‘Everybody feels very precarious’: Being near schools is top of mind for Toronto renters, but supply isn’t there

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‘Everybody feels very precarious’: Being near schools is top of mind for Toronto renters, but supply isn’t there


Samantha Martinez wasn’t even pregnant yet but she was already worrying about where her future child might go to school.

Walking with her husband near their Humber Bay Shores condo a few years ago, she saw a sign from the Toronto District School Board warning incoming residents at a nearby development that their kids weren’t guaranteed to get into area schools.

“I thought, ‘OK no, I can’t risk that,” Martinez, 31, remembers.

“The way the housing market is, and schools, you never know, you kind of have to plan for these things ahead of time.”

So after they welcomed daughter Isabella in 2019 the couple decided to move to a semi-detached rental home in Bloor West Village, steps from two schools, and a few blocks from her parents. They already owned their condo, but couldn’t afford to buy a home in the area, and for them, the location was worth it.

While boomers typically bought homes near the school they wanted their kids to go to, millennials like the Martinezes who are ready to have kids but priced out of the market are now renting for the same reason. And that means young parents are facing a whole new set of challenges, trying to create a stable environment for kids in a precarious housing market with faint supply.

Schools are the biggest factor renters are interested in when choosing where to move, over things such as parks and transit, according to new Toronto-specific data from Local Logic, which contributed to a new Rentals.ca report.

The data on rental interest is based on what indicators people looking for rentals are clicking on. They can see scores for things such as parks, restaurants and shopping, as well as schools. In Toronto, the sample includes about 5.5 million listing views coming from around four million users, according to Matt Danison, CEO of Rentals.ca. Schools were the highest interest factor for people looking at two-, three- and four-bedroom rentals, and the second-highest interest factor for one bedrooms, just behind transit friendliness.

The report, which forecasts the rental market for 2020 (spoiler alert it predicts rents will continue to rise in Toronto) says prices will be particularly high around schools, as there’s not supply to match demand.

In a lot of residential, historically single-family home neighbourhoods there just aren’t as many condos or apartment buildings catered towards rentals, Danison said. Although there are some homes divided up into apartments, they can’t make up the gap.

“What we’re seeing is families of four sometimes squeezing into a one or two bedroom and trying to just make things work because of pricing and supply the way it is,” he added.

“And the new builds that are coming forth in the market, in 2020, we’re seeing more of the units overall being smaller in unit size.”

Even if people can afford one of those smaller condos, they won’t necessarily be able to get their kids into a nearby school.

The signs like Martinez saw at the new development near her condo don’t mean kids absolutely won’t get a spot at local schools, said TDSB spokesperson Ryan Bird. They mean a spot is not guaranteed if parents buy in new developments and schools are full.

Martinez, an insurance professional, and her husband still own their old condo, but rent it out. For now, they’re happy with their decision to lease.

It’s important to Martinez for her daughter, now almost 11 months, to one day go to a neighbourhood school and be close to both herself and her mom, who’ll help out with daycare.

“That’s ultimately why we decided to take this place,” she said. The rent, which is “in the $3,000 range,” was more than they wanted to pay. But they have the entire three-bedroom home to themselves.

“I thought, it was too good to be true because there’s two schools on either side.”

It’s also important to her that Isabella have the community connections that going to a close school brings, such as having school friends nearby.

And Martinez said they wouldn’t have been able to afford owning a similar home in that neighbourhood, or anywhere in the city really. According to 2018 home sales data provided by Zolo.ca, analyzed by the Star’s Patty Winsa, Runnymede-Bloor West Village is one of the more expensive neighbourhoods in Toronto. The median sale price for a home there was $1.22 million, requiring an annual family income of more than $200,000.

That same analysis showed that in every one of the city’s 140 neighbourhoods, the income needed to purchase a median-priced single-family house — even with a 20 per cent down payment — is tens of thousands of dollars more than what a typical median-income family living there earns.

It’s a crunch many others across the GTA are feeling.

Jen Berg, seen with her daughter, lives with her husband and two kids in a rental in Mimico. She said high home prices have put owning out of the question, and with rents much higher than when they arrived a decade ago, they're "apartment stuck."

Jen Berg, in her late 30s, and her husband are raising two kids in a two-bedroom Mimico apartment they chose in part for its walking distance to David Hornell Junior School, which teaches kindergarten to Grade 5.

Their son was a newborn and their daughter wasn’t even born yet when they moved in 10 years ago. But, like Martinez, Berg was already thinking about her kids’ education. She wanted them to have the experience of going to a school with only younger kids, like she did.

Happily ensconced in their two bedroom in a Mimico sixplex, they’re within walking distance of bake sales and concerts at their “small but mighty” school, she added. Sure they’d love more space, but they’ve looked into prices before and “the math just doesn’t add up.”

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Even tiny bungalows in the neighbourhood go for at least $700,000, so owning is out of the question. And with rents much higher than when they arrived a decade ago, they’re “apartment stuck.”

“There’s no way that we would ever leave,” Berg said. “Unless, sure, if we won $70 million.”

Karen Andrews, a staff lawyer with the Advocacy Centre for Tenants Ontario, said what we’re seeing is a shift away from the old idea of buying a starter home before starting a family.

“That ship has sailed,” she said. Housing prices are now so high that even middle-class families can’t afford them, and rents are so high they can’t save up even if they could afford the down payment.

An elite few can “count on the bank of mom and dad.”

But with a lot of competition for the same neighbourhoods, and a low vacancy rate, “there’s no meaningful choice, and everybody feels very precarious.”

And unlike home ownership, renting can leave families vulnerable to having to switch school districts if the landlord sells the place, renovates, or wants to move themselves or a family member in, Andrews said.

“I think giving a child stability in a neighbourhood, with community, with neighbours, with a local school, with their friends, this is very important to them, and I think we as a society should care. We don’t want kids feeling disrupted and dislocated.”

Kids may also have special needs such as autistic therapy, or be in French immersion, which not every school offers. There can also be more competition for neighbourhoods that are seen as having “good schools.”

“Not every school has equal access to fundraising opportunities, parents who are wealthy, active parent-teacher association,” said urban planner Shannon Holness.

Single parents and racialized families, newcomers and people on social assistant are at a particular disadvantage, given there’s such stiff competition for apartments.

“A lot of families are at the mercy of individual landlords, who can chose to rent to you or not,” Holness said.

And, she added, amenities such as parks, daycare and schools, haven’t kept up with the density of new condo developments. Instead, more new developments have private spaces such as pools only for the condo residents that can leave out other neighbours.

“The challenge for families today is that a lot of new developments that are being built aren’t family friendly,” she said.

For tenant advocate Geordie Dent, this is all yet another sign of the ongoing housing crisis.

“We’re building for investors. We’re not building for people to live in, if we were you wouldn’t see the number of shoebox condos that we have,” said Dent, with the Federation of Metro Tenants’ Associations.

“Shoebox condos that no one’s really going to live in, except families that are cramming in because they have no where else to go.”

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