High rents, hi homelessness
City Hall Watcher #224: Contributor Matthew Alexandris looks at the root causes of homelessness in the city, plus a special INTERSECTION INSPECTION on the places getting traffic agents
See you later, April! Let’s close out the month with a GIANT-SIZED issue of City Hall Watcher.
First, I’ve got a great contribution from Matthew Alexandris, who looks at the causes of homelessness in Toronto. After reading it, I think Toronto might want to consider having something resembling an affordable rental market. It would probably help.
Also, after the City announced an expansion of the “Traffic Agent” program, I went whole hog and looked at Intersection Inspection data for every intersection prioritized by the program. This then led to me going even more whole hog (full boar?) and coming up with a list of City-conducted intersection traffic counts where bikes and pedestrians outnumbered cars and trucks. There are 235 of them, and I listed them all.
Also: a busy week at City Hall, with important committee debates on legalizing multiplexes (finally!), warming centres and — it’s your clucky day — backyard chickens.
Here we go.
✨ This issue runs a bit long. If it gets cut off in your email client, you can read it on the web.
— Matt Elliott
What’s causing rising homelessness in Toronto?
By Matthew Alexandris
That’s how many people the City of Toronto considered “actively homeless” in March.
Shelters and warming centres across the city have been facing capacity issues due to rising service demand and a lack of available spaces. In the face of the growing crisis, some city councillors have called to declare homelessness a public health crisis.
The data is clear that the number of people struggling with homelessness has been on the rise for months and is now even above pre-pandemic levels.
What is less clear is why more and more Torontonians are struggling with homelessness. However, the recent book Homelessness Is a Housing Problem by Gregg Colburn and Clayton Page Aldern gives us a good understanding of the structural factors driving homelessness.
In the book, the authors test a range of beliefs about what drives the prevalence of homelessness in a given city — including mental illness, drug use, poverty, weather, generosity of public assistance, and low-income mobility — in order to find structural factors most associated with homelessness across different cities and counties in the U.S. They found that housing market conditions offer the most convincing explanation of all theories they tested.
More specifically, they found that absolute rent levels and rental vacancy rates were the factors most associated with regional rates of homelessness.
Doing a similar study in Canada wouldn’t give us the same results as many less-populous, rural communities have higher rates of homelessness than their big city counterparts on a per capita basis. However, Colburn and Adler’s book gives us a good framework for what’s driving homelessness in Toronto.
When trying to understand what is driving homelessness in Toronto, it is hard to overstate the impact of the growing cost of rent and the competition among potential tenants over the availability of rentals.
After slowing down during the pandemic, the average price for a two-bedroom apartment in Toronto is at its highest level in recent years, according to data from the CMHC. (Note that this data reflects the entire Census Metropolitan Area of Toronto, which is larger than the City proper.)
When looking at private-market data on available rentals, prices are even worse, particularly since the Bank of Canada started hiking interest rates just over a year ago.
Similarly, with some people moving back into the city who had left during the pandemic, there is much more competition in Toronto’s rental market, as evidenced by the vacancy rate across the CMA falling back to pre-pandemic levels. In the ultra-competitive Toronto rental market, many tenants are forced to compete for a limited amount of available rentals. The ones who get priced out have no other viable housing option.
As Atlantic writer Jerusalem Demsas points out, “homelessness is best understood as a ‘flow’ problem, not a ‘stock’ problem.” Meaning that most people who are experiencing homelessness are not chronically homeless. Instead, they may have experienced a setback like a divorce, losing a job, or a medical emergency that caused them to be pushed out of their homes for a brief period. In a city where the cost of rent is soaring, and the number of rentals available is low, people dealing with these kinds of circumstances face much more competition to find a stable place to live. As a result, Demsas writes, “the [homelessness] crisis is largely driven by a constant flow of people losing their housing.”
So, it’s not surprising that a study published by the real-estate platform Zillow found that “the expected homeless rate in a community begins to quickly increase once median rental costs exceed 30% of median income, providing a statistical link between homelessness and the U.S. government’s definition of a housing cost burden.”
Toronto’s homeless population is similar to many of the big “superstar” U.S. cities facing homelessness crises. The percentage of Toronto’s homeless population that is chronically homeless has never been above 55%, but if rents continue to rise and vacancies continue to dwindle, then we will see more people pushed out of their homes and have to rely on the shelter system as their only housing option.
The rising rate of homelessness in Toronto has already been a critical and contentious issue for City Council, and it will surely be an important issue during this mayoral election.
Every candidate will have a plan they will claim will solve the growing crisis but the real solution will require a transformative list of plans and policies that can lower the cost of rent and give more people places to live — really solving Toronto's housing affordability crisis at large.
Matthew Alexandris is a freelance writer interested in issues related to housing based in the Greater Toronto Area. You can follow him on Twitter here.
Thanks to Matt for his contribution! I’m opening the floor to more contributions during this campaign season. If you’ve got some analysis to offer about an election issue, send me a pitch. All published contributions are paid promptly. — Matt Elliott
Toronto sends out traffic agents, but what kind of traffic are they dealing with?
Last week, the City of Toronto announced that they are beefing up the “Traffic Agent” program. Traffic agents are like secret agents, except instead of jet-setting around the world to infiltrate criminal syndicates, they stand at intersections and wave at cars.
The City has budgeted for a staff of 30 agents this year. This announcement is about deploying the first 14, which includes 11 new hires. Among their duties is to “prevent vehicles from stopping in the intersection after the signal has changed, which prevents on-coming traffic from travelling through (known as ‘blocking the box’)” and “stop pedestrians from crossing the intersection once the pedestrian signal starts displaying the red hand.”
The balance there is going to be tricky. Do these agents focus more on making sure cars don’t block crosswalks, or will they spend more time trying to get pedestrians to stay on the curb so cars have more time to make their turns?
To see where they perhaps should put their energies, I thought conducting a quick “Intersection Inspection” on the 16 “high priority” intersections targeted by the traffic agent program would be interesting.
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