Tenants struggle to pay rising rents

The disappearing hotdogs were the tip-off. Joe Mihevc, councillor for Ward 21-St. Paul’s in Toronto, felt a rising sense of concern as a number of seniors, guests at his annual barbecue in a local park surrounded by apartment buildings, returned for yet another hotdog.

“This area’s not affluent,” he says, “but it’s a middle-class area. It caused me to do a little more research on what seniors are paying for rent. You have to remember that basically, when you enter the senior years, you’re on pension. The amount of money you get is declining every year because of inflation. Unforeseen increases-for example in heating or hydro or rent-takes you for an absolute loop. And so I know seniors are not eating in order to pay rent. I know that an inordinately high number of seniors are paying more than 50 per cent of their incomes on their rent.”

Rent costs up
Mihevc’s not just talking off the top of his head. An annual survey by Toronto’s largest food banks, the Daily Bread Food Bank and the North York Harvest Food Bank, indicates that the number of 60-plus people using food banks went from five per cent in 1995 to 11 per cent in 2000.

By then, per cent of these food bank users were paying more than half of their income on rent, up from the 32 per cent reported in 1995. (If a person pays 30 per cent or less of their income on rent, it’s considered affordable.)

Elderly renters across Canada, most of whom live in urban centres, are in a bind. Vacancy rates are low and new affordable rentals aren’t being built. Since the federal and provincial governments began withdrawing from social housing in the early 1990s, there simply hasn’t been enough rental housing created to keep up with demand.

In fact, construction of rental units dropped precipitously from 27,254 completed between 1990 and 1994 to only 8,404 built between 1995 and 1999. And the country actually needs approximately 45,000 new units a year, according to Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation (CMHC).

National problem
A professor of architecture at Dalhousie University in Halifax, Grant Wanzel is also president of the Affordable Housing Association of Nova Scotia and a board member of the Halifax Regional Housing Authority.

“I can tell you that if seniors have very modest means and fixed income and they’re renters, they are in deep trouble,” he says.

“The vacancy rate on the Halifax peninsula – the central part of town-is under one per cent, and the vacancy rate in public housing is hovering around one per cent. And we have quite extensive waiting lists for public housing. We’ve got 409 senior households out of a total of 1,246 on the waiting lists.”

Halifax experience
Of 23,000 households in ‘core need’ in Halifax-paying more than 30 per cent of their income for shelter-some 17,000 are tenant households. The housing authority is bracing for both a dramatic increase in arrears in the public housing system and an equally dramatic rise in numbers on the waiting lists, notes Wanzel, the result of cuts the province is making in social assistance rates.

Like Ontario and Alberta before it, Nova Scotia is renegotiating its relationship with its municipalities in terms of who does what and who pays for it.

“Publicly, and for political reasons, the municipalities have taken the position that housing is a provincial responsibility,” Wanzel says. “The only way they can help is for you to call it something other than housing. A project I’ve been involved with for many years has received a substantial amount of both provincial and municipal support, but the municipality supported our work on the grounds that it represents ‘social and economic community development’.”

Nothing available
“The basic problem for seniors, as it is for other people, is that there is no housing available,” confirms Rosemary Duff, a member of the Ontario division of the advocacy group, Canadian Pensioners Concerned (CPC).

“The vacancy rate (in Toronto) is 0.6 per cent, and since the Ontario government’s legislation permits landlords to increase the rent in an apartment that has been vacated, even those that are available now carry higher rent.”
Councillor Mihevc has another perspective. “These are the folks who grew up in the Depression,” he says. “There’s a fierce pride that they can do it themselves. So you know what these folks are not doing? A number of them are not telling their kids they need support. I think these folks need to tell their children and make sure that their support networks know that they’re having difficulty.”

What to do
When the rent goes up, there are a number of avenues open for tenant action:

  • Get involved. Contact neighbours and form a tenants’ association.
  • Find the community resources that can help your situation (a legal aid clinic for example).
  • Check with municipal or provincial governments to determine if the rent increase is legal.
  • Call local tenant helplines.
  • Contest the rent increase with the local rent tribunal.
  • Let provincial and federal politicians know that affordable housing, rent subsidies and rent controls are crucial. Don’t ignore opposition parties – if they form a government, you’ll want them to be aware of the need.