Hunt for low-cost housing hard
Low vacancy rates push rents upward
Globe and Mail - June 26, 1997
It takes Sheila King no more than half a minute to inspect the cramped, overpriced basement apartment she has come to rent.
"You work in the area?" the prospective landlady asks hopefully, testing her suspicion that this would-be tenant collects welfare.
"No, but my husband does," Ms. King replies. Her boyfriend has just found a job washing cars.
Ms. King holds her breath, waiting for the woman to ask where she lives. She has no intention of revealing that she and her five-year-old daughter, Kimberley, have spent the past two months sleeping on narrow bunk beds in a nearby shelter for homeless women.
Only the week before, a building superintendent abruptly refunded her deposit on a one-bedroom Toronto apartment after learning that she was homeless. A call to the building a week later finds the apartment still on the market.
"I never got an explanation for why I didn't get the place. No explanation, no nothing," Ms. King said.
For people collecting welfare in Ontario, signing a lease has become almost as tricky as landing a full-time job.
Landlords can afford to be discriminating in times of vanishing vacancy rates like these. In the year after the province cut welfare rates, many of Toronto's private landlords raised their rents as far as rent-control guidelines would allow.
At a time when waiting lists for social housing are more than five years long and the government has eliminated the budget for building more, the vacancy rate in Toronto's private market has slipped to about 1.2 per cent -- even lower in old, decrepit buildings where cheap apartments are usually found.
And now the private market is poised to become even more selective under provisions of Ontario's proposed tenant-protection law that would entrench the right of landlords to refuse tenants based on their incomes.
"This government has been quite clear in cancelling social-housing projects that its policy is for the private market to house disadvantaged households," said Bruce Porter, head of the Centre for Equality Rights in Accommodation, an organization that defends low-income people facing housing problems.
"To then turn around and authorize and, in fact, encourage a practice which discriminates against this very group when they rent an apartment in the private market is completely irrational from a social-policy standpoint. This really just legislates discriminatory behaviour. That's all it does."
Ontario's proposed Tenant Protection Act would allow landlords to demand "income information," not just the usual credit checks and rental histories, before renting an apartment to a prospective tenant.
But it involves more than just new legislation: Passing it requires altering Ontario's Human Rights Code, which for the past 16 years has forbidden discrimination in housing on the basis of "receipt of public assistance."
It is a contentious issue that pits the right of private-property owners to control who lives on their premises against the right of low-income people to a roof over their heads. On one side are landlords who say people on welfare pose a risk of defaulting on their rent. On the other are antipoverty advocates arguing that income information tars everyone with the same brush.
The Ontario Human Rights Commission, besieged by complaints from low-income people refused apartments by prospective landlords, established a board of inquiry three years ago to pursue the cases of three families who say that they were victims of discrimination by big property-management companies.
At issue is whether refusing to rent to poor tenants based on their meagre incomes constitutes a violation of Ontario's Human Rights Code. When the board rules in a matter of weeks, the betting goes it will find the practice of refusing low-income tenants a human-rights violation.
But a costly three-year human-rights process will have been fruitless if the Ontario government overrules it by passing a law that explicitly exempts the practice of demanding income information from being considered a grounds for discrimination under the code.
Thousands of Ontario landlords turn down low-income tenants as a matter of routine, usually according to a rule of thumb that excludes anyone whose rent would make up more than 30 per cent of their income.
"The fact is, landlords are already able to use income criteria and they always have been," said Philip DeWan, executive director of the Fair Rental Policy Organization of Ontario, which represents the interest of landlords.
The legislation's opponents fear the practice of landlords using income criteria to refuse tenants will proliferate should it win the Ontario's government's seal of approval.
"Once it's enshrined in new legislation, I see it as increasing because it will be condoned by the Legislature of Ontario," Ontario Human Rights Commissioner Keith Norton, a former Progressive Conservative cabinet minister appointed by Premier Mike Harris, said at a committee hearing last week into the proposed law, Bill 96.
Michael Ornstein, associate director of the Institute for Social Research at York University, describes the possible consequences as "catastrophic."
He conducted research based on 1991 census data showing that all social-assistance recipients in Toronto would be disqualified if all landlords rejected people whose rent exceeded 30 per cent of their income. Outside the city, he said, the story is the same.
