By Victoria Gibson
Local Journalism Initiative Reporter
Mon., Nov. 16, 2020
If you look at Toronto renters who spend at least 30 per cent of their income on housing — a traditional marker of unaffordability — you might miss the deep racial divides of the city’s housing crisis.
There’s barely a gulf between racialized and non-racialized renter households that spend that much: 41 per cent versus 43, respectively, census data says. Similarities prevail as fortunes get worse: 19 per cent of racialized renter households spend at least half their income on rent, versus 20 per cent of non-racialized households.
But a new study of census micro data, shared exclusively with the Star, reveals stark inequalities in the housing conditions of Toronto renters — especially in unsuitable housing, an indicator of overcrowding that was found to be nearly three times higher for visible minority renters.
For housing to be reported as unsuitable, it has to lack an adequate number of bedrooms for the size and composition of the household that lives there, according to the national occupancy standard.
University of Calgary researcher Naomi Lightman said looking at overcrowding allowed for a broader understanding of the housing crisis — noting that some renters may choose to squeeze more people into a smaller unit, instead of overspending on enough space.
“People are making choices within constrained conditions,” said Lightman, who co-authored the study with York University associate professor Luann Good Gingrich and Social Planning Toronto analyst Beth Wilson.
The data took on new weight during the COVID-19 pandemic, Lightman noted — neighbourhoods in Toronto with high levels of overcrowding have shown infection rates almost four times higher than in other areas, as stated by Toronto’s public health agency in July (https://www.thestar.com/news/gta/2020/07/02/toronto-pushes-for-quarantine-centres-for-those-in-overcrowded-housing-who-test-positive-for-covid-19.html).
In York Centre in the city’s hard-hit northwest corner (https://www.thestar.com/news/gta/2020/06/28/torontos-covid-19-divide-the-citys-northwest-corner-has-been-failed-by-the-system.html), 22 per cent of non-racialized renter households are considered unsuitable. Among racialized renters, that jumps to 51 per cent. In nearby York South-Weston, the unsuitability rate is 25 per cent and 49 per cent, respectively. Racialized renters in every city ward had higher rates of unsuitable, overcrowded conditions.
And though those gaps persisted among both the newcomer and long-term immigrant populations, the starkest racial divide the study found was among those born in Canada. While 14 per cent of non-racialized Toronto renters born in Canada reported unsuitable housing conditions, that number more than tripled for racialized non-immigrants — to 48 per cent.
Toronto councillor Joe Cressy, chair of the city’s board of health, said that finding illustrates how racism can be systemic — noting longstanding inequalities in access to employment and income.
“People often talk about opportunity like, you know, ‘Everybody gets a fighting chance,’” he said. “The fact of the matter is, in our city, non-racialized people are starting at the 50-yard line. And that’s due to decades of disproportional access and intergenerational wealth.”
Lightman said their data overall highlighted that the housing crisis played out in “different ways than we might have expected,” and had geographic implications within Toronto. “The divides between people translate into divides between places — and an increasingly segregated city.”
The findings are part of a multi-year research project on social exclusion in Canada. It examines micro data from the last census — specifically, data on affordability, unsuitability, housing in need of major repair, and what’s known as “core housing need.” The latter refers to housing that falls below any of those standards, where the household would have to spend 30 per cent or more of its pre-tax income to afford the median rent of alternative, adequate housing nearby.
Core housing need, like overcrowding, saw higher rates among racialized tenants — with 39 per cent of them reporting core housing need versus 27 per cent of non-racialized renters.
But Lightman said their work also underscored a need for more granular data, as it showed that certain groups — like Black, Latin American and Southeast Asian tenants — were reporting especially high rates of core housing need. While racialized and non-racialized renters had similar rates of unaffordable housing, the study found more than half of Korean, West Asian, Arab and Chinese renters reported spending at least 30 per cent of their income on shelter.
Avvy Go, director of the Chinese and Southeast Asian Legal Clinic, said the findings about specific racialized communities underscored a need for more disaggregated, race-based data in the housing sphere, to understand which communities are facing the worst outcomes, followed by more targeted efforts from governments to address the housing crisis within those groups.
While Go said she’d expect racialized communities to struggle more in the rental housing market — noting that racialized people were more likely to live in low-income households in general — the difference in the study between racialized and non-racialized renters, born in Canada and living in unsuitable housing, was more significant than she would have expected.
“Even if you take away immigration status as a factor, there is still a racialized gap. You cannot blame it on the fact they are born outside of Canada, to explain away the racial inequality that exists in Canada,” she said.
Cressy backed calls for more disaggregated data, noting the city’s executive committee will consider a strategy on Wednesday that would collect voluntary data on race from those who use city services or participate in public consultations.
Victoria Gibson (https://www.thestar.com/authors.gibson_victoria.html) is a Toronto-based reporter for the Star covering affordable housing. Her reporting is funded by the Canadian government through its Local Journalism Initiative. Reach her via email: email@example.com