Inadequate Housing & Risk of Homelessness Among Families in Toronto’s Aging Rental Buildings

by Emily Paradis, PhD, Senior Research Associate, Neighbourhood Change Research Partnership, Factor-Inwentash Faculty of Social Work, University of Toronto


Nine out of ten families in Toronto’s aging rental high-rises live in housing that does not meet basic standards of adequacy. The more problems a family has with its housing, the higher their risk of homelessness. Housing loss is a common occurrence among low-income families in these buildings, but remains “invisible” because families rarely go to shelters.

Report:  Nowhere Else to Go: Inadequate Housing & Risk of Homelessness Among Families in Toronto’s Aging Rental Buildings, by Emily Paradis, Ruth Marie Wilson, and Jennifer Logan. Research Paper 231, Cities Centre & Neighbourhood Change Research Partnership, University of Toronto, March 2014.

These findings from are disturbing. Inadequate and unstable housing is particularly damaging for families, because of its negative impacts on children’s health and development.

Working with several neighbourhood organizations, we assessed the housing conditions of more than 1,500 families with children in Toronto, and conducted focus groups with more than 30 parents and 100 service providers. Some of our data were drawn from the United Way Toronto’s Vertical Poverty study, which surveyed 2,800 households in aging rental high-rises to examine housing quality and community life in these neighbourhoods.

Overpaying for unsafe or poor-quality housing

What we learned came as no surprise to agencies that serve low-income communities, but it may come as news to policy makers. Nine out of ten families in these aging rental high-rises live in housing that is inadequate in at least one of the following ways:

  • overcrowded
  • in poor condition
  • unaffordable
  • unsafe
  • insecure

And one-third of families in these buildings have problems in three or more of these areas.

Further, the inadequate conditions in these buildings affect some groups more than others. More than 80 percent of our respondents were immigrants and/or members of racialized communities, compared with only half of Toronto’s population in general. Families headed by a single mother were also over-represented in these poor-quality buildings.

Hard choices

Housing loss is common among low-income families. When families are forced to leave their homes due to violence, eviction, or unhealthy conditions, they rarely enter shelters. Instead, they double-up with other households, often in conditions of extreme overcrowding. Though these arrangements place a strain on both “host” and “guest” families, most families see them as preferable to entering a shelter, because they can remain in their neighbourhood, close to school, daycare, services, and friends.

But even for those who remain in their homes, the costs are high. The lack of affordable, adequate rental housing forces low-income parents to make difficult choices:

  • Should we pay 70 percent of our income on housing in order to live closer to transit and services?
  • Should we all crowd into a single bedroom to afford rent?
  • Should we move somewhere else so we can get a housing subsidy, even if it means living in a place where we are afraid for our children’s safety?
  • Should we stay where we are, even though the building is infested and unsafe, because there might not be anything better?

Adequate housing is a human right. Parents shouldn’t have to sacrifice basic needs just to keep a roof over their children’s heads.

Making policy changes to address families’ housing conditions will require political will and public support. All levels of government have a role to play:

  • The federal government should develop and fund a national housing strategy to increase the supply of decent housing affordable to low-income households.
  • The province of Ontario should increase families’ incomes by raising the minimum wage and social assistance rates, and by providing a housing benefit to families in need.
  • The province and the City of Toronto should adopt inclusionary zoning regulations requiring all new housing developments to include a percentage of affordable units.
  • The City of Toronto should increase monitoring and enforcement of health and safety standards for residential buildings through its Multi-Residential Apartment Buildings Program.

Help spread the word

This study offered an opportunity to better understand the housing conditions of families and how these relate to risk of homelessness and hidden homelessness. We also hope to raise greater awareness of the issues.

To make the findings easily accessible to service providers and tenants, we designed a research summary, in collaboration with the Homeless Hub. It is available in hard copy and online in English, Urdu, Tamil, Farsi and Spanish. It can be found here, along with the full report published in March 2014.


Thanks to our funders and partners

This research was carried out with funding from the Government of Canada’s Homelessness Partnering Strategy. Support was also received from the Neighbourhood Change Research Partnership. In addition to our data partnership with United Way Toronto and York Region we relied on the active involvement of many neighbourhood organizations and resident groups, who provided advice, convened focus groups, and shaped the analysis:


Further reading

Consultation finds big differences in private rental housing across the Toronto Region

by J David Hulchanski, Professor, University of Toronto; Principal Investigator, Neighbourhood Change Research Partnership

The tenants in private-sector rental housing experience different problems and different opportunities according to where they live in the Greater Toronto Area, according to a consultation conducted by Social Planning Toronto.

