Canada is in the grip of an affordable housing crisis. Large municipalities like Toronto are especially hard hit with primary vacancy rates as low as 1.1%. The average cost of a one bedroom apartment has nearly doubled from $1,400 a month in 2009 to $2,400 in 2019. Many working class Torontonians are paying 60% or more of their incomes on rent — and homelessness is becoming more common as a result.
Low income people like me are even more adversely affected by the affordable housing crisis than working class people are.
But I wasn’t always so socio-economically marginalized. I too was once part of the working class. I moved to Toronto in 1989 at the age of 23. Since then I have worked in various labour related jobs, like landscaping and home renovations.
Although my income for most years seldom exceeded the annual poverty line, there were still plenty of lower end rooms and bachelor apartments that I could afford. The thought of becoming chronically homeless never even remotely occurred to me.
In 2004, I injured my back during a home renovation job and went on Ontario Works. Three years later, I applied for the Ontario Disability Support Program (ODSP); my application was approved in 2009.
By that time, I had been renting a large room in a rooming house since 2005 for roughly $400 a month. In September 2014, I was given two months notice to vacate by the property managers so they could accommodate the needs of their growing family.
Rents had already increased significantly. But by November 2014, I managed to find a much smaller room for $500 a month. However it turned out to be an illegal rooming house rife with cocaine, alcohol and opioid abuse. Having few other housing options, I stuck it out for two years.
In December 2016, I started renting a room for $600 a month from a primary leaseholder of an apartment. As I wasn’t paying rent directly to the property owner, I was ineligible for the Housing Stabilization Fund (HSF); consequently, I was unable to provide last month’s rent and would only be entitled to one month’s notice to vacate.
Yet even then the fear of homelessness was still far from palpable.
The property owner had been pressuring the primary leaseholder to move out even before I started renting there.
We were paying $1,200 a month plus utilities. I suspect he knew that given the increase in market rent rates and lack of rent controls, he could get double that if he rented to new tenants.
On May 1, 2018, I was given one month’s notice to vacate. I started looking for a room to rent for June 1. That was when the affordable housing crisis literally hit home.
Once numerous rooming houses had now been replaced by high priced air B&Bs and even single rooms were often more than my ODSP accommodation and living allowances combined. I was utterly priced out of Toronto’s rental housing market with nowhere to go but a homeless shelter.
And by June 1, 2018 that’s exactly where I ended up.
I spent the next 11 months competing with working people with double my income for ever diminishing and ever more expensive low end rental opportunities.
I had a fairly high profile on Facebook and had taken to documenting my experience with homelessness in series of public posts entitled, “The Homeless Report.”
By February 2018, my Facebook posts caught the attention of a managing editor of a local Toronto real estate magazine called Toronto Storeys. One of the magazine’s copy editors contacted and asked me to write an article about housing insecurity and homelessness.
My article entitled, “The Four Catch 22s of Housing Insecurity for Low Income Torontonians” was published a month later. That was the first of four articles published by Toronto Storeys; and it eventually lead to my memoir on homelessness being published in Toronto Life Magazine and most recently to an article published in Spacing Magazine Toronto.
Sadly, my increasingly high public profile as a writer was of little use in my search for housing.
I was repeatedly out-competed by people who could pay $200 a month more than even the landlord’s exorbitantly high asking price. I was also at a disadvantage because I could only provide one month’s rent up front and would have to apply for the HSF for the rest.
Knowing that my chances were slim at best, I nonetheless still filled out the rental applications vainly hoping that the prospective landlords would agree to rent to me.
But by April 2019, I had lost hope entirely. The once remote possibility of becoming chronically homeless now seemed a terrifying probability. So I resolved to leave Toronto and seek housing elsewhere.
The only person I knew outside of Toronto was an old friend who had recently bought a house in Lindsay. I contacted her and made arrangements to stay with her for the last week of April while I looked for a room to rent.
Fortunately, she knew a few landlords who had rooms available. Within a few days, I found a room I could afford and a landlord that was willing to rent to me. I applied for assistance from Housing Help (Lindsay’s version of the HSF). By May 3, I was housed.
I was extraordinarily lucky that it took less than a week to find housing in Lindsay. But compare that to the 11 months I spent fruitlessly applying for housing in Toronto.
Although most prospective landlords in Toronto were gracious enough to at least let me fill out the rental applications, they may as well have hung a sign on the door reading as follows:
LOW INCOME RENTERS NEED NOT APPLY