Poverty, Declining Income,
Housing Quality and Community Life in
Toronto's Inner Suburban High-Rise Apartments
Letter from Susan McIsaac,
President and CEO, United Way Toronto
In Poverty by Postal Code 2: Vertical Poverty, we present a sobering new report on the continuing growth of poverty concentration in Toronto. The picture that emerges from our examination is troubling: It not only shows that poverty in Toronto has continued to intensify geographically, in Toronto’s inner suburban neighbourhoods, it also shows that poverty is becoming increasingly concentrated vertically in the high-rise towers that dot the city’s skyline.
Vertical Poverty is the latest in a series of United Way Toronto research studies that examine the nature and extent of poverty in Canada’s largest city. Following Decade of Decline (2002), Poverty by Postal Code (2004), and Losing Ground (2007), Vertical Poverty is an update of previous research looking at the changing geography of poverty. With this latest report, our goal is to deepen understanding of one of our city’s most pressing and persistent problems.
Our study examines the growth of concentrated poverty, and its impact on community, in two ways: First, it looks at the historical trends of where poverty is located in our city over a 25-year period from 1981 to 2006; and second, it looks at the role of high-rise housing in this trend. We present the findings of Vertical Poverty in the spirit of contributing to a wider body of knowledge that taken together can spark a renewed dialogue and a coordinated community response to the issue of growing poverty in Toronto.
Vertical Poverty paints a very clear picture—the geographic intensification of poverty continues to grow in our city and is still most severe in the inner suburbs. The number of high-poverty neighbourhoods in Toronto has more than quadrupled over the last thirty years, from 30 in 1981 to 136 in 2006 (page 23). This disturbing trend was first identified by United Way in Poverty by Postal Code, research that tracked poverty growth from 1981 to 2001. The recommendations of United Way and the City of Toronto that came out of our research galvanized the first phase of our place-based Building Strong Neighbourhood Strategy, launched in 2006, and led directly to many community initiatives that aim to improve conditions and supports for people living in the inner suburbs.
As we undertook an update to Poverty by Postal Code, we wanted to dig a little deeper and identify the forces driving the continuation of historical trends. We found that in 2006, nearly 40% of all families living in high-rise buildings were low-income, up from 25% in 1981 (page 36). For renters in the inner suburbs, income has declined substantially since 1981, while average rents have increased over the same time period. The resulting financial squeeze on renters shows up in our survey of tenants, with nearly half reporting difficulty paying rent each month, and one-in-four (page 48) reporting that they go without other necessities in order to pay the rent.
When we looked at housing conditions and community life in high-rise apartment buildings, our findings show a clear connection between high-poverty levels and worsening housing conditions, but the findings also reveal many reasons to be hopeful. Toronto’s high-rise apartments are tremendous potential community assets, especially to low- and moderate-income families. The bonds of community are strong in many of these apartment buildings; and a majority of people surveyed believe that their neighbourhoods are good places to live and to raise a family.
However, people living in these buildings experience much higher rates of crime and social disorder such as drug dealing, vandalism and property damage than other Canadian high-rise renters; and the trend is especially strong in some high-poverty neighbourhoods. 10% of renters in Toronto high-rise buildings reported personally experiencing property damage in the past year, compared to 4% of Canadian high-rise renters overall (page 89). Social disorder is an even more significant problem in Toronto, with drug-dealing a problem for 30% of high-rise tenants compared to 12% of Canadians overall (page 91).
So why does this research matter?
The great risk to the future prosperity of our city is neighbourhood decline and disinvestment. Concentration of poverty can lead to a downward cycle of neighbourhood deterioration. We are seeing evidence of this in many of our neighbourhoods today: business flight and disinvestment, deteriorating housing conditions, and crime and social disorder.
Strong, healthy neighbourhoods play a vital role in the prosperity of a city. These are the places where we raise our children; and they contribute not only to the day-to-day lives of the people who call them home, but also to the overall economic health of our community. Safe and affordable neighbourhoods not only attract and retain business investment, but also the qualified workforce that allows a city to compete successfully in a global economy.
We are connected, all of us—local residents, the voluntary sector, business, labour, and every order of government; and we are the stewards of our city’s future prosperity. We all share the responsibility to dedicate our collective resources to reversing the trend of concentrated poverty and neighbourhood decline in Toronto.
Vertical Poverty tells us we have a choice to make. The trends presented in our findings are very clear, but what is less clear is whether we’ve reached the tipping point—have we missed the opportunity to revitalize our city’s greatest strength, its neighbourhoods? We think not. But it will take concerted action to make lasting, meaningful community change.
We make several key recommendations to provide a way forward. And as we work together, there’s a role for each of us to play. We must utilize Toronto’s valuable housing stock as a tool to improve social conditions, promote social cohesion, and drive neighbourhood renewal by investing in its preservation today.
Together, we can make progress. We can ensure the future is bright for all who call Toronto home, and that our city’s neighbourhoods are vibrant and strong for many years to come.
President and CEO
United Way Toronto