People may associate the City of Vaughan with subdivisions filled with monster homes and Canada's Wonderland, but a spike in registered food bank users in the city may signal a growth in hidden poverty.

With an average household income of well over $100,000 a year and average home prices just below $850,000, the city doesn't have obvious signs of poverty. But Peter Wixson, executive director of the Vaughan Food Bank, said it's a growing problem.

"They see the beautiful homes in Vaughan and say, 'There's no problem here,'" said Wixson.

"But it is really a hidden thing."

A recent report called "Measuring What Matters" indicated the number of low-income residents increased by 61 per cent between 2000 and 2012. 

Wixson, who runs one of the only food banks in the city of 320,530 residents, said he's noticed an increase in the number of registered food bank users, up to 250 from 200, with each representing a family of five or six.

"We registered six new clients in one day — 15 in the last month," he said. "We do have a lot of seniors, immigrant seniors, they don't have the kind of pension people have. Some go without food and they're brought in here."

Lack of affordable housing in Vaughan 'alarming'

Wixson suggests the basements of Vaughan's monster homes have become de facto low-income rental units and he believes that it's because of a lack of affordable housing.

"People see a big home with nine rooms, but just look outside and you'll see half a dozen cars, some beat up and you think, 'holy smokes what are they doing here?' They're renting," he said.

Housing in Vaughan is geared mainly to large single family homes with relatively few rental units. A recent report by York Region noted a dire lack of rentals in Vaughan — currently only seven per cent of homes are rentals — and of those, there are only 470 social housing rental units in the entire city.

Isabel Araya

Isabel Araya, executive director Vaughan Community Health Centre says the large single family homes in Vaughan hide poverty in the city. (Philip Lee-Shanok)

Isabel Araya, executive director of the Vaughan Community Health Centre, said that there is evidence that the large single family homes in Vaughan hide the actual problems of poverty in the city.

"The lack of affordable housing in Vaughan is alarming," she said, adding the vast majority of Health Centre clients report they reside in someone's basement. 

And while a staggering number of people own their homes (92.2 per cent), many spend more than a third of their income on their housing costs. Araya believes homeowners are doing what they can to cope.

"We are seeing different generations living in the same house just because of affordability," said Araya. "We are also seeing a lot of families renting their basements in order to pay the mortgage."

Araya said she, too, has noticed an increase in poverty in the city, but not just due to lack of affordable housing. With transportation geared mainly to cars, there's also a lack of affordable public transportation.

Majority of residents 'totally unaware' of problem

Araya said newcomers are pushing the numbers of low income residents up. She said they may be settling in Vaughan because they have friends or family in the city, but she said there are many working poor employed in precarious or temporary jobs.

She said the problems of poverty in Vaughan may be a surprise to most residents because people spend so much time working or commuting they may have less time to notice signs of poverty.

"I would say the majority of Vaughan residents are totally unaware of this problem," Araya said.

She said the outward appearance of pleasant neighbourhoods in Vaughan masks the problem, because there are no obvious signs, such as public housing highrises, for example.

"The issue in Vaughan is we don't see the poverty. In Toronto, you see it, but here it's hidden so it's difficult for the average Vaughan resident to be aware that this problem is here."

  • Sounds of the Season is CBC Toronto's annual charity drive. Please visit our website for details on the Dec. 2 event and how you can support local food banks.