Home to stay
My parents lived in their house for 35 years. My husband and I have lived in our house for 13 years. We plan to stay as long as we can, and I know my kids have hopes they will be able to stay on after we leave.
Is my family “stuck?” Have we become “dependent on our housing?” Are we selfishly hogging homes that someone else might want?
According to the standards the public – and many public officials – set for social housing tenants, the answer seems to be “Yes.”
Every time Toronto’s Globe, Star or Sun writes an article on social housing, I see a trail of comments. Some are mean remarks about lazy and selfish tenants. Some are concerned about dependency and inter-generational poverty. But almost all seem to assume that social housing is a temporary way-station – a place for needy people to get help before moving on to buy or rent a home in the private market.
There is such a thing as transitional housing, designed to support people through a crisis or house them while they participate in a specific program. People move in knowing it’s a temporary home, just as students do when they enter a student residence. But that’s not what social housing is about.
Social housing is permanent housing.
Social housing was founded by municipalities, housing co-ops, faith groups and service clubs who recognized housing stability is the cornerstone of individual health, and community health.
Social housing was designed to allow children to stay put, rather than be dragged from place to place by parents seeking rents they could afford. It was designed to give seniors peace of mind, knowing their pension would always cover their rent. In social housing, as in other neighbourhoods, success is measured by its stability. High turnover rates are a sign that something is wrong.
Infrastructure, not welfare
So what changed?
It all goes back to the mid-1990s. Before then, social housing was seen primarily as an infrastructure program. It was a way to create a permanent housing stock for low- and moderate-income households, promote mixed-income neighbourhoods, and create jobs.
But in the mid-to-late 1990s, social housing in Ontario was re-conceived as a welfare program – part of a subsidy package that included what it now known as Ontario Works and daycare subsidies.
This “welfare-ization” of social housing changed everything.
- The people social housing was designed for – ordinary families and seniors who could not afford Toronto rents – no longer saw it as a solution to their housing needs. They used to ask, “How can I get in?” Now they ask, “Why should my taxes pay for this housing for other people, when I can’t afford to buy a house, or am struggling to pay the rent.”
- Applicants to social housing were divided into two camps: market tenants who contacted the landlord directly, and subsidized tenants who applied through a centralized waiting list. The intentions may have been good: to create a central access point for a public benefit. However, the unintended consequence was a queue of 60,000+ households waiting for around 99,000 units, with no new housing in sight. And so people started to think, “Time for those people hogging a home to move along to give someone else a chance. (It’s no use saying that social housing is a scarce resource that should be rationed. Affordable ownership housing is scarce too. But no-one suggests homeowners should hand over their keys to give others a chance.)
- And for the first time, social housing tenants began to be subjected to the scrutiny typically reserved for welfare recipients. It’s a scrutiny unknown to the users of other public infrastructure. When buses are crowded, we do not complain that people who are perfectly able to afford their own cars are taking up seats. We recognize the city is healthier when people use public transit. We see the solution as more and better transit. But now that social housing is seen as welfare – unlike our transit system, schools or hospitals – the users are blamed for taking up space.
An impossible situation
And even if tenants did want to move, where would they go? You need an average annual income of $45,400 to afford an average Toronto two-bedroom apartment. The average income of a household living in TCHC is $19,800 per year. If every one them, including those over 65, worked 40 hours a week at $11/hour, they’d make $22,800/year.
There is no public advantage in simply churning the system – moving out one set of tenants who will simply move into the homes vacated by the next people on the list. All that leads to is instability and insecurity.
It’s time to get real
In a city where incomes stagnate while rents and house prices rise, there is going to be a crunch. The industry standard used to be that a household should pay no more than 30% of their incomes on housing. Today a whopping 47% of Toronto’s tenants  are paying more than that, not to mention those who can barely afford to pay their mortgages.
It’s a problem that social housing alone cannot fix. But social housing can be part of the solution.
But it will only happen if we start thinking of social housing as a place where anyone – our children, our parents or ourselves – might live. And it can only happen if we grapple with the real crisis facing Toronto: how do we house our citizens when housing costs go up and up while the incomes of the majority stay put?