Precarious housing means thousands may live on brink of homelessness

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Precarious housing means thousands may live on brink of homelessness

For Daniela Mergarten, home is synonymous with Dovercourt Road.

She's lived on the west-end street for more than 40 years, with 10 of those years spent in her current unit, a small basement apartment she rents for $650 a month.

But now, Mergarten is facing the threat of eviction. She says her landlord — the house's latest owner — asked her to move out so the basement can be used for storage. She has until June to be out the door, and while Mergarten is fighting the eviction, she's worried about finding another affordable apartment in Toronto's competitive rental market.

And there's extra pressure: With a low income, 60-year-old Mergarten is also feeling the pinch of precarious housing.

She's concerned about high rents in her neighbourhood, with similar units going for well over $1,000, and says she could wind up using a food bank — or being out on the street.

"I don't want to end up being another statistic," Mergarten says.

And she's not alone. 

Throughout Toronto, tens of thousands of people are precariously housed, which could mean living in a place that's in a state of disrepair, or living in a spot that's overcrowded or unaffordable.

And experts say it could also mean living on the brink of homelessness.

Thousands pay half their income on rent

In a 2014 report, online homelessness resource the Homeless Hub wrote that 56 per cent of Toronto renters earning between $10,000 and $20,000 annually are spending more than half their income on housing, leaving them more vulnerable to crisis events like a job loss that could leave them homeless.

Other numbers show that throughout the Toronto area, more than 136,000 renter households are paying more than 50 per cent of their household income on rent and utilities, notes Wellesley Institute researcher Greg Suttor, citing data from the 2011 National Household Survey.

He says that number is likely even higher now. "If you have this many people in these pressure situations, then some will become homeless," he says.

The standard right now is that your housing should cost about a third of your income, says Darryl Spencer, manager of Housing Programs and Services for the East York Housing Help Centre.

"But what we're seeing more and more is that people are spending half — or three-quarters — of their income on housing alone," he says. "And then you have to factor in other things like food, clothing, and if it's not an all-inclusive unit, then the cost of hydro."

That means people who are precariously housed often have to make tough choices and sacrifices to keep a roof over their heads. It's a "tough spot" to be in, says economist Sheila Block of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives.

The competitive rental market and lack of affordable housing stock can make finding rental units tricky, but she says the challenges are more pronounced for those with low incomes, who may also feel shame and face stigma from landlords.

Government investments in affordable housing and more "robust regulation" of the rental market are both key to helping reduce the number of people precariously housed, Block adds.

Precarious housing 'gets lost' in the conversation

Block says there needs to be more attention paid to the under-the-surface challenges of precarious housing.

"It's something that gets lost in all the reporting about the bidding wars," she adds.

Despite the odds, Mergarten hopes to stay in the neighbourhood she's called home for four decades, a place she calls her "heart and soul." An activist and community volunteer without any family, she says her community is her support network.

Mergarten also wants to avoid social housing, saying she's afraid of the possible drug use and bedbugs.

Still, she knows finding an affordable unit in her area will be a challenge, and says the pressure of finding a new apartment is taking its toll.

"I'm a strong woman, but I too have my breaking point — and losing my home is a huge part of that," she says.

No Fixed Address

CBC Toronto has been sharing your experiences for our ongoing series on renting in Toronto. Check out our Facebook group or some of our previous stories.