April 18, 2016 7:55 am
Updated: April 18, 2016 7:56 am

House poor: Canadians who earn the least pay the most for a home

One of the three towers of the Aquilini Centre under construction next to the Georgia Viaduct on April 1, 2016 in Vancouver, British Columbia. The tower will contain commercial space and residential rental units. BC's poorest residents spend 70% of their income on housing.

THE CANADIAN PRESS IMAGES/Don Denton
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Jaimi Zammit left North Vancouver to escape unreachable rents but they followed her — north along the Sea-to-Sky highway to Squamish, where she and her family found themselves renting a $2,000-a-month house on an income of $2,000 a month.

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That was three months ago, when they were kicked out of their old rental (the landlord’s property values soared along with everyone else’s, and she was selling) and moved the kids to the best place they could find — a little more cramped, a little farther from school and just expensive enough to make life logistically impossible.

“We really aren’t getting by,” Zammit said.

“We are broke before we are paid.”

READ MORE: Affordable housing crisis intensifies

The poorest fifth of Canadian families spend more than half their income on shelter. The richest fifth spends less than one sixth.

Stories about Canada’s white-hot real estate phenomenon tend to focus on the vertiginously high end of the market — house-flipping and multi-million-dollar teardown sales; the foreign-money spectre everyone’s sure is there but which no one can document.

But skyrocketing housing prices hurt people at the bottom the most. Canada’s real estate growth means families who make the least have the hardest time paying for the roof over their heads.

To make it work they go without food or heat or clothes for growing kids. Or pick up and move if they have the cash. Or hang on, one unexpected expenditure from ruin.

READ MORE: 140,000 Canadian families wait for housing

‘Paying that amount … is going to break people’

For now Zammit and her family are scraping by on borrowed money from her husband’s grandfather. She’s at home with the two youngest kids; he works full time as an auto detailer.

Zammit’s hoping, come September, she can find a job that pays more than daycare costs, but still lets her make it for a 3 p.m. pick-up.

If that doesn’t work, they may move to the Okanagan. “Because, here, we just cant do it.”

Her family’s not the only one stuck.

“Paying that amount in rent for months is going to break people.”

Houses in Squamish have been converted to de facto rooming houses because people can’t afford to live anywhere else, she says.

“How is anyone really going to survive like this out here?”

Global News crunched data from Statistics Canada’s 2014 Household Spending Survey, calculating shelter costs as a percentage of income for different degrees of wealth.

There are big differences.

The poorest fifth of Canadians see 55 per cent of their paycheque eaten up by housing costs.

The higher up the income ladder you are, the nicer your home and the smaller the dent it makes in your paycheque.

shelter as per cent of income canada

And as anyone who’s tried to buy a house or rent an apartment in this country knows, location matters. A lot.

If you’re among the poorest fifth of British Columbians, you’ll see more than 70 per cent of your paycheque eaten up by housing costs. In Ontario, 62 per cent. Nova Scotia, 57.61.

Newfoundland is the only province where the poorest residents come anywhere close to the 30 per cent of income financial advisors recommend you spend on housing.

shelter as per cent of income for lowest quintile by canadian region

‘Individuals are living month-to-month’

In Peel, desperation’s almost invisible.

The region north and west of Toronto is better known for rapid growth in size and diversity than it is for penury.

And that drives Shelley White nuts.

“The fastest-growing segments of our population are also the most vulnerable,” Peel Region’s United Way president says.

That includes single parents, seniors on fixed incomes and new Canadians who end up under-employed as they try to get credentials for skills they already have.

“People will move to Mississauga and Brampton because this is where the jobs are. But the cost of living is so high that they’re just barely scraping by,” she said.

This isn’t inner-city poverty.

“These are individuals that, if you were walking by them on the street or in the mall or at school, you’d have no idea,” she said.

“Individuals are living from month to month, not sure whether they’re going to have enough to keep the roof over their head.”

They’re left with impossible choices: rent or tuition? Gasoline or heat?

