"Pastor, where do I go?"
Housing and rental costs in the GTA have risen above the means of working people and the poor
By Tom Steers
It's often been said that the first step in solving a problem is admitting you have one. In my ministry to people in Toronto I'm often told about a problem that doesn't make daily headlines, but is a daily heartache to those I come in contact with—the lack of affordable, decent, and safe housing.
One of the most affluent cities in North America, Toronto has a side that is often hidden or overlooked, but is in fact, the everyday reality of working people and the poor who simply have nowhere to go. These people—living in cramped, badly maintained and over-priced housing, or staying with friends and relatives—are the hidden homeless.
A parishioner I'll call Michael is a retired man living in a small room in a basement apartment with three other men in similarly small rooms. He pays $650 a month, and shares a refrigerator and stove.
A single mother, Laura, is on welfare and supports two children. She lives in a badly maintained one-bedroom in Scarborough which rents for $1,100 a month. Her children share the single bedroom while Laura sleeps on a couch in the living room. With the tight rental market she's afraid to legally pursue the landlord for badly needed repairs out of fear of retribution.
Tragically, Laura and Michael's stories are not unusual. The flashy Toronto of subway ads and real estate billboards is not the city many live in. Many who've come to me despair of finding safe affordable housing and describe an unliveable city that promises much, but delivers little.
Recent research from Statistics Canada backs them up. Figures on median employment income show that workers in Toronto are becoming poorer, despite rising income levels across much of Canada, and that housing and rental costs in the GTA have clearly risen above the means of working people and the poor.
A simple comparison of income and housing costs tells the story. While all other provinces and territories with the exception of British Columbia have seen median income rise in the last two years, in Toronto, the median income has fallen to $32,670, and of course that's gross income, not take-home pay.
The average rent for a one-bedroom apartment in Toronto's city centre is $1,446. Outside the city centre, the average one-bedroom goes for $1,212 (utilities not included). The average two-bedroom rents for just over $1,400, again not including utilities.
On a median Toronto income of $32,670, this means renting even a one-bedroom apartment will take over 50 per cent of after-tax income.
For those making the median income and certainly for those making less, home ownership in Toronto is impossible.
According to Toronto Real Estate Board figures, the average detached home in the GTA now sells for approximately $1 million. The average GTA semi-detached goes for $723,167, the average townhouse is $546,993, and the average condo costs $398,337.
You would need a household income of $115,000 to buy an average townhouse. Even if a couple both earn the GTA median income they still have only half the required salary.
This is contrasted with cities like Halifax and Winnipeg where an average home can be bought with an income of $60,000 a year. Even in Ottawa, the average home can be purchased with a $75,000 income.
Numbers, however, do not begin to tell the depth of the real human toll that unaffordable and substandard housing takes on so many Torontonians. The lack of maintenance in many older high-rise apartment buildings in the east and west ends of the city is well known. The glut of poorly ventilated and lit basement apartments speaks for itself. The stress—both physical and psychological—of living in cramped, inadequate housing, and of paying high rents, while struggling to place food on the table takes a toll on both individuals, and on our society in general.
As a Minister I don't have the political solutions to this housing crisis; but I do have the obligation to witness to the suffering I see, and that so many live.
Rev. Tom Steers is Pastor of Christ the Saviour Lutheran Church, Toronto, 647-762-8067.