By PAT WATSON
Getting more affordable housing built in Toronto is complicated. It shouldn’t be. There is no question that affordable housing is needed. With the bulk of baby-boomers facing imminent retirement, and with it a retirement-level income, the crisis that is already here threatens to worsen.
There was an ad that used to run a little while back that depicted a woman having to make a choice between either paying for her shelter or buying food. Ask just about any single, middle-aged woman, sole-support parent or senior in this city how they are managing with their housing costs. Many will tell you that they pay almost all of their income to maintain their shelter. Some 73,000 households in Toronto have made applications for affordable housing. Across the province, that figure is more than 156,000. Wait times exceed 10 years.
It is really tiring to listen to the criticisms of the comfortable or the bitter who dump on those who struggle with the housing climate we live uncomfortably in. Also tiring is the argument that every single individual has an equal opportunity for employment and to support himself or herself. That is demonstrably untrue.
Do people in need simply choose to remove themselves from all the wealth of opportunities to earn a middle-class income and to secure a decent standard of living?
There are two basic points of view on this matter as there are with just about any social issue. One is that there is simply not enough support from all levels of government to assist in the housing needs of the most vulnerable in society. The other is that if people are too lazy to help themselves then hardworking people don’t owe them anything.
The latter point of view is inhumane. Every time people are made into ‘others’ it is a disconnection from our shared humanity. This debate has been in place since Cain asked God “Am I my brother’s keeper?” The question posed was not a matter of inquiry; instead it was rhetorical, with a tone of some irritation and sarcasm.
This is selfishness at its core. There are relatively few people in the world of busyness whose inclination is to while away most of their time. Most want a chance to be active and to contribute to the mainstream of life. What enough of us don’t get is a fair chance to do that, sometimes because of pervasive selfishness. So a significant portion of the community lives in need.
Sadly, too many cannot or will not see past headline catching depictions of human depravity to see the larger story of real people who just want the support they cannot muster on their own to have a decent standard of living. Moreover, if our caring for those who need affordable housing support rests at best on homeless shelters then we are failing ourselves. Which person now living a comfortable life then suddenly confronted by misfortune would willingly take him/herself over to any of this city’s shelters?
Housing is a matter of life and death here. People have frozen to death for lack of adequate shelter right here in this city. Furthermore, the stress that comes from putting all one’s energies into just having a place to live contributes to decreased physical and psychic health.
We can address this crisis by challenging government policies and taxation rules that have put a damper on rental construction. A push from the grassroots and all interested parties is necessary to change those policies and to foster a climate for more construction of affordable housing. Also, there must be incentives for condominium developers to include a percentage of units for low-income earners to be able to get in. Rent subsidies for low-income earners could be instituted that reflect the difference between market rent and what they should be expected to pay as a percentage of their income. And, the Tenancy Review Board has to be seen as fair by both landlords and tenants. As it is now, decisions resemble a kind of zero sum result in which either the tenant or the landlord loses. This is bad for both parties and discourages investment into rental properties. The system must become one that is conciliatory rather than punitive.
So many people act as if some lives are disposable – as long as it’s not their life. This housing crisis is but a symptom of that anti-social attitude and is manifest in our policies. It’s disgusting.
A note on a health concern…
South Africa and the world now wait by Nelson Mandela’s bedside.