New York overhauled its affordable housing application system. Toronto wants to follow suit
Nearly 80,000 applicants are on Toronto's social housing waiting list
When Bob Murphy began his search for an affordable housing unit in Toronto, he said the process felt something like blindly throwing darts at a map.
As a person with a disability on a fixed income, Murphy's options for an affordable unit within the Toronto Community Housing system were even further limited.
"You're just basically looking at an address on a map and just picking five choices you would possibly want," he said of the process.
Three years later, he says there's been no movement on his application, and a total lack of communication about the status of his search.
Murphy says he's now resigned to quietly languishing on Toronto's massive waiting list for affordable housing, which numbers 79,768 according to the city's latest count.
"I call it the never, ever housing list," said Murphy, who also volunteers with the advocacy group ACORN Canada. "I don't plan on anything ever developing from this list."
Frustrating experiences like Murphy's are now driving a push to transform the city's outdated affordable housing application system, which has been described as an inconvenient relic from a pre-digital age.
"It's a barrier to entry," said Mark Richardson, an affordable housing activist behind the grassroots organization HousingNowTO. He's critical of the current system's reliance on physical documentation and the need for applicants to frequently update their files.
"I think it's a cumbersome system for people who are looking for housing," said Toronto Deputy Mayor Ana Bailão, who is also the chair of the city's planning and housing committee.
All eyes on NYC
Improvements to Toronto's affordable housing application process could make the system easier to access, more responsive, and ultimately more capable of matching applicants with suitable housing, say those calling for change.
Those advocates can now point to New York City, which in June rolled out a similarly ambitious makeover of its affordable housing application system to early positive reviews.
Prospective tenants in New York can now access and update their applications on a smartphone, and the streamlined system is said to be more effective at matching tenants to possible homes.
"I think it would make a major difference and possibly create a little bit more hope," said Murphy of New York's revamped system.
Richardson said a more sophisticated and intuitive system could also remove a burden on applicants to apply for various lotteries when new units become available. Rather than applying for a handful of buildings like Murphy has done, an improved system could match tenants with any building with an availability.
"You're not waiting to see some sign up on the side of the building, or the sign in a lobby of a building saying some units are becoming available," Richardson said.
Change coming early next year, city says
Bailão calls the updated system in New York "a great example" and said Toronto's social housing application process will take cues from it for its next update.
"It is an excellent system and that's what I'm hoping we're going to be able to roll out in Toronto," she said.
She said that could happen as soon as the first quarter of 2021 for subsidized units in the Toronto Community Housing network. The same system would later be used for other forms of affordable housing, including below-market-rate units, Bailão said.
A recent pilot project that tested an enhanced application system created the equivalent of 200 new units by more efficiently matching tenants to homes, she added.
Despite possible improvements to the application process, Toronto will still have to grapple with a demand for affordable housing that still vastly exceeds the current supply of units.
The city's HousingTO plan has a target of 40,000 new affordable housing units by 2030, which covers about half the applicants currently on the city's waiting list.