Not only for welfare recipients. Dr. Ornstein concluded the practice would rule out a disproportionate number of other marginalized people as tenants, including single mothers, members of visible minorities and young people. Missing the income threshold were half of all single mothers, about two-thirds of unmarried people between the ages of 20 and 24, and 60 per cent of black single women.
"This radically changes the balance of power so that people with good and affordable accommodation can choose who they want based on whatever prejudice they have," he said.
"It doesn't mean everyone on social assistance will become homeless, although there will be more homelessness for sure. What it does is dramatically cut down their access to affordable housing and essentially force them into more expensive housing. It's irrational."
Finding an apartment is already hard enough for welfare recipients whose shelter allowances fall miles short of the lofty rents the Toronto market will bear for even the most slovenly bachelor apartments. It will be harder still for the swelling ranks of homeless people jamming into Toronto hostels and motels converted into shelters.
The former convent in Scarborough where Ms. King and Kimberley live, the WoodGreen Red Door Family Shelter, is a chaos of slamming doors, hollering children and a public-address system seldom silent for more than a few minutes. It is clean and cavernous. Ms. King often feels like a prison inmate.
"I just want out of here," she said, her face drenched with tears. "This place makes you feel so stressed out, living with these people. I look at my daughter every day and see she doesn't like it here. She's hitting other kids. She never used to be like that. But nobody will take me."
She lost her $750-a-month basement apartment when she could no longer afford the added $100 cost of utilities on the $957 monthly welfare cheque she collected as a single mother.
Now that she lives in the shelter, her social assistance has been suspended. The cheapest places she can find in a local directory of apartments or the newspaper classifieds rent for at least $600. "I've called half-a-million people," she said.
"I find this one of the hardest things to do. Every time you call a landlord and tell them the truth, most of them refuse you because you live in a shelter and are on social assistance."
For most of the women living in the shelter, the story is achingly familiar. Dan Rutembesa, the manager at WoodGreen Red Door, said shelter residents do battle with a formidable stigma as they negotiate with landlords over apartments. "The landlords say, 'You're on welfare? Put in an application.' And that's the end of the story."
Being homeless is a hard truth to conceal. To rent an apartment, would-be tenants need to pay first and last months rent. To put their hands on some cash, they need to have welfare. But for social assistance to be reinstated, they require a promissory letter from a landlord proving they have a place lined up.
As often as not, landlords learn their prospective tenants are homeless when they call and shelter staff answer the telephone with the greeting: "Good afternoon. Red Door Family Shelter."
"People come here, hoping to use this place as a stepping stone. But the longer they stay, the more depressed they become. They're better off before they come here," Mr. Rutembesa said.
(As he speaks, the telephone rings. A woman with seven children wants to take refuge in the shelter.)
Landlords have long said the problem could be tackled by allowing the welfare system to bypass recipients and pay shelter allowances directly to property owners. They persuaded the provincial government to include the measure in its proposed social-assistance legislation for people unable to manage their finances.
But Mr. Rutembesa insists it will eliminate what little incentive landlords have to maintain low-rent housing at an inhabitable level. "We've had people move into just awful places," he said.
In the eight years before the Tories took office in Ontario, there were 51,500 units of subsidized housing constructed across the province. Since election day, there have been none. As Ontario's non-profit co-ops and government-owned public-housing structures age, the waiting list grows longer.
David Hulchanski, professor of housing studies at the University of Toronto, said the shortage of subsidized housing is epidemic across Canada. He points to a study published last year showing that, next to the United States, Canada's stock of social housing is the smallest of the world's 12 largest industrialized countries.
Of 10 million homes across Canada, 5.6 per cent are social-housing units, while 62.7 per cent are inhabited by their owners and 31.7 per cent are rented in the private market.
Among countries belonging to the Organization for Economic and Co-operation and Development, Dr. Hulchanski said, government-subsidized units account for an average of about 14 per cent of all housing. "Canada and the U.S. are at the bottom of the heap in having subsidized housing available for meeting the needs of people who can't access the private sector."
Shut out of the public market, poor people in Canada are left to fend for themselves in a private market that is also balking at constructing new low-rent apartment buildings. "If you're looking for housing and you're on social assistance, you're really left to find it on the private market," said John Jagt, Metro Toronto's director of hostel services.
"I think the marketplace will only create public housing if there is some kind of reasonable return on investment to be made. But rental accommodation isn't a good way to make money any more."