No Fixed Address: rental market for Torontonians on disability 'absolutely horrible'

Torontonians who rely on Ontario's Disability Support Program (ODSP) face sky-high prices and discriminatory landlords as they hunt for a home within their budget.

People who spend most of their cheques to cover rent end up doing without basic necessities

Katherina Yerro is on ODSP due to a chronic illness, and says she spends 92 per cent of her income on renting a one-bedroom apartment. (CBC)

Torontonians who rely on Ontario's Disability Support Program (ODSP) face a number of challenges when looking for apartments in the city, including sky-high prices and discriminatory landlords.

When Katherina Yerro, 26, isn't able to pick up any extra work and has no other income, she says she spends 92 per cent of the social assistance money she receives for her disability on rent for a one-bedroom apartment.

"When the rental costs are this high, there's only so much you can do," she told CBC Toronto.

Torontonians who rely on Ontario's Disability Support Program (ODSP) face sky-high prices and discriminatory landlords as they hunt for a home within their budget. 2:41

Yerro, who has a chronic illness that saps her energy and makes it difficult to hold down a job and study, lives in a downtown YWCA affordable housing building that costs about $1,040 a month. The average rent for a one-bedroom apartment in Toronto is $1,132. 

Friends visit Katherina Yerro in her one-bedroom apartment. (CBC)

Also living in that building is 34-year-old Jessica Tavares, who, like Yerro, is on ODSP, and who told CBC Toronto that once rent and bills and "everything else is done, I have no money," leading her to count pennies and make occasional visits to food banks. 

Spending the bulk of their ODSP money on rent, including the amount allocated for basic needs, puts Tavares and Yerro on a razor's edge, relying on help from family and constantly worrying about making do. 

  How much money do you get from ODSP?

  • The program gives out two chunks of money: one for basic needs, and one for a shelter allowance. 
  • The Ministry of Community and Social Services says the maximum a single person can receive for shelter is $479. 
  • $679 is the maximum given out per person for basic needs.
  • So the most a person can receive on ODSP is $1,128 (some extra social assistance benefits for healthcare are also available).  

"The only way I can do it is with some help from my mom ... if I didn't have her help I don't know what my situation would be. I'd probably be living in a really unsafe apartment," said Tavares.

Geordie Dent, executive director of the Federation of Metro Tenants' Associations, agrees renters who rely on disability payments face added hardships.

"Right now, it is absolutely horrible for anyone on any kind of fixed or low income to find a place in Toronto," said Dent. 

"Anyone that's on a fixed income ends up living in 'no questions asked' housing, meaning it might be illegal rooming houses, apartments not up to code, or apartments where the landlord takes the money and doesn't do any kind of basic maintenance." 

Geordie Dent of the Federation of Metro Tenants' Associations says Toronto's red-hot rental market is especially hard on people on fixed incomes such as disability payments. (John Lesavage)

'No ODSP' advertisements

That was the situation Tavares found herself in in her last apartment, which was in a dark, damp basement near Harbord Street and Shaw Street that had problems with flooding. The rent was $850/month.

"Everything got soaked, and my room got completely covered in mold," she said.

Her landlord was "non responsive" when she asked for repairs, she said, and she felt paralyzed and unsure if she would be able to find anything she could afford.

House hunting is made all the harder by ads that specifically discourage people like her from applying.

"I have seen ads that say 'no ODSP,' and I have seen it stipulated in some rental applications I have done as well," Tavares wrote to CBC Toronto in an email.

Yerro has had similar experiences.  

"If a landlord has 14 offers they're not going to pick the girl with the disability cheque as proof of income," she said.

Two GTA apartment listings from Craigslist and Kijiji stipulating that nobody receiving Ontario Works or Ontario Disability Support Program should apply. (CBC)

It's a story that Annie Hodgins, a project director from the Centre for Equality Rights in Accommodation, hears frequently.

"Landlords will blatantly say, 'No-one on social assistance,"' she said. "But even if that doesn't happen, [rent] is not affordable at all, so it puts people in really precarious situations."

Large-scale reform planned for social assistance

The Ministry of Community and Social Services told CBC Toronto in a statement that they are planning a large-scale reform of social assistance, with a working group established to determine where the system needs improvements and with public consultations coming up in fall 2017.  

The statement also pointed to programs like rent-geared-to-income units and rent subsidies as extra help for people who are struggling. 

Jessica Tavares and her dog at home at a downtown YWCA building. (Submitted by Jessica Tavares)

Her condition hasn't allowed her to work, but Tavares is hopeful she will one day have a job again.

However, in the meantime, she is on lists for a Toronto Community Housing unit as well as a rent-geared-to-income unit in her current building, but both come with years-long waits.  

"[The rent-geared-to-income unit] will make things a lot more sustainable for me," she said. "But that could take several years still, at least five or maybe more." 

In the meantime, she said, life is going to remain stressful.  

"The wait lists are too long for the help. Prices are just going out of control, Tavares said.

"It's just not sustainable and people are really suffering." 


The No Fixed Address series

This week, CBC Toronto will bring you stories about Toronto's rental housing market and its implications. We'll tell your stories about searching for affordable housing, look at what's driving up prices, and search for solutions.

About the Author

Kate McGillivray

Reporter, CBC Toronto

Kate McGillivray is a jill-of-all-trades at CBC Toronto, working as a reporter in the field and on the digital desk. Originally from west-end Toronto, she began her reporting career in Montreal and Sherbrooke, Quebec and is now thrilled to be home. She likes going places and meeting people.

With files from Shannon Martin