Poor? Coloured? Then it's No Vacancy
Housing discrimination rampant, says poverty report, despite fact that visible minorities are poised to become city's majority
Globe and Mail - July 18, 2000
Amina Ahmed nods at the white-brick apartment building with the clipped green lawn and neatly tended flower beds where the management throws up a no-vacancy sign whenever they see her coming.
"It's a nice building, but you would never be able to get any of my clients in there," she says dryly. "I've been there with many people and, miraculously, the vacancies disappear every time."
As a housing-help worker, Ms. Ahmed has clients who are always poor, often black, and frequently the last people landlords will brook as tenants in their buildings. In her nine years scouting out apartments in the high-rises of Toronto's dirt-poor Flemingdon Park neighbourhood, she has learned the bitter lesson that only the seediest, grimiest buildings will open their doors to poor people whose skin isn't white.
Racial segregation is alive and well in Toronto, a city so proud of its rich and growing ethnic mix that it adopted the motto "Diversity, Our Strength" only a few years ago.
In neighbourhoods across the city, racial minorities are confined to living in the shabbiest buildings and working in some of the lowest-paid jobs, no matter what their level of education.
And in a new report prepared for the City of Toronto, Michael Ornstein, director of York University's Institute for Social Research, confirms that white-skinned people descended from British and other European stock suffer from nowhere near the depths of poverty that people from African and south Asian nations unfailingly do.
It might seem to be stating the obvious, but Prof. Ornstein insists that it is the extreme between how white and black people live in Toronto that is so jarring.
"Some people have better jobs, some people have better houses, that's always true," he said.
"But what this report shows is that the differences are very, very large and that groups differentiated by skin colour are living lives of real privation. There are huge levels of inequality and they are very strongly correlated with ethnoracial characteristics."
Drawing on data from Statistics Canada's 1996 census, Prof. Ornstein's report paints a portrait of people with darker skin hues who are dogged by disadvantage at every turn.
Not only are they consigned to poverty rates out of all proportion to everyone else, but blacks, Asians, Arabs and aboriginals generally produce the fewest university graduates and suffer from the highest unemployment rates. Among those who land jobs, they work in the least-skilled trades and collect the most meagre wages -- even when their rates of high-school graduation surpass those of some more prosperous southern European stock.
Professor Ornstein's report shows more than 50 per cent of families with African roots were living below Statistics Canada's unofficial poverty line while only 11 per cent of families of British heritage were living below it. (Families are considered to live below the poverty line when 56.2 per cent of their income is spent on food, clothing and shelter.) Among families from Ghana, 87 per cent lived in poverty. Nearly 70 per cent of Ethiopian families in Toronto were poor, as were 63 per cent of Somalis.
The fortunes of some south Asian ethnic communities were almost as bleak, with more than half of Pakistanis, Bangladeshis, Sri Lankans and Tamils in Toronto living below the poverty line.
Black families hailing from the Caribbean were nearly four times poorer than whites with roots in northern Europe. And among east Asians, while only 9 per cent of families originating from Japan were poor, families from Vietnam and Korea were about five times poorer.
Many impoverished ethnic communities have sprung from immigrants and refugees abandoning strife-torn countries over the past decade, arriving traumatized and nearly penniless on the tarmac in Toronto. But others, such as Jamaicans and Vietnamese, have inhabited the city for decades, speak fluent English, and endure the same low-wage jobs and marginal housing as newcomers fumbling for a foothold in a strange new country.
"Partly, it has to do with discrimination, but in a subtle way," Professor Ornstein said.
"The exclusion has primarily to do with things that are not that conscious, not with people saying, 'I hate those coloured people and they shouldn't be around,' but with assumptions about behaviour, assumptions about which people are like you and who you can work with."
Whether conscious or not, poor blacks and south Asians are winding up clustered in some of the most rundown buildings in Toronto, the closest the city comes to ghettoes.
To be sure, new immigrants will drift to buildings where others speak their language and share their culture. But no one would settle in some of these slum-like buildings unless there was little choice.
Places like the building just around the corner from the high-rise that shuns Ms. Ahmed's clients. Just metres away from the roaring Don Valley Parkway, it is a building where the urine-soaked rug has been pulled up from the elevator floor, where slabs of plywood stand in for the occasional window pane, and where each apartment door is equipped with a series of heavy-duty locks.
