Squeezing out the poor

Graeme Bacque (gbacque@arcos.org)
Mon, 11 May 1998 09:42:53 -0400


May 11, 1998

Squeezing out the poor

Housing shortage has low-income people facing life on the street

By Patricia Orwen
Toronto Star Social Policy Reporter

It wouldn't be the first time the McKays have been homeless.

Seven years ago, after Judithann McKay split up with her husband, she
moved in and out of several women's shelters with her three children
before finally finding an apartment. Today, struggling to get by on
welfare and facing an astronomical rent increase, McKay fears she'll be
forced back into that same desperate situation.

``It's either that or we'll be on the street, and that's my worst
fear,'' says the Toronto single mother, whose monthly rent will
skyrocket this fall from $830 to $1,234.

Paying that much would virtually wipe out her $1,274 monthly welfare
cheque, ``and we wouldn't even be able to eat,'' McKay says.

Toronto's rental market offers almost nothing for low-income people,
especially those with children, experts say.

A 0.75 per cent vacancy rate means that fewer than one apartment is
vacant for every 100 in the city.

Construction of assisted housing is at a standstill after the federal
and provincial governments stopped paying the cost.

This year, the city must assume financial responsibility for public
housing, which includes the Metro Toronto Housing Authority's 30,000
apartments and the Metro Housing Co.'s 20,000 units.

``We're completely swamped with calls from people who really need public
housing and are about to be evicted from private apartments,'' says
Howard Tessler, executive director of the Federation of Metro Tenants'
Associations.

Tessler says the increased evictions are basically the result of supply
and demand.

The average rent for a one-bedroom apartment in Toronto is $777. But the
price is rising as more landlords do as McKay's is doing - raise the
rent to the legal maximum.

``I had no idea . . . I was just shocked to find out my rent could go up
like this,'' says McKay, who hadn't faced any significant rent increases
since she moved into the three-bedroom apartment on Avenue Rd. seven
years ago.

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`I don't have a single room left for mothers with children'

------------------------------------------------------------------------

McKay saw her monthly welfare cheque drop $200 when the provincial
government cut payments by 21 per cent in 1995. So paying more for
shelter just isn't an option.

And Tessler says Ontario's new Tenant Protection Act, which abolishes
rent controls and other forms of tenant protection, will only increase
tenant woes when it becomes law later this month.

``We're squeezing out the poor,'' says John Jagt, manager of Toronto's
Hostel Services Division.

``As of today, I don't have a single room left for mothers with
children,'' says Jagt, who counted 1,007 women and children living in
Toronto shelters on Thursday. That number was just 656 two years ago.

With all the city's hostels, shelters and motel space full to capacity,
Jagt predicts that 2,000 people, twice as many as other years, could be
sleeping on the streets this summer.

``We've never seen these kinds of numbers, never felt so discouraged . .
. there's just no light at the end of the tunnel,'' Jagt says.

Councillor Jack Layton (Don River) says that in the next few weeks, the
city will not be able to help 200 women and children who need immediate
housing and protection.

Instead, city officials will have to look for motel space outside
Toronto for these families, Layton says.

Why are single mothers so hard-hit?

``They face the most discrimination from landlords,'' says Maria
Ingrosso, a community outreach worker with the Christian Resource
Centre. She tries to find permanent affordable homes for single mothers
and pregnant teenagers.

Landlords tend to shy away from renting to anyone on welfare, but they
consider single mothers the riskiest bet.

``Landlords think these mothers won't watch their children properly and
they'll bring boyfriends into the apartment who are involved in criminal
activity. That's the kind of stigma these moms have to fight,'' says
Ingrosso, who spent five years as a single mother on welfare raising her
son, now 19.

McKay has been searching for a cheaper place to live for the past year,
and says the discrimination is disheartening.

``I have always paid my rent,'' she says. ``I even have a reference from
my landlord here saying that I'm a good tenant, but no one is interested
in even talking to me when I'm honest and tell them I'm on welfare.''

------------------------------------------------------------------------

The city is taking the homeless to see out-of-town housing

------------------------------------------------------------------------

Government-assisted housing was once the answer, but not any more. McKay
put her name on the waiting list in 1991. This spring, she was told she
would have to wait another four years.

More than 42,000 people are on the combined waiting lists for the Metro
Toronto Housing Authority and the Metro Housing Co.

``We tell people to forget it - children are going to be grown up by the
time you get in,'' Jagt says.

The squeeze has prompted the Hostel Services Division to help people in
shelters and hostels get out of Toronto.

Using a 15-seat van, hostel services staff drive the homeless to look at
rental units in places like Hamilton, St. Catharines and Sarnia, Jagt
says.

The pilot project has helped nearly 200 people move out of Toronto since
last fall.

But Jagt stresses that the affordable-housing problem has to be
addressed here.

``And it comes down to money . . . either we give people subsidized
housing or we give them the money so that they can afford to pay for the
housing they need.''


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