Sarah Bankuti was eight months pregnant and had been hospitalized for a health scare when she got news that should have changed her growing family’s life for the better: they had been randomly selected out of thousands of people to apply to move into a new affordable rental building in Regent Park.
Toronto Community Housing, they were told by email, had pulled their names in a housing lottery of sorts and if they cleared the next round of paperwork they would move out of their cramped one bedroom in the east end and into a three-bedroom, two-bathroom apartment in March and pay just $1,358 a month.
It was welcome news during a frightening time. They were in Michael Garron Hospital and she had been hooked to multiple monitors because their baby girl hadn’t moved for two days. Then they read the Oct. 26 email.
“The baby started kicking right away,” says Bankuti, 33. “We were so happy, because we couldn’t believe we got picked.”
This wasn’t their only reason to celebrate. Her husband, John Bankuti, 36, started a new job with Canada Post in August. His last job was as a dog-walker. He is now a full-time relief letter carrier. Training started in mid-August and in the fall he received a minor bump in overtime pay as well as hundreds in bonus pay for delivering flyers and Christmas catalogues.
They’d entered the lottery on a whim in September, filling out a simple one page form that outlined the maximum gross income to be considered. After winning, they filled out detailed paperwork, attached pay stubs from September and October and planned for the future.
But that elation didn’t last. Bankuti got another email from TCH early in December informing them the pay stubs they submitted showed their combined gross income was roughly $15,000 above the $65,184 threshold for a 3-bedroom unit and they were being pulled from the list. There is no option to appeal.
The couple insists that even with his new job their combined annual gross income, particularly because she was going on maternity leave, is not guaranteed to exceed the threshold. They believe their gross income will actually be less, they told the Star.
“We would be fine with it if they denied us for a valid reason. We are not unreasonable people,” says Bankuti, who works as a nanny and spoke with the Star on Wednesday, two days before a scheduled C-section. “I find it impossible that there is no appeal process,” for people whose income is not guaranteed, or who could have a sudden surge in income at different times of the year, she says.
“If I knew that I would have told my husband to not get this job.”
A full-time relief carrier, Canada Post confirmed, at that early salary level makes at least roughly $42,500 gross each year. The slips Bankuti submitted also included an inflated gross of several hundred dollars from the extra hours and flyer delivery. Her pay slips showed she made a gross income of about $27,060 by the end of November. Together, even without his extra pay, that still puts them over the threshold, but her salary is never guaranteed, she says, and on maternity leave she’ll take in about 55 per cent of whatever her weekly income is.
They reached out to Councillor Kristyn Wong-Tam’s office and a representative from that office contacted TCH to find out if appeals were an option. They were told it was not but that housing staff considered everything they were sent.
Toronto Community Housing, who had reviewed their pay stubs multiple times including additional ones they were sent in November, says people are judged on what they are making at the time of the application and those slips clearly show they do not qualify.
The couple have offered to provide TCH with past and future tax returns, additional payslips and letters of employment to defend their case — but those offers have been rejected.
A spokesperson for the housing corporation told the Star that there is no formal appeal process and overtime and bonuses are factored into the equation.
“All applicants are assessed for eligibility and must meet the income criteria for the program at the time of application; past and future earning potential is not considered,” says Daniele Gauvin, a senior communications adviser with the housing corporation in an email. “The documents submitted by the Bankuti household showed that their household income exceeded the eligibility limit for a three-bedroom unit at 110 River Street.”
Bankuti met with the Star in her narrow one-bedroom apartment near Gerrard St. E. and Greewood Ave. She and her husband pay $1,350 a month and share the space with his 4-year-old daughter Gwendolyn, who lives with them part time, and a mini-dachshund cross named Tiberius.
When the little girl stays with them she sleeps on a pullout couch in the living room. Tiberius and his bed are small but the narrow layout means he, the bed and the stuffed shark he sleeps with are underfoot. The baby will sleep in the bedroom, currently packed with a bassinet, a double bed and a chest of drawers from Ikea that serves as a changing table.
Bankuti bought it after Googling “how to have a baby in a small area.”
What would have been their new home was 110 River St., a brand new 29-storey building in the heart of the largely redeveloped neighbourhood of Regent Park.
With close to 2,780 people eligible to apply for 75 units they never thought they had a chance at winning and, they say, honestly believed that even with his new job they were not guaranteed to exceed $65,184.
In a city facing a severe lack of affordable housing the lottery the couple entered was framed as one way that people trying to survive on lower incomes could get ahead, which in Toronto means skipping the centralized wait list.
The current wait list for subsidized housing in Toronto — which includes Toronto Community Housing, co-operatives and private non-profit housing — is close to 99,000 households and about one-third of those waiting are seniors.
The River St. building is close to a new recreation centre and the TTC, and the rent is fixed. Three-bedroom units are $1,358, two-bedrooms are $1,141 and one-bedroom units cost $962. Utilities are included.
Average market rents for a three-bedroom purpose-built rentals in the Census Metropolitan Area is $1,633, according to data from the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation. Those figures use occupied units — landlords can charge what they want for newly empty units — and don’t factor in pricier options like condominiums. Research firm Urbanation recently published a report showing that the average cost of renting a studio condominium averaged $1,800 and a two-bedroom condominium went for about $2,700.
The Bankuti family has been on a wait list for a two-bedroom in co-operative housing for about a year but has been told they could be waiting anywhere from two to five years.
He says they haven’t given up entirely on pleading their case to get into an affordable home. “We are trying to explain in an open way that we don’t make this kind of money.”
For now he is looking forward to meeting their new daughter and working for a company he respects. She is deeply concerned about whether she will be able to take on work after the baby is born. Two children she regularly cared for are moving, upsetting her plans to bring her new baby along when she’s caring for them, she says.
Both know they can’t afford to move.
“Two bedrooms are so expensive now and especially because I am going to be on maternity leave we literally can’t afford anything else,” she says.
With files from Donovan Vincent
Emily Mathieu is a Toronto-based reporter covering affordable and precarious housing. Follow her on Twitter: @emathieustar