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

Nowhere Else to Go: Inadequate Housing & Risk of Homelessness Among Families in Toronto’s Aging Rental Buildings

This report explores the continuum of inadequate housing, risk of homelessness, and visible homelessness among families in Toronto. Low-income families often move between different points on this continuum, and homelessness among families is more likely to be hidden than visible. Drawing upon a survey of families living in aging rental apartment buildings in Toronto’s low-income neighbourhoods, and on focus groups with parents and service providers, this study examines the relationship between housing conditions and homelessness. The findings show that large numbers of children and parents are living in precarious, unaffordable, poor-quality housing. The report recommends four key interventions that can improve families’ access to safe, stable, affordable, and suitable housing.

Emily Paradis, PhD, is Senior Research Associate, Factor-Inwentash Faculty of Social Work, University of Toronto. An activist, researcher, advocate, and front-line service provider with women facing homelessness for 25 years, her scholarly work focuses on homelessness among women and families, human rights dimensions of homelessness and housing, community-based research and action with marginalized groups, and participatory interventions to address socio-spatial inequalities between and within urban neighbourhoods. She is Project Manager of the Neighbourhood Change Research Partnership

Research Paper 231, Neighbourhood Change Research Partnership, University of Toronto, March 2014

Funded by the Government of Canada’s Homelessness Partnering Strategy, and the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada through the Neighbourhood Change Research Partnership at the University of Toronto’s Factor-Inwentash Faculty of Social Work.


Nine out of Ten Families at Risk of Homelessness in Toronto’s Aging Rental Highrise Buildings

All families in this study are housed. This study sets out to define and measure inadequate housing, hidden homelessness, and the risk of absolute homelessness in a low-income, housed population. This includes families on a continuum of housing vulnerability and homelessness, from inadequate and precarious housing, to hidden homelessness, to visible homelessness and shelter use, to re-housing after a period in a shelter. Families often move back and forth along this continuum.



Dead Malls: Suburban Activism, Local Spaces, Global Logistics

An entire category of urban space, albeit hardly recognized as such, is disappearing across North America. As retail logistics globalizes and big-box power centres replace enclosed shopping malls from the postwar era, a distinct form of social infrastructure vanishes as well. ‘Dead malls’ are now a staple of North American (sub)urban landscapes, and have provoked local activism in many places. But despite popular concern for the demise of mall space, critical urban scholarship has largely sidelined the phenomenon. Much of the disjuncture between popular outcry and academic silence relates to conceptions of ‘public’ space, and specifically the gap between formal ownership and everyday spatial practice. Spatial practice often exceeds the conceptions of designers and managers, transforming malls into community space. This is particularly true in declining inner suburbs, where poor and racialized communities depend more heavily on malls for social reproduction as well as recreation and consumption. In this article we investigate the revolution in logistics that has provoked the phenomenon of ‘dead malls’ and the creative activism emerging that aims to protect mall space as ‘community space’. Taking the case of the Morningside Mall in an old suburb of Toronto, we investigate the informal claims made on mall space through everyday spatial practice and the explicit claims for community space that arise when that space is threatened. We argue that many malls have effectively become community space, and activism to prevent its loss can be understood as a form of anti-globalization practice, even if it never employs that language. Morningside Mall is a prime illustration of the conflict inherent in privatized public spaces — that despite collective voice and action the ‘public’ still had no impact on the fate of ‘their’ space. However, Morningside reveals the need to consider spatial practice beyond our preconceived notions of what goes on in spaces designed for private use. This neglected area of study signals the potential for a vast range of exploratory ethnographic revisionings of public space and spatial practices in surprising places.

Investing In Scarborough? Social Infrastructure? CBC Toronto, Metro Morning

Matt Galloway spoke with Deborah Cowen about her new report and the forum at which it would be launched. The report, “Toronto’s inner suburbs: Investing in social infrastructure in Scarborough,” by Deborah Cowen and Vanessa Parlette, was launched June 16, 2011, at Scarborough Civic Centre Council Chambers.  Toronto is a divided city. Social polarization and spatial segregation are clearly visible in the landscape, and our inner suburbs are home to more and more concentrated and racialized poverty. Investment in these suburbs is a key part of the solution, and yet its future is in question. How can we enhance investment in Scarborough when budgets everywhere are being cut? How do we unite across different issues and diverse communities? This forum provides an opportunity for community members to come together to learn from research about the big picture of urban change, and to take action for the future of Scarborough’s communities.  The forum was hosted by the Scarborough Civic Action Network, Social Planning Toronto, and Cities Centre, University of Toronto.

The boundaries of suburban discontent? Urban definitions and neighbourhood political effects

Residents of city and suburban neighbourhoods have diverged in the way they vote, with inner-city dwellers preferring political parties on the left while suburbanites increasingly vote for parties on the right. Yet it is not clear whether such a division is more evident between residents of central and suburban municipalities (the jurisdictional hypothesis), or between residents of neighbourhoods differentiated by urban form and, by assumption, lifestyle (the morphological hypothesis). While there are clear reasons for the predominant reliance on municipal differences in research based in the U.S. and other countries, it is not evident that these reasons apply in the Canadian context. This article examines how urban boundaries articulate electoral differences between metropolitan residents in Canada’s three largest urban regions, using aggregate election data for federal elections between 1945 and 2000, survey data from the 2000 Canada election study and a series of indices developed by the author. It is found that while trends towards city–suburban polarization are similar regardless of the boundaries used to define the zones, in the
Canadian case the results are stronger and more significant when boundaries based on urban form (between pre-and post-war development) are employed. The implications of these results for the relationship between urban space and political values in Canadian cities are then discussed.

Inner Suburbs at Stake: Investing in Social Infrastructure in Scarborough

This report finds that some “neighbourhood strategies” are more effective than others. Drawing on a pilot study that contrasts the experiences of the Kingston?Galloway/Orton Park (KGO) priority neighbourhood, with Parkdale, a downtown community that faces similar social and economic challenges but which did not receive Priority Neighbourhood (PN) designation, the report demonstrates that how we diagnose the problems in neighbourhoods matters profoundly in how we respond. This research further suggests that there are different ways of understanding neighbourhoods active within the PN strategy. According to residents and community workers, some ways of making sense of neighbourhoods and making change in neighbourhoods are more effective and responsive than others, and this report explores these strategies and practices in some detail. It includes findings about both effective and ineffective strategies. Effective neighbourhood strategies cultivate social infrastructure. They stem from explanations for concentrated poverty that assign responsibility to government policy and economic change at the local, regional, national, and global scale. They restore investment in human services and facilities in areas that have been overlooked, but they also advocate change at scales much larger than the local in order to respond to social polarization, segregation, and the racialization of poverty. Effective strategies for neighbourhoods are tailor?made for local conditions by local communities. They are accountable and inclusive, provide meaningful skills development that responds directly to identified gaps and needs, and they explicitly address persistent inequalities such as those that are manifest along the lines of race, mental health, class, and gender.

Toronto’s Inner Suburbs: Investing in Social Infrastructure in Scarborough

Cities Centre, University of Toronto, June 2011.  Toronto’s inner suburbs are home to many poor households, including members of many racialized groups. At the same time, social services in the inner suburbs are few and far between. This study looks at one neighbourhood (Kingston-Galloway/Orton Park) in Scarborough, and its social infrastructure. Social infrastructure is not just the social services or programs available to residents of a neighbourhood, but the area’s resources and relationships, such as spaces for gathering, opportunities for learning, as well as partnerships and networks within and beyond the community level. Social infrastructure exists at the local scale, but relies on public policy, capital investment, and social networks that are not necessarily local. This report draws on the insights of residents, community workers, non-profit agencies and public sector staff who are committed to improving everyday life for people in Toronto’s low income communities.

Food Insecurity and Participation in Community Food Programs among Low-income Toronto Families

Canadian Journal of Public Health 2009, 100(2).  Responses to food insecurity in Canada have been dominated by community-based food initiatives, while little attention has been paid to potential policy directions to alleviate this problem. The purpose of this paper is to examine food security circumstances, participation in community food programs, and strategies employed in response to food shortages among a sample of low-income families residing in high-poverty Toronto neighbourhoods. Results: Two thirds of families were food insecure over the past 12 months and over one quarter were severely food insecure, indicative of fooddeprivation. Only one in five families used food banks in the past 12 months and the odds of use were higher among food-insecure families. One third of families participated in children’s food programs but participation was not associated with household food security. One in 20 families used acommunity kitchen, and participation in community gardens was even lower. It was relatively common for families to delay payments of bills or rent andterminate services as a way to free up money for food and these behaviours were positively associated with food insecurity.  Discussion: While documenting high rates of food insecurity, this research challenges the presumption that current community-based food initiatives are reaching those in need. Public health practitioners have a responsibility to critically examine the programs that they deliver to assess their relevance to food-insecure households and to advocate for policy reforms to ensure that low-income households have adequate resources for food.

Lovely Spaces in Unknown Places: Creative City Building in Toronto’s Inner Suburbs

Research Paper 217, March 2009, vi, 50 pp.

This report examines the applicability of a creative cities strategy to Toronto’s inner suburbs, particularly its priority neighbourhoods. The author studied two priority neighbourhoods – one in North York, the other in Scarborough – and interviewed individuals working in arts, culture and creative industries in those areas. The results demonstrate that the creative class is having a significant impact on the social, physical, economic, and cultural life of the inner suburbs and has the potential for even greater impacts in future. The author proposes a Creative City Strategy for the Inner Suburbs, to be formed through community engagement and integrated with existing creative city and strong neighbourhood agendas. This perspective would lead to a more inclusive, diverse and effective creative city vision for Toronto.


The Three Cities Within Toronto: Income Polarization Among Toronto’s Neighbourhoods, 1970-2005

Research Report, Cites Centre, December 2010, 32 pages.

The City of Toronto is becoming increasingly divided by income and socio-economic status. No longer a city of neighbourhoods, modern-day Toronto is a city of disparities. In fact, Toronto is now so polarized it could be described as three geographically distinct cities. This study analyzed income and other data from the 1971 to the 2006 censuses, and grouped the city’s neighbourhoods based on whether average income in each one had increased, decreased, or stayed the same over that 35-year period. It found that the city’s neighbourhoods have become polarized by income and ethno-cultural characteristics and that wealth and poverty are increasingly concentrated.

Toronto’s Inner Suburbs: Investing in Social Infrastructure in Scarborough

Toronto’s Inner Suburbs: Investing in Social Infrastructure in Scarborough, by Deborah Cowen and Vanessa Parlette, Neighbourhood Change Research Partnership, University of Toronto, June 2011

Changes in immigration policy and in labour and housing markets, the dismant]ing of the social welfare safety net, the closing of psychiatric institutions, and the rising costs of living in the city’s core have all affected the inner suburbs. These areas today are home to many poor households, including members of many racialized groups. At the same time, social services in the inner suburbs are few and far between.

The result: dramatically under-serviced inner suburban neighbourhoods characterized by large numbers of residents with low incomes, many of whom face physical and mental health challenges, as well as greater numbers of newcomers.

Deborah Cowen is a professor in the University of Toronto’s Department of Geography and Programme in Planning. Vanessa Parlette is a doctoral candidate in geography at the University of Toronto. Both have been active in community projects in Kingston Galloway/Orion Park for the past five years.

Cowen 2011 Social Infrastructure – Toronto’s Inner Suburbs