One woman White knows is living in a van with her two kids and their dog because when she had to choose between rent and car payments, she chose the one with wheels.

Being one mishap away from homelessness makes it tough to put down roots in a community, to graduate, to do anything that would let you get beyond just plowing through and hoping everything adds up at the end of the month.

Cheap apartments no one wants

Halifax landlord Mike Burgess has an unusual problem: empty apartments.

He figures eight of his 81 rental units are vacant — more than three times the city’s three per cent vacancy rate.

With rents starting at $600 a month for a one-bedroom, “it certainly is affordable compared to other parts of the city,” he says.

But Burgess’s properties are in north Dartmouth, a poorly planned thicket of high-rise apartments and little else — no amenities, no commerce, no upward mobility.

The neighbourhood became notorious for crime. A 2011 article in Halifax’s The Coast called it a “manufactured slum.”

Since then, things have improved: Crime is down. Lighting is better. The area’s trying to rebrand. But it’s slow: North Dartmouth’s one grocery store closed down a while back.

So Burgess has some vacancies.

His tenants are overwhelmingly on social assistance. Their monthly allotments have not kept pace with the cost of anything.

“They were stretched before; now they’re stretched beyond.”

Burgess figures many of his tenants face a $100 hole every month.

Most keep up with their rent, he says — even if they split apartments between them to do it.

“They have to be creative,” he said.

“I do have a few people that have fallen behind. I’ve been trying to work with them and they’ve been trying to get caught up, but really it’s a catch-22.”

Nova Scotia is one of three provinces where the poorest spend more than half their income to put a roof over their heads. But here the problem’s not so much high rent as low income, and aging rental properties in disrepair.

“Our fear is that we will lose a lot of this very valuable affordable housing stock due to unmet renovation needs,” says Claudia Jahn, head of the Affordable Housing Association of Nova Scotia

“And then you ask, ‘Why would a private developer do this?’ Their business is to make a profit.”

GALLERY: Click through to compare the percentage of income Canadians in different provinces and income quintiles spent on housing

‘Don’t just throw up your hands’

For all the talk of a “national housing strategy,” most Canadian communities are experimenting with a grab bag of remedies.

Richmond, B.C. is ahead of the curve: It now requires developments with more than 80 units to set aside five per cent of floor space for “low end market rental,” adhering to rent and income thresholds the city defines.

Jahn co-chairs Halifax’s new Housing and Homelessness Partnership‘s affordable housing working group, whose five-year strategic plan aims to safeguard and grow the city’s rental housing stock.

Toronto has a combination of units whose rent is geared to tenants’ income, apartments whose market rent the city subsidizes, and housing allowances — monthly infusions of cash for eligible households.

“They can use it in situ or they can use it to move to a different place as long as they remain eligible,” says Patricia Anderson, with Toronto’s Housing and Homelessness Services.

The city wants to do more of that.

“As a strategic policy direction, we’ve noted that housing allowances do provide the kind of immediate flexibility that’s really important. But we haven’t really landed on where we’re going to get the money.”

David Foot hates that excuse.

“They should be rolling in money” from skyrocketing property values, the University of Toronto economist says.

“Somewhere like the city of Toronto should not be complaining they don’t have enough [money] to do things.”

If equalizing housing inequities is really a priority, Foot argues, cities should start by raising residential and business property taxes.

Or, if you’re fussed about foreign investment in real estate, he says, then tax foreign exchange transactions by a tiny fraction of a per cent.

But even amid a real estate boom, cities are afraid of scaring developers away.

White, with Peel’s United Way, likes the idea of inclusionary zoning requiring a certain number of affordable units in new developments. But only if it applies across Ontario.

“You couldn’t have it in one municipality: The developers could just build in another community.”

Poor people will probably always spend a greater share of their income on shelter than wealthier people do, Foot said. That’s just how money works.

But just how much more can make a big difference.

“There are creative ways to get around this dilemma,” he said.

“Don’t just throw up your hands and say, ‘We don’t have the money.’

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