Rental shortage compared to '40s

Graeme Bacque (gbacque@idirect.com)
Mon, 3 May 1999 04:47:56 -0400


Rental shortage compared to '40s

Governments slammed for lack of action

By Paul Moloney
Toronto Star City Hall Bureau

Not since the post-war years has rental housing been so scarce in Toronto.

So says housing policy specialist David Hulchanski, who notes there was
little construction during World War II and the preceding Great Depression
of the 1930s.

``About 1947, the city of Toronto ran newspaper ads across the country
saying if you plan to come to Toronto but you don't have housing, DO NOT
COME TO TORONTO,'' Hulchanski said.

``That was in big bold print.''

Today, it's eerily similar, said Hulchanski, who teaches at the University
of Toronto.

``That was a very desperate situation in the late '40s, and from my study of
housing policy history, this equals that.''

Just 114 rental units were built last year, compared with 5,856 in 1993,
says a new report by the Ontario Non-profit Housing Association and the
Co-operative Housing Federation of Canada.

The vacancy rate stood at 0.9 per cent last October - meaning nine units
were vacant out of every 1,000 - far below the 3 per cent that's considered
necessary for a healthy market, the study found.

Howard Tessler of the Federation of Metro Tenants Associations wonders just
where those 114 units built last year are located.
``I don't see any new rental buildings going up,'' Tessler said. ``I think a
lot of them are in existing buildings where lockers have been withdrawn and
units created in that space.'' The vacancy rate in some parts of town is
zero, he adds.

``What we're finding is for some types of units, there just aren't any. In
certain areas, there are virtually no bachelor apartments for rent.''

Meanwhile, the waiting list for assisted housing grew to 11,826 in 1997 from
7,158 in 1996, which means an average wait of 14 years, Tessler said.

``For families with children, the waiting list is so long that by the time
something comes open, your children are too old to qualify,'' said
Councillor Jack Layton.

``It's cruelly absurd,'' he said.

If you find a unit, chances are the rent will have been increased, under
changes in provincial law that allow landlords to hike rents when a tenant
moves out.

The study says rents for bachelor and one-bedroom units went up 14 per cent
between October, 1994, and last October. That's double the rate of inflation
over that time.

The trend is accelerating, said Layton, councillor for Don River, where
two-thirds of his constituents are tenants.

In Toronto, rent increase applications are running at an average hike of
about 7 per cent, he said.

Tessler said two-bedroom apartments are typically going for $1,200 a month,
compared to $882 last October. One bedrooms are now about $800 compared to
$588 six months ago.

At the same time rents are rising, tenants' incomes are in decline, the
study says. In 1995, 23 per cent of tenants were paying more than half their
income on rent, versus just 15 per cent five years earlier.

Individual situations are worse, said Councillor Michael Walker, an advocate
of tough rent controls.

``You've got a lot of single moms and senior citizens who're paying 75 per
cent of their income on rent, who survive by going to food banks and denying
themselves everything,'' said Walker (North Toronto). ``They're not welfare
bums, as (Premier) Mike Harris has stigmatized them.''

To lure developers to build, the provincial government has waived the
provincial sales tax on construction materials, and the City of Toronto has
cut property taxes on new units.

But such blandishments simply aren't enough, Tessler said.

``The private sector has told us they'll build units from $2,000 and up per
month. That means condominiums. The people who can afford that are going to
buy condos.''

The answer is to persuade the federal and provincial governments to get back
in the business of funding affordable rental construction, Tessler said.

``(Ontario Housing Minister) Al Leach shouldn't have the right to call
himself minister of housing because he hasn't built any housing,'' Layton
said.

``In 1995, he cancelled 15,000 units that were ready to be built that would
have accommodated 45,000 people in Ontario. If he had not done that, we
would not have the homelessness we're facing today.''

Walker said federal and provincial intervention is needed.

``Social housing works,'' he said. ``It provides decent housing for
individuals . . . That's the role of government.''

Federal politicians claim housing is not their responsibility, but Ottawa
has operated a host of housing programs for decades, Hulchanski said.