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




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.



Who Lived Where in 2006: A Neighbourhood Typology of Eight Canadian Metropolitan Areas

As part of a research project on neighbourhood change in cities across Canada we have developed a typology of neighbourhoods for eight Canadian Census Metropolitan Areas (CMAs): Calgary, Halifax, Hamilton, Montreal, Ottawa, Toronto, Vancouver, and Winnipeg.

We created this typology using 2006 census data for 3,139 census tracts in the eight CMAs. We focused on 30 variables related to economic status, age, family, and household status, immigrant and ethnic status, migrant status, and housing status.

By analysing the relationships among these variables using component analysis and undertaking a cluster analysis of the component scores we were able to identify 15 clusters of  census tracts that  characterize distinct urban neighbourhoods. We have organized these 15 clusters into six larger groups: Older Working Class, Urban/Suburban Homeowner, Old City Establishment, Disadvantaged Groups, and Family Ethnoburbs.

Not all clusters appear in all CMAs. Toronto includes all 15 clusters, while Halifax (the smallest city in the study) has only nine. Larger and more socially complex CMAs exhibit the largest number of clusters.

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.

Assessing the relevance of neighbourhood characteristics to the household food security of low-income Toronto families

Objective: Although the sociodemographic characteristics of food-insecure households have been well documented, there has been little examination of neighbourhood characteristics in relation to this problem. In the present study we examined the association between household food security and neighbourhood features including geographic food access and perceived neighbourhood social capital. Design: Cross-sectional survey and mapping of discount supermarkets and community food programmes. Setting: Twelve high-poverty neighbourhoods in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. Conclusions: Our findings raise questions about the extent to which neighbourhood-level interventions to improve factors such as food access or social cohesion can mitigate problems of food insecurity that are rooted in resource constraints. In contrast, the results reinforce the importance of household-level characteristics and highlight the need for interventions to address the financial constraints that underlie problems of food insecurity.

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.

The Factors Inhibiting Gentrification in Areas with Little Non-market Housing: Policy Lessons from the Toronto Experience

Urban Studies, 45(12), November 2008. This paper examines the factors that have limited gentrification in two Toronto neighbourhoods which have below-average proportions of public housing and which have traditionally acted as immigrant reception areas. The first failed to gentrify despite the existence of gentrification nearby, whereas gentrification stalled in the second in the early 1980s. Analysis of the historical reasons behind this suggests ways in which policy could intervene to limit the spread of gentrification in the absence of support for local affordable housing. These include the maintenance of areas of working-class employment, different approaches to nuisance uses and environmental externalities, a housing stock not amenable to gentrifiers’ tastes and state encouragement of non-market and ethnic sources of housing finance. However, the Toronto experience also highlights the importance of policy in a negative way, as changes in municipal policy which run counter to these prescriptions are now resulting in the gentrification of these two neighbourhoods.

The Changing Economy of Urban Neighbourhoods: An Exploration of Place of Work Data for the Greater Toronto Region

Research Paper 219, December 2009, vi, 44 pp.  This paper explores Statistics Canada’s recently released place-of-work employment data at the census tract level for the combined metropolitan areas of Oshawa, Toronto and Hamilton. The maps show the spatial implications of the sectoral shifts of the last 30 years, as jobs in manufacturing have disappeared or relocated, while jobs in financial and business services have grown rapidly. This latter growth has reinforced downtown concentration, and created a new type of work environment in the outer suburbs: a mix of office towers, industrial parks, and power centres linked by freeways.

Diversity and Concentration in Canadian Immigration: Trends in Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver, 1971 – 2006

Research Bulletin 42, March 2008, 12 pages. Immigrants to Canada are increasingly concentrated in Canada’s three biggest metropolitan areas. Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver accommodate 70% of those who arrived between 2001 and 2006. The three biggest gateway cities, however, exhibit important differences in the ethnic groups they attract, and the patterns of settlement. Toronto and Vancouver have some similarities (more Asians, more immigrants settling in the suburbs), while Montreal has a larger proportion of European and African immigrants, who still tend to cluster in the central city. The suburbanization of immigration in Toronto and Vancouver poses challenges for service provision and planning and raises questions about the pros and cons of suburban ethnic enclaves in enhancing immigrant integration.

