While Toronto’s Core Services Review report recognizes the value to individuals and the City of Toronto in a housing-first approach to homelessness, that same review undercuts the ability of the City of Toronto to implement a housing-first approach by potentially gutting affordable housing initiatives and perhaps even shutting down the entire Affordable Housing Office.
A good, healthy, affordable home not only provides real benefits to people who are homeless or poorly housed, but it also provides substantial benefits to government by reducing the use of costly emergency and other services. The housing-first approach is widely used throughout North America and consultants KPMG have identified it as an “opportunity” for the City of Toronto to save spending through the current Core Service Review process.
However, those same consultants in the same Core Service Review process, have identified “opportunities” at the Toronto’s Affordable Housing Office for cost savings, including eliminating housing improvement loans (that pay for repairs to substandard low-income housing), ending the development of new affordable homes and perhaps even closing the entire Affordable Housing Office.
There is a large body of evidence that links poor housing to poor health (the Wellesley Institute’s Precarious Housing in Canada 2010 summarizes some key studies), and also research that shows that people who are homeless or poorly housed suffer a greater burden of poor health and premature mortality (such as the Street Health Report). The heavy health burden experienced by people who are precariously housed leads to increased health-care costs, including significant use of emergency medical facilities.
In addition, the short-term options for people who are homeless – including homeless shelters – are much more expensive for governments than funding healthy, affordable homes. The Wellesley Institute’s Blueprint to End Homelessness in Toronto found that in 2006, the average monthly cost of a shelter bed was $1,932 and the average monthly cost of a hospital bed was $10,900, while the average monthly cost of social housing for low-income households was $199.32.
Toronto needs every affordable home that it can get. As of the end of June 2011, there were 79,218 households on the City of Toronto’s affordable housing waiting list – an all-time record. In fact, for a number of months, the city has been setting new records on a monthly basis. About 5,000 households may be housed this year as vacancies occur in the city’s existing stock of affordable homes, but the list will continue to grow as thousands of new households are added to the list. From June 2010 to June 2011, the city’s affordable housing waiting list had a net increase of 7 percent as new needy households far outpaced vacancies that came available.
There’s almost no available space in Toronto’s private rental market. In its most recent rental market report in December of 2010, Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation reports that there were just 5,532 vacant private rental units in the City of Toronto’s overall rental “universe” of 254,555. The future looks even more bleak as Toronto’s private rental market continues to contract as the rental vacancy rate drops and the overall number of rental units falls due to demolition and conversion.
The City of Toronto can save money, over time, by helping people who are homeless move from relatively more expensive hostel beds to relatively less expensive healthy and affordable homes. The housing-first approach has been adopted by a number of jurisdictions – including the City of Calgary and the Province of Alberta. But housing first requires that there is housing first for people who are homeless to move into. And the City of Toronto’s Affordable Housing Office has been a vital partner in completing the links, engaging senior levels of government, along with the community and private sectors, and generating much-needed new affordable and renovated homes.
Toronto City Council has set modest targets of 1,000 new affordable rental homes and 200 new affordable ownership homes annually, along with slightly more than 1,000 home repairs. These vitally needed new homes and repairs will mostly be achieved by leveraging federal and provincial funding, and by engaging community and private sector housing providers.
The signing of the federal-provincial-territorial Affordable Housing Framework Agreement on July 4 means that the City of Toronto can expect perhaps $100 million or more in housing funding from senior levels of government. Now, more than ever, the City of Toronto needs the expertise and experience of the Affordable Housing Office to ensure the most number of homes and the best value for the funding.