Reading reports so you don’t have to: food and housing

The mayor’s trade mission to Chicago and the revelation of several integrity issues seem to have overshadowed the release of two reports which are far less titillating. Today, the first comes before Executive Committee. On the slim chance that any1curr, I’m taking the time to summarize these and explain what they’re going to mean for City Council—and the rest of Toronto—in the months ahead.

“Putting People First”, from the Special Housing Working Group

Toronto Community Housing is in charge of public housing. Basically, if you’re low-income enough, you can apply to live in a place where your rent is set at an affordable level—30% of your income. They can do this because they’re a non-profit and are subsidized by the government. (However, there is so little housing available that it’s virtually impossible to get. [See my earlier post for further explanation.] As of September 31, the number of people on the waitlist is about twice the population of Newmarket.) TCHC buildings are notoriously ill-maintained, prone to fires, pest infestations, poor security, and more. There’s a hefty backlog of $750 million worth of repairs.

They’re so short of money for several reasons. Social housing funding used to be the province’s responsibility, but during the Harris years that was handed off to municipalities. So, unlike in other provinces, we have to pay for it out of our own pocket. This is compounded by the fact that many TCHC tenants rely on social assistance. The amount you receive is divided into two parts—housing, and “basic needs”. Basic needs is the same for everyone, but the housing amount is determined based on your rent. The maximum amount your household can receive is a pitiful fraction of actual market rent. (Rates were slashed under Mike Harris—notice a trend?—and never restored by the McGuinty government.) So most people get the maximum amount. But if you live in social housing, your rent is lower, so you get less than the maximum amount. So the balance which TCHC pays is greater than it would be (if public housing residents got the same amount as market renters). It’s a positive feedback loop of fail.

Edit: Clarifying example: A single person can currently receive $599 total, $372 of that for rent. Let’s say market rent for her is $500.

If she pays full market rent, she receives the full $372 for rent, and so $500 of her $599 goes to housing. The landlord gets $500.

If her housing is subsidized, she’ll pay about 30% of market rent. So let’s say she pays $150 out of that $500. Ontario Works gives her only $150. TCHC receives $150 and pays the remaining $350. TCHC is therefore at something of a disadvantage relative to other landlords.

Earlier this year, TCHC considered selling off over 600 of its single-family homes and putting the profit towards the repair backlog. Council’s right supported the plan, and the left resisted any attempt to reduce our affordable housing stock. Councillor Ana Bailão (Ward 18, Davenport; Affordable Housing Committee chair) crafted a compromise: sell only the vacant properties and put together a working group to report back on other strategies to raise money.

In the next several months, the working group held public meetings, surveyed TCHC residents, consulted housing organizations, and did background research. The modest 24-page report, available in PDF here, contains their findings.

They found that the people in single-family homes are very attached to their homes and feel that it would suck if they had to leave. About half the residents in the single-family homes would like to own their own house one day. About the same number said that they would like to take a greater role in managing their house if it was owned by a co-op or non-profit. So the working group advises against the original plan to sell off all the homes.

Their main suggestions:

  • Sell 55 houses that are either worth a lot, or prohibitively expensive to repair.
  • Start a program (similar to ones in Chicago and Regent Park) that would allow residents to buy their homes from TCHC by loaning them some of the money for a down payment. (The money would come from federal and provincial funds we already have, and from “a non-profit organization”.) TCHC would make some money off it, and they would be off the hook for repairs. I think the City already has a similar program, but it’s so poorly publicized I can’t even find a page for it.
  • Transfer at least some of the homes to a community land trust. (Such corporations have been formed, historically and nowadays, to ensure that relatively disenfranchised people have control over the land they live on.) The land trust would lease the homes to a co-op or non-profit, which would operate and maintain them. This kind of arrangement has been done before in Toronto.
  • Use several revenue sources to fill the repair backlog, such as:
    • finding ~efficiencies~ in TCHC (that is, cutting corners)
    • using development charges “optimally” (help?)
    • the magical public-private partnership
    • selling the bright shiny new properties, which don’t have repair backlogs, to non-profits or whatever, under the condition they’d still be affordable housing
    • retrofit TCHC properties to be more energy-efficient, which saves money
    • other things involving financial jargon, like “leveraging” and “refinancing’, that I don’t understand, so you’re on your own
  • Hassle the feds and the province for more money, fairer agreements about funding social housing, and an actual housing strategy

Is the Executive Committee likely to go for any of this? No, because—to put it succinctly rather than politely—they don’t give a fuck about affordable housing or the people who need it. They’d probably like to sell off as much as possible and kick the can down the road by waiting for the province and the feds to chip in. However, higher levels of government are not going to cough up any money anytime soon, so, although this is their responsibility, in practice it’s all up to us.

Who’s Hungry 2012, from the Daily Bread Food Bank

Daily Bread is the largest food bank organization in Canada and, with many member agencies, runs food banks across the GTA. Every year they do a user survey and put out a report about who’s using food banks, why, and what’s changed since last year. I thought it was very important to talk about this report in the same post because housing and hunger are directly linked, and if we don’t acknowledge that, we aren’t having the right conversation.

First, a brief breakdown of food bank use. This year there were 1.1 million visits. (Numbers sharply increased after social assistance was cut in the mid-90s, and peaked in 2010 at the height of the recession; we’re not even close to being back to pre-recession levels.) The demographics of clients surveyed:

  • Children (32%)
  • Single people (45%)
  • Disabled people (45%)
  • People born outside Canada (51%)

Some 39% of people had to use a food bank after they lost their jobs. 68% report that their primary source of income is Ontario Works (welfare) or ODSP (disability), which (as I explained above) is often not even enough to pay rent, let alone buy food.

Daily Bread’s key policy recommendation is, briefly, feed people by housing people. The biggest factor in whether you go hungry or not is how much rent you have to pay. The median food bank user’s income is $691, which leaves under $6 per person per day for other expenses.

When people are struggling with low income, rent is non-negotiable. While you can eat less food when money is tight, you can’t pay less rent, or pay for the kitchen and not the bedroom. As one survey respondent said “You need shelter to exist. Food is a luxury.” Therefore, a key solution is to help people better afford housing.

Which is why their takeaway is to step up pressure for a provincial housing benefit that would be provided to anyone who’s low-income. It would help compensate for inadequate social assistance rates and employment income “clawback”. It would mean fewer people having to make a choice between paying rent and buying food. It means less weight on Daily Bread’s back.

The solution to people being under-housed is to give people housing. The solution to people being hungry is also to give people housing. Giving them food, as the Daily Bread report makes quite clear, is an emergency stop-gap measure. It is not sustainable and it does not address the root cause of why food bank clients comprise the city’s most vulnerable.

I don’t know if many politicians, even those on Executive Committee, would be willing to stand up and say that they don’t have a problem with thousands of people going hungry. Cutting student nutrition programs is a political non-starter. We need to keep hammering it into people’s heads, until they get it, that cutting affordable housing is equally indefensible.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *