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

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 City-Suburban Cleavage in Canadian Federal Politics

Despite increasing speculation and attention, as of yet insufficient empirical research has been conducted on the possibility of a political cleavage based on differences between Canadian inner cities and suburbs. This article sheds light on the potential existence of such differences by analyzing federal elections at the level of the constituency from 1945 to 1997. Results show that city-suburban differences in federal party voting did not become significant until the 1980s, and increased after this point, with inner-city residents remaining to the left of the rest of Canada in their party preferences while suburbanites shifted increasingly to the right in their voting patterns. The results obtained from regression analysis suggest that such a divergence cannot be reduced solely to differences in social composition, housing tenure, or region, and thus confirm that it constitutes a ‘true’ political cleavage. It is argued that intra-urban geography needs to taken into account in future analyses of Canadian political behaviour.

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.

Housing Circumstances are Associated with Household Food Access Among Low-Income Urban Families

Household food insecurity is a pervasive problem in North America with serious health consequences. While affordable housing has been cited as a potential policy approach to improve food insecurity, the relationship between conventional notions of housing affordability and household food security is not well understood.  Furthermore, the influence of housing subsidies, a key policy intervention aimed at improving housing affordability in Western countries, on food insecurity is unclear. In this article, the authors undertook a cross-sectional survey of 473 families in market rental (n=222) and subsidized (n=251) housing in high-poverty urban neighborhoods to examine the influence of housing circumstances on household food security. Food insecurity, evident among two thirds of families, was inversely associated with income and after-shelter income. Food insecurity prevalence did not differ between families in market and subsidized housing, but families in subsidized housing had lower odds of food insecurity than those on a waiting list for such housing. Market families with housing costs that consumed more than 30% of their income had increased odds of food insecurity. Rent arrears were also positively associated with food insecurity. Compromises in housing quality were evident, perhaps reflecting the impact of financial constraints on multiple basic needs as well as conscious efforts to contain housing costs to free up resources for food and other needs.  Findings raise questions about current housing affordability norms and highlight the need for a review of housing interventions to ensure that they enable families to maintain adequate housing and obtain their other basic needs.

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.

Place-based Public Policy: Towards a New Urban and Community Agenda for Canada

This Research Report explores ideas and options for a new approach to urban and community policy in Canada. The analysis builds on the growing body of research demonstrating how “place matters” to the quality of life for all citizens and to the prosperity of nations. This Research Report calls for a place-based public policy framework. In so doing, it takes a broader view than is often the case in assessing the problems and prospects of cities. An urban perspective concentrates on physical infrastructures and the powers available to municipalities. A community perspective focuses on social infrastructures and the networks for democratic participation. The place-based framework recognizes the importance of both perspectives, and seeks their integration through a mix of public policies responding to the needs of cities of all sizes and locations.

Canadian Social Policy in the 2000s: Bringing Place In

This article explores departures in Canadian public policy toward more “place-based” approaches to social development. Focusing on the federal government, it describes a series of recent initiatives designed to enable local actors to participate in policy development processes and take greater control of their own destinies. Using the categories of “municipal empowerment” and “community building” to map new patterns, the article examines innovation and learning across federal and local scales. The article concludes that Canadian governments have now joined a robust and evolving international conversation about leveraging local assets to meet significant national policy challenges, but that more work needs to be done to build high performing, durable multi-level partnerships.


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.