If there was a poster child for Toronto’s affordability problem, Gabriela Martinez would fit the bill.
The bartender says she’s fed up with the sky-high cost of housing in Toronto and is planning to pack her bags in a few months and head to Montreal, where rents are far lower.
She and a partner moved into a one-bedroom, $1,400 a month unit in an apartment building near Dufferin St. and Rogers Rd. in February.
“My main reason for leaving here is affordability in Toronto. It’s gotten ridiculous,” she says.
Her comments fall in line with the findings of a new Forum Research poll, conducted in advance of the Oct. 22 election, which suggests nearly 80 per cent of Toronto voters feel this city is becoming unaffordable. Among respondents, about one third (36 per cent) said real estate prices contribute most to the problem, while 23 per cent blamed rental costs.
Other factors cited include wages not keeping pace with the cost of living, (13 per cent of respondents) property taxes, (7 per cent) underfunded public services, (5 per cent) utilities, (5 per cent), insurance, (5 per cent) and food prices, (3 per cent).
The survey polled 811 Toronto voters earlier this month, and the results are considered accurate plus or minus 3 percentage points, 19 times out of 20.
On the issue of affordability, the Forum poll found a whopping 90 per cent of voters in York, one of the amalgamated cities of Toronto, say Toronto is becoming unaffordable.
York residents like Martinez.
Since leaving home at age 17, Martinez, 21, says she has seen rents in Toronto jump substantially. She paid $800 a month, including utilities, for a one-bedroom she lived in years ago, nearly half her current rent.
Now her earnings from bartending don’t go far enough, and she relies on Ontario Works to make ends meet.
She doesn’t have Wi-Fi or cable but has a data plan for her phone, which aside from making calls she also uses to watch movies and do her banking.
After recently giving notice to her landlord, Martinez initially looked for places in Toronto and came across ads for $800 a month — for a single room, with a shared bathroom, kitchen and dining area.
None of her family members own property.
“There’s nothing for me to say, like in 10 years I’ll (inherit) a house,” she says.
“A good determiner for how much of your income you should be spending on rent is 30 per cent … (but) in Toronto my rent is like 200 per cent of my income. I have to go above and beyond every month to afford rent, my food, everything,” she says.
The most recent census data from Statistics Canada shows over a third of Toronto homeowners and renters are paying more than 30 per cent of their before-tax earnings on shelter.
Toronto mayoral candidates John Tory and Jennifer Keesmaat have made the issue of affordability, housing affordability in particular, a key plank in their platforms.
Tory has pledged to create 40,000 new affordable housing units over 12 years (about 3,300 a year) — an increase from his current Open Door program which has a target of 1,000 new affordable rental homes a year. His new pledge would borrow elements from the Open Door initiative, including breaks on charges levied against developers who build the units, and making government land available at little to no cost.
Keesmaat meanwhile has promised to build 100,000 new units over 10 years, in part by making available large areas of city-owned land, including Green P parking lots and TTC properties.
Keesmaat’s units would go for 80 per cent of average market rent.
Tory’s Open Door plan adheres to the city standard of 100 per cent average market rent.
Janet Mason, a fellow with the University of Toronto’s Munk School of global affairs and public policy, considers affordability the issue of this decade.
“With migration here there is so much pressure on a finite resource (land) certainly in Toronto, the GTA and greater Golden Horseshoe. It’s urbanization,” Mason says.
While home ownership affordability has been going “out of sight” the last number of years in Toronto, what has been increasing for a much longer period of time is the lack of affordability of rental units, she’s says.
Solutions aren’t cheap.
“You can do anything if you spend the money, and that’s the main point I’d like to make about housing affordability: there is no magic bullet, no simple solution that doesn’t cost a lot of money,” she says.
Mason points out there was a decline in private rental production in Ontario in the mid-1990s, shortages that have caused rents to climb upward.
Toronto has also seen a huge loss of rental supply due to demolitions and conversions of properties, such as in Parkdale where private rooming houses are being turned into single family residences, she adds.
In addition, the federal and provincial governments got out of the business of building social housing in the 1990s. Cities now need to work more closely with non-profits because the land is there to create new social housing, Mason says.
Similarly for private rentals, additional units can be achieved by municipalities and the province using aggressive planning and zoning levers, Mason adds.
“A lot of land is approved for housing, but density isn’t prioritized as much as it should be,” she says.
“It’s hard to imagine on a tiny street, but if you have a three-storey house, can you get a couple apartments on that?” she says, adding the idea could be applied in areas that have good transit nearby, thus cutting down on congestion.
That’s an approach that has taken hold in the Bay Area in California, where affordability is considered a crisis-level issue.
The Bay Area Council Economic Institute, a think tank, has successfully pushed to make the construction of accessory dwelling units — additional units built inside unused portions of a home, in a backyard, or even a garage — easier.
It may sound radical but legislation that cleared the way for their approval got the go-ahead at the state level last year, after the think tank’s endorsement.
It’s one or two units at a time, but they don’t add high density to a neighbourhood and don’t drastically change a neighbourhood’s character, says Jeff Bellisario, vice-president of the think tank.
It’s too soon to talk numbers yet but “we really see this as a big potential opportunity for the Bay Area,” Bellisario says.
Closer to home, Justin Sherwood, a senior vice-president with the North York-based Building Industry and Land Development Association (BILD), says his group believes the building permit process needs to be simplified to make it easier to renovate houses, and build secondary suites.
“Cities need to be finding ways to make it easier to modify existing housing stock to suit different needs,” he adds.
Cutting the red tape needed to bring new housing to market, as well as ensuring fees, taxes and charges on new developments are fair — fees that can add nearly 25 per cent to the cost of a house — will go a long way to addressing affordability, Sherwood adds.
“These fees have been going up and up. If you’re going to try to address affordability, you need to ensure these fees are fair and that you’re not off-loading the cost of development that everyone should pay for, to just new homebuyers.”
Whether any such proposals will be adopted by Toronto’s next city council remains to be seen.
As the election campaign unfolds, Gabriela Martinez says the topic of affordability has been drowned out by the controversy over Premier Doug Ford’s moves to slash the number of city councillors from 47 to 25.
As somewhat of a veteran of the renting game, Martinez says it’s been a tough slog for her over the years.
“Renting hasn’t been easy. People don’t want to rent to anyone who is young because they think you’re not going to take care of their place. They think you just want to have parties,” she says.
Earlier on, when she first moved away from her mom, Martinez preferred basement units in houses.
But the experience of helping people pay off their mortgages has left her with mixed feelings.
“I feel that for us millennials, we’re in this pattern, struggling to find an apartment and then finally we do and we’re helping a previous generation pay off their mortgages so they can own something. Meanwhile, for us, home ownership is unfathomable.
“I could never consider buying a house in Toronto. It’s a dream, not something that is reasonable for me,” she adds.
Moving to Montreal will be a big step for her. Although she has friends there, she doesn’t know the city and has no family there. Born and raised in Toronto, she has spent all her life here.
“Toronto is an amazing, diverse, hot spot. I love the different communities. It’s home to me. I love living in Toronto — if it wasn’t so expensive,” she says.
“This will definitely be a life-changing move for me.”
Donovan Vincent is a reporter based in Toronto. Follow him on Twitter: @donovanvincent