Full report:  Private-Sector Rental Housing in Greater Toronto: Towards a Research Agenda, A Community Consultation, by Israt Ahmed, Mohammad Araf, and Beth Wilson. A joint Social Planning Toronto & Neighbourhood Change Research Partnership, February 2016, 26 pages.

Tenants in York Region, where the shortage of affordable housing is most acute, are mainly housed in second-suite basement apartments, many of which are illegal. This makes tenant organizing and education work especially difficult. Not surprisingly, York Region has no tenant associations. Moreover, landlords, even of legal units, may be renting as a sideline to other work, and may not know or follow the requirements for accepting tenants or collecting rent. As one housing worker put it, “Some landlords, they treat it as a hobby, not as a professional business. They don’t treat tenants professionally.”

In Peel Region, where there are more multi-family residential buildings and a few tenant associations, the problems have more to do with the need for better regulation and bylaws to protect tenants, better enforcement, and a central advocacy group to advocate for affordable housing. One participant pointed out, “There aren’t the resources to enforce the bylaws. The City [of Mississauga] introduced a second suites bylaw but no new resources or new staff to enforce the bylaw.”

Toronto tenants were concerned about discrimination in rental housing and ineffective enforcement of laws and bylaws. Even within the city, the issues differed by neighbourhood. In central Scarborough, hidden homelessness is a problem, along with rooming house regulation. In the Rexdale and Jane-Finch area, credit checks have been used to exclude social assistance recipients from accessing housing.

Some problems are more universal, from cockroach infestations to harassment by landlords.

The consultation was not all about problems. The leaders heard about responsible landlords, community organizing efforts, public-sector and non-profit initiatives to create or upgrade affordable private rental housing, and even areas in Toronto in which people can get “a new start” because landlords in these areas are less likely to use reference and credit checks.

The findings are drawn from five community consultations organized and facilitated by Social Planning Toronto with service providers, housing advocates, and tenant leaders in Toronto, York, and Peel.

The term “private-sector rental housing” covers an astonishingly diverse range of types of accommodation. There are low-, medium- and high-rises, basement apartments or second suites in homes, rooming houses, apartments over stores and in converted storefronts, motels, houses and condo units for rent, shared housing situations, private seniors’ homes, and mobile homes. Some rental housing takes the form of dormitory-like accommodation, whereby people pay for a small space in a shared room where single beds are lined up on a basement floor similar to a hospital ward.

Each form has its own cluster of issues, and efforts to understand and improve this type of housing need to acknowledge the diversity of the housing forms.

When asked to make recommendations for improvement, participants in the consultations agreed that tenants need more and better information on their rights. One housing worker noted, for example, “Newcomers ask me, ‘If I go to Landlord-Tenant Board, I’m going to court. Am I going to have a criminal record?’ [I say], ‘No, you’re not,’ but they don’t know.” However, no amount of tenant education will help if regulations and rulings are not enforced and there is no requirement for landlords to maintain their properties. As one person noted, “It’s also the accountability, how to hold the landlords more accountable…you’re paying but you’re not actually getting the service.”

Another recommendation that many participants endorsed was a detailed study of the workings of the Landlord Tenant Board with a view to making the system more transparent, ensuring that members have appropriate training, and enforcing meaningful penalties on landlords who break the law.

Participants also wanted to see a more proactive form of regulation rather than the current complaints-based approach. This would involve hiring more inspectors to check on rental housing regularly.

Perhaps the most difficult problem to solve is the public perception that renting is somehow inferior to owning and that renters are unreliable or untrustworthy transients. As one participant put it, “[In York Region,] there is a split in the community. The owners are the ‘good’ people and the renters are the ‘bad’ ones. Lots of people don’t realize the [rental housing] situation. There’s lots of judgment and stigma. People have no choice about their living conditions. They want to live in better conditions. They can’t afford it.” These attitudes may be harder to address than simply problems with the physical conditions of rental housing.


Social Planning Toronto (SPT) is a community non-profit organization that works to improve the quality of life of Toronto residents. SPT is a partner with the Neighbourhood Change Research Partnership. The report was written by Israt Ahmed, Mohammad Araf, and Beth Wilson.

Full report: Private-Sector Rental Housing in Toronto

David Hulchanski,  @Hulchanski