexandra Park) is a recent example of a successful conversion. Selling off affordable homes to the private sector means that the asset is lost forever to the city. Buildings and land are scarce commodities in Toronto and appear bound to increase in cost. Selling off a long-term asset for short-term gain doesn’t make sense.
Fourth, there is an urgent need for larger-size affordable homes. Low, moderate and even middle-income families are having extreme difficulty finding a good place to call home. Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation reports that three-bedroom and larger apartments have a low vacancy rate and the highest rents in Toronto. The homes that councilors want to sell are ideal for larger families.
Only about one in every 100 new homes built in Toronto in the past five years have been truly affordable – that’s slightly more than 2,000 new affordable, supportive, transitional or alternative homes out of almost 200,000 new homes built since 2001.
The number of Toronto households in core housing need has grown from 176,300 in 1991 to 269,700 in 1996 to 295,500 in 2001. These are households living in homes that are unaffordable, inadequate and/or unsuitable. This number is expected to increase when the 2006 census numbers are released in the spring of 2008.
In 2005, 403,000 households were living below the poverty line in Toronto – slightly more than one in every five families. The average low income gap was $9,600 annually.
The number of Toronto tenant households facing eviction reached an all-time high of 30,768 in 2006 – that’s an average of about 123 families facing eviction every working day of the year. About one-third of households evicted in Toronto go directly to homeless shelters; another one-third join the ranks of the “hidden homeless” by staying temporarily with family or friends; and the remaining third are able to find another home.
Toronto’s affordable housing waiting list is growing ever longer. There were 63,791 households on the list in 2004; 66,556 in 2005 and 67,083 households in 2006. As the list grows longer, the number of households that are housed annually is shrinking from 5,386 in 2004 to 4,871 in 2006. If the city maintains the same pace in coming years, then a family that signs onto the list in 2007 cannot expect to be offered a home until the year 2021.
The city’s homeless shelters are crowded: Hostels had 1,403,881 bed-nights in 2005, up from 1,363,593 in 1998. The number of families in city shelters, after falling to 700 people in 2005, has increased by almost 25% in the past year.