Sheila Brown wasn’t worried when her secretarial job ended, because she figured she had the skills to find other work. When a job didn’t materialize, she decided to move from her home in Newmarket, Ont., to Waterdown where rents would be lower and she could be closer to her sister.

Within a year, however, her savings had run out and she was forced onto Ontario Works. Unable to pay her rent and on the verge of homelessness, Brown called the Flamborough Women’s Centre.

They quickly found her a spot at the YWCA’s MacNab Street transitional housing program, which houses homeless women, those with mental illness and women like Brown who are one step away from being without a home.

"I feel lucky I got in as fast as I did," says Sheila, 59.

Sheila’s next wait may be a little longer. She’s on a list — along with more than 5,400 other people — for subsidized housing in Hamilton.

They’re waiting for one of the city’s more than 14,600 subsidized housing units, which can be an apartment, townhouse or single family dwelling.

The good news is that the size of the wait list has gone down in the past few years, a sign Hamilton’s economy is rebounding. The wait list peaked in September 2011 with 5,781 people.

The bad news is that average wait time for a subsidized unit has gone up, from around 18 months in 2010 to 24 months today.

Reluctant to leave

Gillian Hendry, director of housing services for the city, said the longer wait is partly due to the increased number of people who are remaining in subsidized housing after they get a job.

From 2009 to 2011, more than 240 people in subsidized housing in the Hamilton region converted to market rent. As of the end of 2011, there were 3,882 people paying market rent.

Subsidized housing wait times in Hamilton

  • One bedroom units in Dundas are the most popular and thus have the longest wait times.
  • Seniors buildings have higher turnover rates, because seniors may move from social housing into health care or long term care facilities.
  • Two-bedroom and three-bedroom units in the downtown and on Stoney Creek Mountain have the shortest wait times.

"It’s not a huge number, but it still means if there are 100 people who have opted to stay [in social housing and pay market rent], that there are 100 people who are not going to be able to enter social housing," said Hendry.

"It’s an indication of the labour market, that people aren’t feeling really secure even though they have a job or that they may be only working part time. Plus there’s a lot of precarious jobs and people don’t feel like they have job security, so they want to hold onto what they have."

"It used to be a natural reaction that people wanted to move into a private rental [once they got a job], but people are being a little slow to do that now," said Hendry.

Housing services is also seeing an increased demand for larger units with three or more bedrooms, which are scarce. That demand often comes from immigrant families who tend to have bigger families, said Hendry.

Larger units are scarce, however, so housing services is doing renovations on some units to increase the number of bedrooms.

Victims of domestic violence are given top priority for subsidized housing, while second priority goes to the terminally ill and those experiencing violence or threats in their neighbourhood. After that, the list is chronological.

However, the most important factor that determines how long a person waits for subsidized housing is still choice of location. If a family wants to live in one of the more popular areas, like Dundas or the Mountain, they may wait several years.

Families often prefer suburban areas over the downtown. Two and three-bedroom units downtown have the shortest waits, some of only a few months. 

"People have a choice as to where they want to live, so if they choose social housing properties on the Mountain there are going to be longer waits," said Hendry.

"We try our best to get people in by two years. It’s still a long time for people in need of affordable housing."