Here, Ms. Ahmed says, "100 per cent of the tenants are people of colour" -- mostly poor Sri Lankans.
There are hundreds of high-rises like this across Toronto, many called "limited-dividend" buildings that date back to the 1960s when the federal government subsidized developers for building low-cost housing for the poor on cheap land no one else wanted. Now dilapidated and often overlooking a traffic-choked highway, these buildings are almost exclusively inhabited by poor racial minorities.
Landlords have long discriminated against visible minorities based on their race and low income, in blatant violation of Ontario's human-rights code. But the province's repeal of rent-control protections a few years ago has allowed landlords to raise rents to a level that shuts out poor immigrants from all but the shabbiest of buildings. And with long waiting lists for social housing and none being constructed, most poor immigrants are left to the devices of the private rental market.
All this, says M. S. Mwarigha, program director with the Centre for Equality Rights in Accommodation, is working to segregate poor racial minorities into concentrated pockets of disadvantage across Toronto.
"I've identified buildings with concentrations of immigrants and people of colour and other buildings with foundations that are white and middle-class, and they happen to be close to one another," he said.
"What we're ending up with is a rental market cut into layers: the top, middle-class white; the middle, middle-class other colour; and at the bottom we have immigrants in poorly maintained buildings paying rent not necessarily that much lower."
Several blocks to the southeast of Flemingdon, in the Thorncliffe Park neighbourhood of Toronto, sits a prime example.
On Thorncliffe Park Road are three bleached-white apartment high-rises, sorry-looking buildings with scrubby lawns, no sign of landscaping and, on one, a wide-open rear door that makes a mockery of the security locks installed in the front lobby.
There are few English-sounding names in the building directories and no sign of a white face on the grounds. A two-bedroom apartment in these buildings rents for $963 a month.
Only a few doors down the street is an apartment building of a different calibre. The foyer walls are marble. Maintenance workers walk around the building. The preponderance of names on the building directory are English and the people milling about the building are white.
When Ms. Ahmed asks the building superintendent about vacancies, she is informed that she would require a note from her employer. No one on welfare is welcome here -- even with a letter from a guarantor -- though to refuse such people contravenes Ontario's human-rights laws.
Here, a two-bedroom apartment goes for $1,100 a month -- not much higher than at the down-at-heel buildings a few doors away.
"You see walking proof [of racial discrimination]," Ms. Ahmed says, "but you don't have any tangible proof."
There isn't a shred of doubt in David Hulchanski's mind that blacks and other racial minorities still face discrimination in the housing market long after the days of white-only enclaves in Toronto.
A professor of housing policy at the University of Toronto, he is immersed in research of his own studying what discrimination Jamaicans, Somalis and Poles face when looking for a place to live.
"The Poles suffer discrimination that most poor people suffer," Prof. Hulchanski said. "If you're poor and you have an accent and you don't speak English too well, you're going to be excluded by some landlords."
"But as soon as your skin is black, there's no comparison between the level and extent of discrimination."
Through extensive interviews with 180 people, Prof. Hulchanski and York University geography Professor Robert Murdie have plotted the three ethnic minorities on a scale measuring discrimination from one to five. People from Poland rate at about one. Jamaicans will land just over three. And Somalis experience discrimination at about four on the scale.
As immigrants flock to Toronto in growing numbers, racial discrimination and the segregation of poor racial minorities can only become a more severe problem.
While exactly one-quarter of all newcomers to Canada landed in Toronto in 1991, 42 per cent of the country's immigrants are now settling in the city not even a decade later. The balance is right now tipping: visible minorities are poised to become the majority, with 53 per cent of the population projected to be people of colour by next year.
"When there are a few people experiencing it, they put up with it. But when there are more and more of them, it can't continue quietly," Prof. Hulchanski said.
"Discrimination is a much more serious problem than people want to admit. It's rarely discussed, but it's quite extensive. It speaks to the Human Rights Commission and its inability to move quickly."
Percentage of ethno-racial families living below the Statistics Canada unofficial poverty line in Toronto in 1996.