Social Determinants: Where did 55,000 Ontario households go?

What happened to 55,000 low-income rental households in Ontario? Between the late 1990s and the early 2000s they simply disappeared from the census.

A new report from the Ontario Non-Profit Housing Association and the Co-operative Housing Federation of Canada suggests that more than enough people to populate Kingston or Guelph simply retreated into shared or non-traditional housing arrangements in the face of unaffordable rents.

That could mean renting a room, a basement, moving in with relatives, or sharing a dwelling with more than one family. For a few, that could also mean homelessness.

The period coincides with severe cuts to social assistance by the Harris government.

Crowded and insecure living arrangements are an important factor in the social determinants of health. The cheapest accommodation often means an unhealthy building desperately in need of repair.

Households that remain in more traditional units are forced to make the choice to pay rent over food and other basics.

“The longer households remain in unaffordable housing, the harder it is on their health, their long-term career prospects, their children’s education, and our province’s future,” the report states.

The report, Where’s Home 2013, says the growth of affordable housing stock is being completely outstripped by demand. About 1,500 new affordable renting units are coming on stream each year, while demand escalates by about 10,000 units per year.

Worst still, many of the affordable housing units built during the 1980s and 1990s are now at risk of being shifted to market rent now that their mortgages and government subsidies are nearing an end.

The United Nations noted in 2007 that Canada is facing a housing emergency. Today 156,000 Ontario households – not people – are on a wait list for affordable housing. Waits can be as long as 10 years.

Further, with growing inequality, the number of low-income Ontarians in need of such housing is growing at a much faster rate than the general population. Between 1990 and 2010, Ontario’s population increased by about 29 per cent, but those living on a low-income increased by 92 per cent.

As the available stock of rental accommodations slides downward, it has the effect of also driving up market rents. According to the report, rent took up six to nine per cent more of the tenant median income in 2010 than in 1990.

About a third of all renters in the bottom fifth of Canadian income earners spend more than 50 per cent of their pre-tax income on rent. The gap between income and rent is growing fast among that lowest income group, increasing by about 20 per cent between 2002-2009. That means the average household in this group is paying $290 per month more than what is reasonably affordable, translating into more trips to the food bank as rent replaces other necessities.

This is an issue that government must deal with both in terms of income inequality and availability of affordable housing units. Simply put, there is no business model around for-profit low-income housing without government assistance.

“There is a large gap between what most tenants can afford and the rent levels needed for a developer to cover the cost of rental development and make an acceptable profit,” the report notes. “A recent study concluded that to build an apartment building in Toronto with a minimally acceptable return on investment, rent levels would have to be 2.25 times the average affordable rent.”

When it comes to low-income Ontarians, that number is closer to three to four times affordable rent.

Given these facts, it is hard to imagine why the provincial Conservatives would want to advocate a policy path that will only further reduce family wage incomes in Ontario.  If you drive wages down, people still have to live somewhere. When pushed into crowded, poor quality, or no housing, they show up in our health system at a much higher public and personal cost. While 55,000 households may have disappeared from the census, it doesn’t mean they aren’t still here.

To read the complete 59-page report by ONPHA and CHFC-Ontario region, click here.

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