Back in the day, the homeless were thought of as people who didn’t have a full-time job. But times have changed. Toronto’s 64 shelters are regularly overcrowded, and many people who live there work minimum wage jobs – yet still can’t make ends meet in Toronto. For perspective: it would take a minimum-wage earner 90 hours a week of working in order to just cover rent expenses, according to a Toronto Life article on homelessness.
Global News launched a special election series called Ignored and Ignited which asked people to send in issues they feel have been overlooked this federal election. Affordable housing – even beyond Canada’s urban centres – has evolved into a crisis. Now smaller and medium-sized communities are squeezing low income earners out by housing demand outstripping supply.
People such as Terry O’Connor, who works as a full-time truck driver in Pemberton, B.C., are trapped in the middle. “We’re five people living in 540 square feet,” says O’Connor. “I’ve got two animals. I can’t go anywhere.” Living in an old trailer, the family says they're locked out by an expensive market that grows increasingly competitive by the day.
In fact the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) reported this year that Canadian housing has become the least affordable in the world – due to its income to house price ration – a measure of affordability.
Andy Yan, a housing analyst with The City Program at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, explains: “As housing prices and rents have gone up, incomes have remained relatively flat,” Yan says. Yet with shelter being the basic necessity that it is – people just end up spending more of their income on rent. This leaves emergency savings next to nothing for most Canadians, so when a crisis hits, homelessness is just a paycheque away.
According to a study released by the BC Non-Profit Housing Association last month, 1.8 million, Canadian households are spending more than 30 per cent of their income on housing.
But those who live in Toronto or Vancouver know the percentage is actually much higher – and by a lot. Some 800,000 pay more than 50 per cent of their income on a place to live. Yet according to the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation, in 2015, 37,000 new rental apartments were built in Canada, while demand jumped by 50,000 units.
“Paying too much for rent has become the new normal,” says Jill Atkey, the BC Non-Profit Housing Association’s CEO. “The higher the percentage of a household’s income is spent on rent, the greater the impact on lifestyle. When it hits 50 per cent, people have to forego basic necessities — they’ll cut back on groceries and activities.”
The fall-out, she says, is that the sacrifices people make for rent eventually take a real toll on their health, “on time and quality of life.” It’s also the reason Atkey has expressed disappointment that the affordability housing crisis didn’t earn more attention from federal party leaders.
In Charlottetown, PEI, the crisis has been acute for some time: the vacancy rate dropped from 0.9 per cent in November of 2017, to just 0.2 per cent 12 months later. Meanwhile in Vancouver, Atkey says renting an apartment is akin to a competition.
“We’ve had people outbidding each other on rental homes,” she says. “They show up with a bottle of wine or flowers for a landlord. That’s how quickly rents have escalated.”
While she’s happy to hear of purpose-built rental facilities on the rise, she says the road is long.
“Even after you get projects lined up and approved, it can take upwards of seven years to get those homes built,” she says. “We’re not going to dig ourselves out of this crisis overnight.”
One thing is certain – tonight’s election results will have a huge impact on affordable housing – for better or for worse!