Tag Archives: Affordable Housing

Another National Housing Day

It’s November 22nd, 2012. Another National Housing Day.

What do we have to show for it?

We have a federal government that continues to ignore calls for a national housing strategy and that, other than the odd stimulus blip, invests less and less in housing and homelessness programs. Don’t believe what they say about “belt tightening” and sacrifice. The money is there. It’s all about priorities.

We have a provincial government (Ontario) that has a “long term affordable housing strategy” that is free of substance and commitments, and that refuses to set social assistance benefits or the minimum wage at levels that would allow people to afford a good place to live. It is also about to cut a critical social assistance benefit that helps thousands of low income individuals and families get and keep their homes. Yes, Ontario’s finances were hit hard by the recession, but the money is there. Once again, it’s a question of priorities.

We have municipalities that are increasingly responsible for housing needs and associated costs that they are not financially equipped to address – all because higher levels of government refuse to live up to their responsibilities.

We have three levels of government that refuse to take seriously the human right to housing.

Happy National Housing Day.

Putting Ideas First

Last spring, City of Toronto councillor Ana Bailão formed a special working group on Toronto Community Housing Corporation’s proposed sell-off of 619 single family homes. The report, Putting People First, was released in September and it contains some very good ideas. First off is the recommendation that TCHC sell only 55 of the 619 homes originally suggested (this is in addition to the sale of 56 homes that council has already approved). There’s a simple reason for this: a full sale of the proposed properties would bring in $220 million over five years; however, TCHC faces a $1 million operating shortfall every year. What happens once the money from the sell-off is gone? Bailão’s report rightly argues against this short-term thinking.

The report offers some interesting long-range ideas. One is to convert up to 100 single-family into affordable home ownership. Over 50% of TCHC tenants have said they want to own the home they live in and this may be a good opportunity.

The report also suggests that TCHC renegotiate its mortgages, which currently include interest rates up to 13%.  In contrast, Infrastructure Ontario offers long-term loans for social housing providers at a rate of 3.84%. Over the long haul, that amounts to quite a savings.

Not all the suggestions in Putting People First will be workable, but the point is that the report offers plenty to think about. Which is more than we were offered before.

Should the sell-off be on?

Toronto Community Housing’s planned selloff of 65 single-family homes has had many stops and starts. Last June and again in March, city council approved the sale of these homes. The idea is to take the estimated $24 million in sales and use it to pay down the hefty $750 million repair backlog on many other public housing units.

This June, however, Kathleen Wynne, Ontario’s Municipal Affairs and Housing Minister, wanted to delay the sale until October, when a special working group presents its plan to deal with TCHC’s 619 other single family homes. After Mayor Rob Ford complained to Premier Dalton McGuinty, Wynne reversed her desire to delay and now the sale is on again.

These homes are in desirable neighbourhoods like High Park and the Beach. This means the middle-class will come buying. It also means the low-income families will be forced out. This is unfortunate. Mixed-income communities are essential to building a healthy Toronto. Indeed, a city-commissioned study reports that low-income segregation can have a negative impact on individuals’ health and education. Much current thought on public housing acknowledges this; TCHC’s big rebuilding projects such as Regent Park and Lawrence-Allen have incorporated the  basic concept of mixed-income neighbourhoods.

When Wynne was asked about her flip-flop, she told reporters she did not intend to undermine the wishes of city council, only to deal with the potential sale once the working group’s report is ready.  She said she preferred to have “one conversation” on the matter. Let’s hope this conversation includes the fact that low-income families have a right to live anywhere in the city, not just in high-rise communities in the inner suburbs or large, isolated social housing complexes.

Roomers’ (Non)Rights

If you rent a room in someone’s home and share the kitchen or bathroom with the owner or the owner’s family, you aren’t protected under the Human Rights Code (you aren’t protected under the Residential Tenancies Act either, but that’s a discussion for another blog). It’s a very precarious type of housing.

This exception under the Code has always troubled us at CERA. “Rooming” situations are typically the most affordable type of housing in any community and are often the only option for particularly vulnerable households such as youth, people with disabilities, refugees and recent immigrants, and others living on very low incomes. Because of this exception, these equality-seeking communities are left with few housing rights.

It’s not clear to me what the rationale is behind this exception – it always seems to be presented as a truism, that “it’s just the way it is.” Possibly, it stems from an assumption that once you share a kitchen or bathroom you are part of a private household. Governments don’t want to be seen to be prying too far into the business of private households.

