Carol-Anne Kirton often has to choose between medicine and keeping a roof over her head.
The 59-year-old Torontonian has been living with type one diabetes since she was 10, and keeping a stock of medicine is expensive. The Ontario Drug Benefit Program helps her cover the cost of insulin, but not some of her needed medical supplies, like needles.
“I reuse, which I’m not supposed to do,” Kirton said. “But if I was to change them every time, like I’m supposed to, it would be over $200 a month.” It was a stressful situation, she noted, speaking to the Star as a Liberal candidate went door-to-door in the Parkdale—High Park riding on a September afternoon ahead of the federal election. “But what can I do?”
Kirton’s partner Laurie Bartley put it bluntly: “Is it buy Carol her medicine to keep her alive or pay for housing?”
Money’s been tight lately. Kirton lost her job last September and has been relying on Employment Insurance, and Bartley lost his job as a process server when the pandemic hit in early 2020 and court hearings slowed to a trickle.
They’ve been in the same three-bedroom townhouse for 10 years, so their rent isn’t as high as it could be. But the couple had already been struggling with arrears, having fallen behind a few years ago and been working through a payment schedule. The pandemic meant those debts started climbing again.
Bartley started putting in hours at a local car wash to catch up on rent, but in February, he had a heart attack and triple bypass surgery and had to slow down. Kirton, who told the Star she tested positive for COVID-19 in April, is meanwhile afraid to look for work with the variants circulating.
Now, they’re facing an eviction hearing in October.
In the lead up to Monday’s vote, affordability — and particularly, housing affordability — has taken centre stage for many voters across Toronto. Kirton and Bartley are tucked in the northwest corner of Parkdale—High Park, a riding that has long been fertile soil for housing movements as fears about gentrification and rising rents have proliferated.
In recent years, those movements have included a local land trust located in Parkdale. The group is dedicated to purchasing small residential buildings and is charging tenants especially low rents, with a pledge to preserve the buildings’ affordability in the longer term.
As the idea has picked up steam in other Toronto areas, like Kensington Market, various levels of governments have toyed with the idea of funding acquisition and preservation projects.
The city of Toronto recently put aside $2 million to get a small sites acquisition program off the ground, but Joshua Barndt, who leads the Parkdale trust, said the project needs federal dollars behind it to make a difference. City council requested help from the federal and provincial governments last fall, asking for funding to acquire existing land and properties.
Toronto staff recommended a program that supported the quick purchase of properties like rooming houses and apartment buildings to preserve their affordability, as well as buying others like hotels and motels that could be converted into affordable housing stock.
While the federal government has rolled out a housing initiative that allows for the purchase and conversion of hotels or some other properties, that program doesn’t allow for the purchase of existing affordable housing as a way to preserve those rents. Since last year, groups like the Federation of Canadian Municipalities have been pressing for the initiative to be adjusted, but the change wasn’t among tweaks to the program announced in the 2021 federal budget.
The consequences of affordability loss are dire, Barndt said. In a survey of 212 tenants the trust recently conducted in mid- and highrise Parkdale buildings, he said 48 per cent reported cutting back on medicine or meals in order to pay their monthly rent and bills, echoing the decisions faced by Kirton and Bartley in another corner of the riding.
“It makes us sick to hear from tenants that they’re cutting back on how much food they eat, or they’re not buying the medication they need because their housing costs are too high,” Barndt said. “The federal government needs to step up, and fund the solutions that are going to work on a local level.”
Across Parkdale—High Park, the most recent census indicates that 35.6 per cent of households are living in unaffordable homes, which means housing costs eat up more than 30 per cent of their income. That’s higher than the overall Toronto rate, and the issue gets worse still in specific neighbourhoods like South Parkdale, where nearly half of households — 49.2 per cent — reported spending more than 30 per cent of their income on housing.
Since the late ’80s, the riding has swung between the Liberals and the New Democrats at the federal level. The incumbent, Liberal Arif Virani, took the seat in 2015 by a slim margin from the NDP’s Peggy Nash — securing 42 per cent of the vote to Nash’s 40.2 per cent. Virani took the seat in 2019, with 47.4 per cent against NDP candidate Paul Taylor’s 31.5 per cent. Both Taylor and Virani are on the ballot for Monday.
On the topic of housing, Taylor notes that the federal government withdrew previous levels of funding for lower-income housing in the ’90s. “We really need government to be building affordable housing,” he said in an interview at the beginning of the election campaign. He commended the work of local groups like the neighbourhood land trust. “But we need much more support from the federal government to hold that housing stock and make it available for our community, because what we’re seeing, as a result of gentrification, those units are being gobbled up.”
Virani, discussing efforts to build more affordable housing, pointed to a recently announced, roughly $14-million, modular development in Parkdale aimed at those at risk of — or living through — homelessness. That program came via the rapid housing initiative that currently supports new builds and conversions, but doesn’t include acquisitions and preservations.
“I’ve got a record of delivering results here in the community for people who want progressive causes and organizations supported,” Virani told the Star, also early in the campaign. “Those are the causes that I believe in and I feel that there remains a large amount of work to be done.”
The other five registered candidates for Parkdale—High Park’s vote this fall are Nestor Sanajko for the Conservatives, Diem Marchand-Lafortune for the Greens, Wilfried Richard Alexander Danzinger for the People’s Party, Lorne Gershuny for the Marxist-Leninist Party, and Terry Parker for the Marijuana Party.
Parties in recent weeks have outlined numerous pledges on housing affordability. The Conservative party has promised an incentive for corporations and private landowners to donate property to land trusts like the Parkdale group to create affordable homes, and the Greens have promised tax credits for donations of either land or buildings for that purpose.
The Liberals have vowed to review the tax treatment of corporate property owners like Real Estate Investment Trusts, and implement new policies to “curb excessive profits” in that realm. These trusts allow investors to contribute capital and buy up swaths of rental housing stock.
Both the Greens and the NDP have promised supports for those who’ve fallen into arrears, an issue that takes on special importance in Toronto. In February alone, more than a quarter — 27.74 per cent — of orders issued by Ontario’s Landlord and Tenant Board for arrears cases province-wide were located within the city’s boundaries. Those orders can include eviction orders and repayment plan orders. Kirton is hoping the latter will be the outcome of their hearing.
Still, she worries whether that’s a cost she and Bartley can reasonably carry.
“How are we ever going to be able to pay them back what we owe them?” she asked, stressing that it mattered to her to settle the debt they’d accumulated with the housing agency. “I don’t want to be owing something that … I won’t have the ability to pay back.”
JOIN THE CONVERSATION
Anyone can read Conversations, but to contribute, you should be registered Torstar account holder. If you do not yet have a Torstar account, you can create one now (it is free)
Conversations are opinions of our readers and are subject to the
Code of Conduct. The Star does not endorse these opinions.