Housing core needs in Toronto

When Yelyzavet Lararevera and her family moved to Toronto’s Flemingdon Park neighborhood earlier this year, they agreed to a squeeze — not only on space, with their family of three living in a one-plus-den unit, but on their budget, with a rent. bill of $1,950 each month.

It costs a third of their income, Lararevera says, without factoring in utilities and other bills — and in a building without rent controls, she knows it could get much worse. A similar unit was recently let out for $2,300 a month, she says. If their rent hit that point, they couldn’t manage.

“We’re already thinking about options to move out,” said Lararevera, pushing her year-and-a-half old daughter in a stroller on Wednesday morning. Each time their family strayed outside their budget, their stress mounted — and they wanted to get more space for their growing child, outside of a small apartment. “We are already not very comfortable there with a baby.”

Theirs will be a familiar circumstance to many households in Toronto, but especially among residents of neighborhoods like Flemingdon Park, which bear the heaviest burdens of housing need citywide, according to a new batch of data released by Statistics Canada on Wednesday.

In one census tract between the Don Valley Parkway and Don Mills Rd., south of St. Dennis Drive, nearly half of households — 45.2 percent — are living in homes with too few bedrooms, an indicator of overcrowding. Nearly a third — 29.5 per cent — are spending more than 30 per cent of their income on housing, which is the benchmark for a home being unaffordable.

Many homes are severely broken, with 14.4 percent of households living in spaces that need major repairs. Overall, 41.4 per cent of the area’s households are in a state of core housing need, more than twice the rate across the Toronto area, which hit 16.1 per cent in 2021.

While Wednesday’s census data indicates that housing need has eased slightly since the last census in 2016 — the percentage of Canadian households living in unaffordable, overcrowded or broken homes dropped overall, from 12.7 per cent then to 10.1 per cent in 2021 — Statistics Canada cautioned with Its release that last year’s census captured a unique moment in time.

At the time, many were still receiving pandemic-era wage supports, it noted, and especially among lower-income renters, it made a difference for affordability. That isn’t expected to last.

“With the last temporary COVID-19 benefits being phased out in early 2022, combined with the highest rate of inflation in 40 years — particularly for life’s essentials — there could be further pressure on households that are already struggling to make ends meet,” the agency wrote.

In Toronto, many renters and homeowners are already feeling the squeeze. Downtown, 45.2 percent of tenants were in unaffordable homes, as well as 36.2 percent of owners. Beyond Flemingdon Park, in areas such as nearby Thorncliffe Park and Scarborough’s Milliken area, the kind of housing woes that plague Toronto overall are felt at their deepest.

In one Thorncliffe Park census tract, a whopping 67.3 per cent of households live in overcrowded homes. In Milliken, 53.7 percent of households are in units they can’t afford.

These inequalities have been the reality for a while, says Dania Majid, a lawyer with the Advocacy Center for Tenants Ontario, but she believes the pandemic brought them to the forefront, as areas with more overcrowded homes saw higher rates of disease transmission. The squeeze on people’s wallets has shown up in the likes of increased food bank demand, she said, and she doesn’t see it getting better. “Things are on a trajectory to get increasingly worse.”

Cherise Burda, an executive director of city building research and innovation at Toronto Metropolitan University, believes Canada’s housing policy has been focused too much on reaching home ownership, and not enough on addressing affordability where people are struggling most.

She wants to see the federal government and CMHC put less emphasis on rent-to-own programs and first-time home buyer assistance plans, and redirect funding to increasing the number of affordable units. “We’re losing more affordable units than we’re building,” she said.

Since interest rates started rising this year, there has been much talk about the price of homes coming down, Burda said, but rents are still going up. “That is disproportionately affecting lower income families who are not benefiting from the sizzle coming out of the housing market.”

But CMHC deputy chief economist Aled ab Iorwerth says Canada’s housing agency puts a lot of stress on affordability. “What we really need is a lot more housing supply,” he said. “It’s not just social affordable housing, but it’s more rental construction, it’s more market construction.”

Sam Petruga has lived in the Flemingdon Park area for most of her life. Comparing the neighborhood today to that of the late 1990s, she said the number of people in the same buildings that had always existed seemed to have exploded. “It’s ridiculous. It’s very overcrowded,” Petruga said. Each month, she estimates that between 40 and 45 percent of her family’s income goes to housing, as they’ve felt the pressure of inflation on other costs.

Both Petruga and Lararevera were contemplating a move out of province to ease the strain — with Laravera saying she looked in places like Barrie, but the high costs seemed to persist.

The new data shows some of the hotspots for housing need in the Toronto region are located outside of the city. In one census tract in northeast Brampton, 18 percent of households lived in homes needing major repairs; in another, north of Pickering, it was 17.6 per cent, versus the 6.5 per cent rate across the Toronto Census Metropolitan area — which is most of the GTA.

Khatimah Alidad, who rents a two-bedroom Flemingdon home for upwards of $2,000 per month, said rising costs from rent to groceries make it harder to sock funds away, as she hopes to one day get a house for herself, her husband, her two -year-old son and five-month-old daughter.

“There’s not going to be money to save.”

Correction — Sept. 22, 2022: Cherise Burda is an executive director of city building research and innovation at Toronto Metropolitan University. A previous version of this article erroneously said she is an urban planning professor.

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