Private household or not, do we think it is acceptable that a landlord can publicly advertise a room for rent and then freely refuse to accept someone because they are Muslim, Black, have a disability, etc.?

Unfortunately, this is a pretty fundamental exception in human rights law, with most provinces and territories having similar exclusions. It will take a lot of pressure to get governments to move on this. But it is possible. In the past this exception was even broader – applying to buildings with six or fewer units – so we’ve already moved some distance.

And, while widespread, this exception isn’t universal: New Brunswick does not limit its human rights protections in this way. Instead, the New Brunswick Human Rights Commission clarifies that there may be circumstances where it would be reasonable for a landlord to restrict access to a room in a way that appears discriminatory. Where the requirement is a Bona Fide Qualification, or “BFQ”, it could be permissible. The Commission uses the example of a single woman renting out a room in her home who may only want to rent to another woman. (Ontario already permits landlords to restrict occupancy by sex, so this would be allowed without resorting to the concept of a bona fide qualification).

The BFQ defence isn’t unique to New Brunswick – it is a principal of human rights law across Canada. If roomers were brought under the protections of Ontario’s Human Rights Code, landlords could still potentially make use of this defence.

So what is the Government of Ontario afraid of? It’s time to change the law.

CERA Presents to Legislative Committee on Province’s Long Term Affordable Housing Strategy

The Province of Ontario released its Long Term Affordable Housing Strategy in late 2010.  Bill 140, Strong Communities Through Affordable Housing Act, 2011, legislation which has passed 2nd reading and is now before the Legislature at the Comittee on Justice Policy, is the implementing legislation for the Housing Strategy.

CERA and the Social Rights Advocacy Centre (SRAC) appeared before the Committee on 24 March 2011, to encourage the Committee to adopt a series of amendments to Bill 140 to ensure that it is in keeping with the provinces’ commitments under international human rights law.

CERA provided an overview of the 5 components that Bill 140 must include to ensure it is in compliance with international human rights standards based on what UN human rights bodies and officials have indicated must be in a housing strategy.  SRAC then provided the Committee with an overview of practical amendments that could be made to Bill 140 to integrate the 5 components.   Both the Wellesley Institute and the Registered Nurses’ Association of Ontario submissions were supportive of this approach.

Committee members from all three parties expressed interest in the CERA and SRAC presentations and the suggested amendments.  CERA and SRAC will  work collaboratively with other organizations concerned with housing rights and will continue to press for human rights amendments to Bill 140.  For more on human rights accountability of the province and Bill 140 click here.

CERA’s presentation

Summary of UN Consensus

SRAC’s presentation

Registered Nurses’ Association of Ontario presentation

What’s Next for Toronto Community Housing Corporation?

Between fiduciary failings, bad press, and the dissolution of its Board, the public housing company has a decidedly cloudy future.

Let’s say Mayor Ford clears all the provincial legislative hurdles.  Let’s say the city actually privatizes much of the public housing stock.  Let’s say the whole enterprise goes belly up.

What then?

According to current mayoral wisdom, the sell-off of TCHC assets would mean the city relies more heavily on rent supplements to provide affordable housing for 164,000 tenants.  Plus, incoming monies from the sale of buildings could start to provide supplements to 143,000 tenants on the subsidized housing waiting list.  Sounds great!  Except the success of rent supplements relies on a high vacancy rate; when vacancies drop, rents rise, and the city ends up paying more to keep up its end of the bargain.  Guess what?  Toronto vacancies have been dropping for a decade.  According to Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation, there has been a 30% decrease in rental units across the GTA since 2000.  Worse than that, there is no incentive for private developers to build more affordable housing because the condo market is just too lucrative.

If the city sells off its assets, are we ahead of the game or not?  Up till now, there has been no serious dialogue on social housing policy.  To be fair, council has been preoccupied with the fallout of the city auditor’s report and the ensuing fight over the liability of the Board itself.  But now that this has played out, will Mayor Ford or TCHC managing director Case Ootes spend time talking to housing experts?  Will they look at social housing models in other cities?  Even a quick glance shows that a combination of strategies – rent supplements and dedicated affordable housing – yields the most promising results.  It’s not an exact science by any means, but it is an area that requires study, thought, and discussion.

Two Scandals

It gets worse and worse for Toronto Community Housing Corporation.  Just one week after the city auditor revealed inappropriate expenses and egregious lapses in procurement practices, the TCHC executive is a shambles: the civilian board resigned, tenant reps were ousted and CEO Keiko Nakamura, who so far refused to quit, will surely be given the boot by city councilors.

