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

Theories of neighbourhood change and neighbourhood decline: Their significance for post-WWII large housing estates

In the 1920s, researchers of the Chicago School developed what is often considered as the first theories and models designed to explain neighbourhood change. Subsequent research into neighbourhood change has been carried out in many different ways and has focused on different fields. The early researchers considered neighbourhood change as a more or less inevitable result of a filtering process that causes changes in areas with an ageing housing supply. Others have paid more attention to the importance of a strong neighbourhood attachment, while again others have referred to the impact of larger economic and social transformations on neighbourhoods. Researchers have also aimed to capture the process of neighbourhood change, and of decay in particular, in all-embracing models in which several variables and developments are linked. Despite the comprehensiveness of many models, we think none of them is all-embracing; there is still room for improvement and addition. This paper sets out an approach, which combines crucial elements of different theories, approaches and models. The aim is to find out how we can use the existing theories in the case of the post-WWII large housing estates in Europe. Especially in these areas significant physical, economic and social changes have emerged in the past two decades. The central questions to be addressed in this paper are therefore: To what extent can models and theories explaining neighbourhood change, and decay in particular, be applied to post-WWII large housing estates in European cities? And how can the useful elements of these models and theories be combined to explain the development of European post-WWII housing estates?