Housing in the age of austerity: Toronto’s war on the poor

Asquith Park, Yorkville • Photo by Ed007Toronto

For those in Toronto’s growing majority of low income neighbourhoods, things are bad and getting worse — and it’s no accident.

A study compiled by University of Toronto professor John David Hulchanski titled Three Cities Within Toronto notes a sharp increase in the number of low-income neighbourhoods from 1970-2005. During this period, the share of Toronto neighbourhoods considered low income (more than 20 per cent below the Census Metropolitan Average) rose from 19 to 53 per cent, while the share of very low income neighbourhoods (more than 40 per cent below the CMA) rose from 1 to 9 per cent.

Trends for low-income Torontonians have not improved since. Hulchanski told the Toronto Star that, very soon, Toronto’s Three Cities could become two: “one where people struggle just to get by and another where every option in the world is open.”

Hulchanski argues precarious work and austerity have caused the number of impoverished residents to increase dramatically. In an edited collection called Subdivided: City-Building in an Age of Hyper-Diversity Hulchanski suggests that deregulation, tax cuts and austerity measures — all of which intensified in the 1990s with the rise neoliberal “market fundamentalism” — left those failed by the globalized labour market without a safety-net.

Cuts to Canadian social services were implemented to shore up the interests of the affluent and attract transnational capital. Toronto is now home to North America’s second-highest concentration of ultra-rich people, with annual net worths around $30 million, according to Knight Frank.

27 per cent of Toronto’s children live in poverty.

In Subdivided, Hulchanski writes that successive, annual cuts to discretionary spending since 1985 made the supply and maintenance of affordable housing untenable while income support was also downsized.

According to John Osborne, former Special Adviser on Policy Development at the federal department of National Health and Welfare, “saving to the Federal Treasury would be realized at the expense of the poor, the disabled, the aged, single mothers with small children and the long-term unemployed.” With this policy combination, confirms Hulchanski, Toronto was remade by the federal, provincial and municipal governments for “those with the means to own property.”

The remaking reinforces itself. Globalization produces inequality between those in advanced producer services (APS) and the rest who are made poorer by austerity measures used to attract the former. Worse, APS drive up the cost of living, which Alan Walks terms the interlinked “financialization of the economy and gentrification of the inner city.” The result is: most residents earn less while their livelihoods cost more.

It wasn’t always this bad for Toronto’s non-rich residents. Hulchanski notes that, in 1970, 66 per cent of Toronto neighbourhoods were middle-income. This was when the labour market allowed for single-income families, when social services were better available to the poor and when affordable housing was constructed according to need. St. Lawrence, for example, is the site of a large city-sponsored housing project. It was built in the early 1970s and contained 1,750 affordable units.

Thanks to measures aimed at reducing poverty with federal-provincial cost sharing programs, the Toronto of 1970 at least acknowledged and the needs of all social groups and strove for some level of inclusivity.

Though, as Osborne notes, these reforms did cause the share of impoverished Canadians to fall from 21 per cent in 1964 to 12 per cent in 1973. Public investment began slowing soon after, before actively retreating with the rise of neoliberalism, peaking around 1995.

Michigan State University professor Anna Maria Santiago notes similar trends throughout affluent countries. She argues that the war on poverty has given way to a war on the poor. Though some reforms have improved the livelihoods of the vulnerable by asking the affluent to pay slightly higher taxes, the subsequent war on the poor has actively denied less fortunate citizens access to adequate housing, income support programs, education and the like.

York University professor Roger Keil terms this neoliberal urbanism where the “heightened influence of aggressive corporate influences on public policy,” results in deliberate, “massive incisions,” to public services and the rights of the poor to make the affluent even more so.

Common to nearly all perspectives above is the view that in our globalized economy, austerity has been used to attract those in finance-related industries. This suggests policy-makers are in the business of serving the more affluent (sometime quite deliberately) at the expense of the poor who have been made poorer by financialization, cuts and gentrification.

While Bay Street amasses a corporate cash hoard of $626 billion, affordable housing construction and repair, income support programs and transit remain under-funded.

Hulchanski argues a wealthy nation can use its resources to combat or eliminate poverty. He suggests welfare programs that keep up with the cost of living and measures to reduce housing costs like inclusionary zoning to incentivize building affordable units to reduce the price of lower income residents’ largest expense, can help get us there.

For residents of Toronto’s low-income neighborhoods, conditions are poor, but there’s enough money floating around to prevent them from getting worse.

Mitchell Thompson is a writer and heavily-indebted precarious worker in Toronto.

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