Toronto

COVID-19 pandemic could lead to 'unprecedented levels of homelessness,' foundation warns

COVID-19 could result in "unprecedented levels of homelessness" in Toronto or "unprecedented long-term fixes" to the city's problem of affordable housing, new research from a charitable foundation shows.

Foundation says pandemic could also lead to 'unprecedented long-term fixes' to housing problem

In a brief released on Monday, the Toronto Foundation maps out how homelessness could grow by large numbers given the current number of renters missing payments and the lack of government strategies to help them stay housed once a provincial ban on evictions is lifted. (CBC)

COVID-19 could result in "unprecedented levels of homelessness" in Toronto or "unprecedented long-term fixes" to the city's problem of affordable housing, new research from a charitable foundation shows.

In a brief released on Monday, the Toronto Foundation maps out how homelessness could grow by large numbers in the city given the current number of renters missing payments and the lack of government strategies to help them stay housed once a provincial ban on evictions is lifted.

The brief, entitled "COVID-19 and housing: Will new opportunity emerge from crisis?", estimates thousand of renters have been struggling to make monthly payments since April because jobs have been lost or people are working fewer hours due to the pandemic. 

If a fraction of renters who missed payments are evicted, they could become homeless, straining an emergency shelter system already at capacity, the brief says.

Steven Ayer, president of Common Good Strategies, a consulting firm that reports on social trends, said the brief is designed to draw attention to precariousness of housing amid the pandemic. Ayer wrote the brief for the foundation, a registered charity.

"The challenges for homelessness and affordable housing have been growing for decades. But the pandemic has exacerbated them," Ayer writes in the brief. "To address what is to come, all levels of government, individuals, and businesses will need to work together to come up with innovative funding and policy solutions."

In March, the Ontario Landlord and Tenant Board suspended all eviction hearings unless a matter is considered urgent due to a serious health and safety issue or illegal act. If the board were to issue an eviction order, it says the sheriff's office will not enforce it unless the landlord seeks permission from the Ontario Superior Court of Justice to have the order enforced.

A person wearing a face mask rides a bicycle in front of a Parkdale apartment building. A brief, entitled 'COVID-19 and housing: Will new opportunity emerge from crisis?', estimates thousand of renters have been struggling to make monthly payments since April because jobs have been lost or people are working fewer hours due to the pandemic. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

According to Tony Irwin, president of Federation of Rental-housing Providers of Ontario, member landlords recorded a rent delinquency rate of about 10 per cent in Ontario in April, an increase from about 1 per cent in a usual month.

That means an estimated 10 per cent of renters in the province missed their monthly rent payment in April. The federation represents about 2,200 landlords across the province. Irwin said some people paid in instalments and the pandemic has meant that people are doing things differently.

Irwin said in an interview that data is still coming in for May, but the percentage looks better. 

"I think, what we're really seeing, is that the majority of renters do pay their rent. People are obviously figuring it out, whether through income supports or whether through savings. People want to fulfill their obligations as best they can," Irwin said.

"But we need to step up. We don't want to leave anyone behind. We need to figure out how we can help people who are having trouble paying their rent."

A poster in Parkdale in March calls on tenants affected by the COVID-19 pandemic to keep their April rent. The Federation of Rental Housing Providers of Ontario estimates 10 per cent of renters in the province missed their April monthly rent payment. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

In the brief, Ayer shows mathematically how the housing problem could become a homelessness problem in Toronto. 

The 2016 census says there are about 525,000 households living in rental homes in Toronto, a number that Ayers says accounts for an estimated 1.3 million people, with an average household defined in 2016 as 2.42 people. 

"Projecting optimistically, if only 10% were unable to pay rent, this would mean that 53,000 households with about 130,000 people were rent delinquent" in April, Ayer wrote in the brief. 

"Given the high rental prices in Toronto compared to the rest of the country, a realistic but less optimistic forecast could easily suggest double that — that 260,000 people in our city were delinquent in their rent payment. Considering that the Landlord Tenant Board typically sees 4,000 eviction cases a month across the entire province, the scale of this issue compared to the typical is unprecedented."

According to a May poll by the Angus Reid Institute, slightly more than half of the people not paying rent in Canada are actually deferring their payments with plans to pay in full when they are able.

Steven Ayer, president of Common Good Strategies, a consulting firm that reports on social trends, writes: 'The challenges for homelessness and affordable housing have been growing for decades. But the pandemic has exacerbated them. To address what is to come, all levels of government, individuals, and businesses will need to work together to come up with innovative funding and policy solutions.' (Shawn Van Daele)

"With no federal or provincial policies, it is unclear what will happen to those who make agreements to repay missed rent but are later unable to do so," Ayer says.

Ayer estimates that some renters will simply not be able to pay. "Even if only a small portion of the 130,000 to 260,000 who missed rent payments in May are evicted, that represents a potentially huge increase in the homeless population," he added. 

Ayer estimates that one in 20 of the renters who missed payments and are unable to pay in full later could end up homeless.

"If just one in 20 ended up homeless, that would equate to 6,500 to 13,000 more people without a home." 

That additional number of people experiencing homelessness would strain the city's existing shelter system, which is already grappling with COVID-19 cases, localized outbreaks and the challenges of physical distancing.

He said the shelter system has a capacity of 7,000 to 8,000 and is already about 98 to 99 per cent full.

But on a more hopeful note, Ayer said advocates believe the COVID-19 crisis could lead to inventive measures to solve the problem of affordable housing in Toronto and it has been noted that the pandemic has led to lower rents on new apartments. 

Such measures include new programs that would provide longer-term income supports, improvements to the Employment Insurance program, and opportunities for non-profit organizations to buy properties that remain as affordable housing.

The Parkdale Activity-Recreation Centre Toronto has acquired this building, 1501 Queen Street West, a three-storey brownstone with 38 affordable rental units, for $7.2 million with a little help from the city. (Michael Charles Cole/CBC)

Ontario needs eviction prevention plan, Maytree says

According to Maytree, an advocacy group, and the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, once the ban is lifted on evictions, the Ontario government needs to have an eviction prevention plan.

In a study released on Friday, the organizations recommend: targeted rent relief funding for people who cannot pay their rent; a gradual easing of the eviction ban; and a reintroduction of provincial rent controls.

"Many renters couldn't make rent on April 1 or on May 1, and June 1 will be tough, too," Ricardo Tranjan, political economist and senior researcher with the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, said in a news release on Friday. 

"Once the eviction ban is over, tenants who are in arrears will be at risk of immediate eviction for non-payment of rent. That's why Queen's Park must develop an Eviction Prevention Plan now."

In its study, Maytree and the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives say "there is a significant risk that renters across Ontario could lose their housing" without such a plan in place.

Ayer says the work to help renters must begin now.

"The scale of the challenge before us is vast, but the opportunities for real and lasting change are also massive. Our collective response to COVID-19 may just present some of the answers we have been looking for to tackle the housing crisis," he concludes.

The Toronto Foundation, established in 1981, says: "We pool philanthropic dollars and facilitate charitable donations for maximum community impact."

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