Toronto’s South Parkdale Neighbourhood: A Brief History of Development, Disinvestment, and Gentrification

Research Bulletin 28, May 2005, 7 pages.  This brief history of a neighbourhood in Toronto just west of downtown describes the changes over time that have led to conflict between incoming gentrifiers and artists on one hand, and a long-standing population of poor and marginalized residents on the other. An area that was once an affluent enclave near the lake was disrupted by expressway building in 1950s, the deinstitutionalization of mental health patients in the 1970s, and by an influx of artists and middle-class homeowners beginning in the 1990sm. Although the area needs reinvestment, gentrification threatens the stability of the remaining.

Ethnic Identity, Place Marketing, and Gentrification in Toronto

Research Paper 203, April 2005, vi, 26 pp.  Urban theory has historically viewed ethnic commercial strips as a more-or-less organic extension of nearby ethnic residential enclaves. This paper argues that some of these areas function as a branding mechanism (intended or not) to produce nearby residential gentrification. Certain forms of ethnic identity attract affluent professionals looking for an alternative to suburban life. Some neighbourhood institutions have recognized this attraction and begun to manufacture a saleable form of ethnicity to tourists and prospective residents alike. This paper explores the influence of ethnic packaging on the process of gentrification in Toronto, using the examples of four ethnically defined business improvement areas (BIAs) – Little Italy, Greektown on the Danforth, Corso Italia, and the Gerrard India Bazaar.


Neighbourhood Gentrification and Upgrading in Montreal, Toronto, and Vancouver

Research Bulletin 43, September 2008. In this study of neighbourhood change, the researchers traced the attributes of a consistent sample of 1,130 census tracts in the central cities of Toronto, Montreal, and Vancouver between 1961 and 2001. For each tract in each decade, the authors looked at conversion from rental to owner-occupation; changes in social status; changes in relative land values and housing affordability; changes in income; and changes in the average monthly rent. They found that gentrification has affected more than 36 percent of prewar inner-city neighbourhoods, where affordable housing has traditionally been located. Gentrification appeared more prevalent in Vancouver, followed by Toronto, and then Montreal. The results suggest the continuing displacement of low-income households from the inner cities.


Toronto’s West-Central Neighbourhoods: A Profile of the St. Christopher House Catchment Area

Research Bulletin 29, June 2005, 8 pages. This research bulletin is contains a demographic profile of the catchment area of St. Christopher House, a neighbourhood-based, multi-service, non-profit organization in Toronto’s west end. The catchment area includes more than 100,000 people. The profile was prepared using 2001 census data, and includes data on population, household size and type, education, income, employment, immigration, ethnicity, and language. The information is also organized according to eight distinct neighbourhoods within the area: Dufferin Grove, Little Portugal, Niagara, Palmerston – Little Italy, Roncesvalles, South Parkdale, and Trinity – Bellwoods.


Liberty Village: The Makeover of Toronto’s King and Dufferin Area

Research Bulletin 32, January 2007, 7 pages. This short history of one of the neighbourhoods in west-central Toronto describes the stages of transformation of a formerly industrial area. The area first became a distinctive and diverse artists’ community on the margin of Toronto’s mainstream culture, but has more recently become an increasingly homogenized space that has been made safe, clean, and attractive for capital investment and new residents. The author argues that the gentrification of the area was municipally managed, as Toronto’s economic development corporation, in combination with Toronto Artscape, worked to attract investment to the area.


Toronto’s Little Portugal: A Neighbourhood in Transition

Research Bulletin 35, March 2007, 8 pages.

Little Portugal is located in the downtown west end of Toronto. Over the years, Portuguese immigrants have created an institutionally complete community that is also one of the most visible ethnic neighbourhoods in Toronto. Little Portugal is, however, changing because of the movement of many Portuguese from Toronto’s downtown to the suburbs; the arrival of urban professionals, who seek to buy older houses close to the downtown core; and the arrival of immigrants and refugees from the Portuguese diaspora (including Brazil and Portugal’s former African colonies). This research bulletin, based on interviews with residents of the area, describes how these changes are altering the characteristics of the neighbourhood, for better or for worse.

Commercial Change in Toronto’s West-Central Neighbourhoods

Research Paper 214, September 2008, viii, 72 pp. This study explores how commercial change contributes to wider processes of exclusion and gentrification, as well as the resources available to counter this trend. The researchers studied three commercial strips in Toronto’s downtown West-Central neighbourhoods (West Queen West, Roncesvalles Village, and Bloordale Village), representing different characteristics and stages of commercial gentrification. The report focuses on themes such as ownership structure in relation to local investment; the politics of strip “branding,” and the role of immigrant-owned businesses in building social cohesion; the role of Business Improvement Areas in promoting local development and fragmenting the urban landscape; and the challenges and opportunities for business finance. The report concludes with some recommendations for policy and community organizing.


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