Now, amidst rumours that Mayor Rob Ford has ordered an appraisal of all city housing stock, comes news that Case Ootes will take over as interim managing director.  Ootes, a veteran councilor who retired prior to last fall’s election, is a both long-time Ford ally and critic of social housing in the city.

It’s a poorly-kept secret that Mayor Ford wants to privatize TCHC.

The reasons are obvious.  The city faces a $744 million deficit next year.  TCHC has a $6 billion portfolio.  Selling off even portion of the housing stock will go a long way towards balancing a budget.  Granted, some of the savings would go to rent supplements for low-income households, but those supplements rely on vacancies and, according to Canada Mortgage and Housing Corp, Toronto vacancies are in a decade-long drop.  In fact, University of Toronto professor (and CERA supporter) David Hulchanski says Europe, United States and New Zealand all rely on a mix of public housing and rent supplements.  Toronto itself has 58,700 affordable units and 4,693 supplemented households.

Ford’s mantra of privatization is based on blind ideology, not thoughtful study.  Privatization is deemed less costly for taxpayers and therefore more efficient.  But there is more than one way to gauge efficiency.  TCHC, warts and all, houses some of our most vulnerable citizens –the mentally ill, the working poor, the aged and infirm – and these people are far less likely to be protected in a purely private market, rent supplement or no.

Mayor Ford is blatantly using the TCHC scandal to push forward his simple solutions.  He might eliminate the financial costs but ignore the human cost.  And that will be the real scandal.

The Right Kind of Support

“We have frankly screwed tenants.”

     This was the oft-repeated quote from Toronto Councillor Gord Perks after the city announced its proposed property tax changes as part of the 2011 operating budget.  Because of market changes, tenants were supposed to see their property taxes reduced by 3.08%. But, due to city tax policy, a portion of that tax break will go to commercial and industrial properties.  In short, tenants will save $50 rather than $62.  Twelve dollars can be a significant amount for low-income families living cheque-to-cheque, and Perks suggested that this proposal and others (hiking user fees at community centres, eliminating bus routes, slashing the budget of the Tenant Defence Fund) constitute the new administration’s attack on tenants.

     Perhaps.

     While we at CERA strongly disagree with the decision to cripple the Tenant Defence Fund (and our friends at the Federation of Metro Tenants Associations), user fees and bus routes are budgetary footballs that get tossed around regardless of an administration’s political leanings.  And the city tax policy that Perks bemoaned was actually formed during the era of his ally Mayor Miller, so it is a safe assumption that the Councillor was originally on board.  To harangue it now seems like cheap political theatre.

     Tenants do need loud, vocal support from city councilors.  Let’s just hope it’s genuine.

Searching for Barrier-Free Housing

Many of CERA’s clients have mobility impairments and other disabilities that make it very difficult to access and retain affordable, appropriate housing. Here’s an excellent description of one couple’s struggle to find barrier-free housing in Toronto:

There are several landmark events in the life of a young couple. The first knowing glance across the table, the first date, the first kiss… the list goes on.  As the relationship progresses, these landmarks have a tendency to progress in magnitude. One of the most exciting ones for any young couple, it could be argued, is the search for the first apartment together. It is the quest to find that nice little haven where cohabitation can flourish. But what happens when that search comes up empty? What happens when that apartment does not exist? This is the situation that I currently find myself in. And as has become my recent custom whenever anything in my life needs a good rant, I decided to write about it.

Let’s get the parameters of the story out of the way. My name is Tim Rose and I am a 25 year old Canadian student doing my post-graduate degree in law and human rights at the University of Nottingham in the UK. I also have a severe physical disability, cerebral palsy spastic quadriplegia if you want to get technical. I spend almost every waking hour confined to a very heavy and equally as expensive power wheelchair. I also, through some twist of luck, have a girlfriend who is able bodied (not that this should matter but it bears some relevance on the story) and currently finishing her masters degree in Occupational Therapy in Canada. Her name is Natalie. We plan on living together upon my return to Canada in August. Now that we have those parameters out of the way, comes the challenge. There is nowhere for us to live.

