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Toronto Star: “Shortage of affordable housing for workers costs the GTA a ‘staggering’ $8 billion annually”

July 22, 2021
Deborah Buchanan-Walford teaches at a Toronto day school for adults and rents a house she shares with her parents, her partner and their son. She says she has given up the idea of ever owning a home in Toronto.

English teacher Deborah Buchanan-Walford figures about 40 per cent of her wages as an adult day school teacher go toward renting the house she shares with her parents, her partner and their eight-year-old son.

She has given up on the idea that she might one day actually own a home.

“There is literally nowhere in Toronto that I can think about affording to rent, much less buy,” she said. Although she is reconciled to renting, she still struggles with her energy-sapping daily commute.

On a good day, the drive to work takes about 45 minutes each way from Buchanan-Walford’s rented house in Brampton to her job at the Emery Adult Learning Centre on Weston Rd. near Finch Avenue.

Now for the first time, a new report has put a $6 billion to $8 billion annual price tag on the regional shortage of affordable housing for the workers the city relies on — including personal support and other health-care workers, supply teachers, community and social services workers.

The analysis by Prism Economics for the Toronto Region Board of Trade and WoodGreen Community Services shows a five-year cumulative loss of $29.4 billion to $37 billion in productivity, wage premiums, recruitment and turnover because it costs so much to live here.

“These staggering numbers show that housing solutions must be part of our region’s economic recovery plans,” said board of trade CEO Jan De Silva.

Between 2008 and 2018, housing costs increased by roughly 115 per cent in the Toronto region, while median income only increased by 25 per cent, says the report, “Housing a Generation of Essential Workers, The cost of Inaction”, published Tuesday. It is the third in a series that WoodGreen and the board of trade have published looking at the lack of housing for workers who can’t afford market prices but earn too much to qualify for government-subsidized homes.

This final report stresses that the housing crisis has worsened during the pandemic as real estate costs spiraled higher.

Buchanan-Walford says that most people imagine she earns in excess of $100,000 a year. But as an adult day school teacher, she said her pay will eventually top out at $90,000.

“A lot of my colleagues have had to move out of the city, even out of the GTA,” she said. “I have co-workers who live as far as Orangeville just to be able to afford a house.”

“It’s just crazy that there’s no stipulation on affordable housing for everyone. There’s the idea that it’s only people below the poverty line,” said Buchanan-Walford.

“It’s a pretty stark reality. But it’s also one I have reconciled with. I’ll just do what I can until hopefully something changes,” she said.

The report puts the cost of migration out of the GTA at $3.05 billion annually. While immigration means that the region’s population continues to grow, for every two newcomers to Canada each year, one established resident leaves. Ten years ago, there was only one departure for every five people who arrived out of country.

Other costs calculated in the analysis include:

$2 billion to $2.8 billion annually in higher wages paid to employees to help them afford the high cost of living here, including housing.

$180 million a year in employee turnover and recruitment costs and, up to $195 billion in productivity lost to long commutes.

Some workers receive a wage premium for living in the Toronto region, according to the report. But it shows that those premiums are lowest for those who earn the least. Senior managers, for example, earn about 68 per cent more — an average $252,120 — in the GTA than those with similar positions in other parts of Ontario.

Health-care workers earn 14 per cent more than in other parts of the province with an average wage of $104,351. But education and community service workers earning $97,245 annually receive only a three per cent premium, versus financial services workers who get a 41.3 per cent premium with an average earning of $124,222 a year.

The social costs of unaffordable housing for workers are more difficult to quantify, said Michelle German, vice-president of policy and strategy for WoodGreen.

“We found evidence that would show worsening gender inequality with a lot of interesting and depressing studies coming out of COVID with a lot of women stepping away from the workplace and that compounded with stagnant incomes and higher cost of living. It also shows poorer quality of education — widening the gap between haves and have-nots and access to those struggling to make it day to day and reduced caregiver support for Toronto’s aging population,” she said.

Many workers earn no wage premium, however, and others simply don’t earn a fair wage.

Kathryn Nichol is the CEO of VHA Home HealthCare, a non-profit, charitable home-care provider serving about 100,000 clients a year doing 3 million visits and it employs 1,400 personal support workers, mostly in the GTA. While high housing costs are an issue, a systemic underinvestment in wages is at the crux of the problem for PSWs, she said.

Ontario’s PSWs typically earn between $16.50 and $19 an hour in the home-care sector. The billing rates for organizations like VHA haven’t changed in 10 years, said Nichol.

“Minimum wage is $14.25. If you think about the difference in the work, the average PSW makes $17.30 an hour. Compare working to Tim Hortons to the unbelievably critical work home-care workers do,” she said. “They deserve so much more.”

Nichol says Ontario has “a brilliant publicly funded health-care system.”

“Where we’ve missed the boat is that we have not invested adequately in health care outside of hospitals,” she said.

“Employers are doing everything they can to attract, recruit, maintain, celebrate and acknowledge great PSWs, unless you can pay them what they’re worth, it doesn’t hold its own,” said Nichol.

This article originally posted in Toronto Star July 20, 2021 by Tess Kalinowski, Toronto Star’s Real Estate Reporter. Photo credits to Toronto Star.