It’s not that we don’t have money. In fact, we have enough saved up between the two of us to survive (at least for a while) while paying a reasonable rent for a two-bedroom apartment in Toronto. We would be quite happy to do that. The issues arise in the form of the 500 pound beast which I sit in for 16 hours a day, and all of the joys that go along with that. We have been searching for this elusive mirage of an apartment for the last couple of months, asking for the very modest following considerations: a two-bedroom apartment, where we can feel safe and where I can shower (i.e. accessible roll in shower required). These are seemingly impossible demands to fill, as no such place exists without an accompanying waiting list of at least two years. That’s right, individuals with disabilities and their partners are expected to have their lives planned out two years in advance. I’m not saying that I am the picture of spontaneity, but come on!

We have scoured high and low, fired off e-mails left right and center and asked for help, wherever we could think to do so. I am not for a second saying that we do not appreciate the assistance that we have been given, as there have been people who have gone to great lengths to lend a hand in our search, but just that the results have not been promising. Over 2+ months of searching, and we have found one building with a decent sized waiting list, an inflatable roll in shower that could be assembled in a living room or closet, and a suggestion from a couple of sources that I could, in a pinch, go and shower at the local gym or YMCA.

It is true that the “right to shower” is not one enshrined in any international legal document. But, the right to live free of discrimination based on disability has been enshrined in many international and domestic legal documents, including the Canadian ones. And so it is with the greatest of ease that I brand the fight which Natalie and I currently find ourselves in, a definite “human rights” battle.

What we have in this situation is a blatant failure of the legendary Canadian social safety net, which may see an upper-middle-class postgraduate degree holder made homeless by a lack of options. Begging to try and get myself into a facilitated living system, thereby forfeiting my right to live with whom I wish, is not an option that I am considering. What I am considering is working to shed light on the fact that housing options for individuals with disabilities in Ontario suck. It is not only severely limiting of my independence (which interestingly enough, is now directly encased in international law through the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities) but also on the independence of my girlfriend. The bottom line is that Natalie and I want to live together, and are not going to stop fighting until a suitable solution is presented to us.

We are not asking for anything specific via this article. Its purpose was to inform you of a situation that is ongoing, and to bring attention to this sad state of accessible housing in Canada and around the world. This issue goes beyond Natalie and I, it speaks to the fundamental freedoms, which in the year 2011, should be granted without problem. It speaks to a continued struggle for individuals with disabilities to have to fight every step of the way in a country that is celebrated for its human rights record. We are pissed off, and want to tell you about it!

After all, what else is a guy to do when he’s all dressed up with no place to go??

Questioning Social Housing Occupancy Rules

The Social Housing Reform Act, provincial legislation that governs the operation of non-profit and government housing, establishes occupancy standards for rent-geared-to-income apartments.

It states that the smallest unit a family will be eligible for is one that allows a maximum of two occupants per bedroom. Many municipalities have established their own social housing standards, but they tend to hold to the SHRA’s ‘2 person per bedroom’ rule.

At first glance, this standard may seem reasonable.

But what about a low income couple with 3 children? Under the SHRA, they would only be eligible for a 3 bedroom apartment. In many communities, 3 bedroom social housing units are very hard to come by – there aren’t many and they don’t turn over very often.

This family might find that two bedroom apartments (which are more plentiful) will meet their needs – e.g. the parents may be willing to sleep in the living room, while their children use the bedrooms. This won’t be an option for them because of the occupancy standards.

The family will end up living in an expensive, private market apartment which will, ironically, likely be a two bedroom unit since they will have difficulty affording three bedrooms.

Social housing occupancy rules can act as a major barrier to families with children who are trying to access appropriate, affordable housing. Rules for private market housing have been challenged under the Human Rights Code, but social housing requirements have to date received only minimal scrutiny.

Some who are in favour of these standards point to healthy and safety concerns. And indeed, households with more than two persons per bedroom will find themselves in ‘Core Housing Need’ as defined by the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation. However, I’m not convinced there is evidence to back up this argument. There is a difference between an ideal, what we should work towards, and what is necessary for health and safety reasons. Municipal occupancy standards by-laws – which relate to health and safety – tend to be much more lenient than social housing rules.

Another argument in favour is that, without the 2 person per bedroom maximum, families will apply for smaller units, get housed and then apply for an internal transfer to a larger unit – effectively jumping the queue. If that is a concern, then address the internal transfer system.

Of course, it is a good thing to give families as much living space as possible. But governments and social housing providers shouldn’t use this goal to deny a family an apartment which the family feels meets their needs.

In the end, shouldn’t the family decide what’s best?