Vacant Homes and Affordable Housing

Canadian Observatory on Homelessness
January 25, 2018
Categories: Ask the Hub

This post is part of our "Ask the Hub" blog series. Have a homeless-related question you want answered? E-mail us at thehub@edu.yorku.ca and we will provide a research-based answer.

Question: Where there are abandoned properties, would it not be a cost-saver to give building owners an incentive to lease the buildings to the city/town (...so that the property could be used to house those experiencing homelessness)?


In Canada, there is a great deal of economic disparity. In major cities such as Vancouver and Toronto, there are individuals living in homes that are too big for them; contrastingly, there are people who live in rapidly growing neighbourhoods in overcrowded conditions.

On one extreme end of this issue, there are those who chronically or episodically experience homelessness—at least 235,000 Canadians per year. And the fact that some people are in possession of homes that are vacant (they do not permanently live there nor do they rent it out to tenants) is an issue that has been gaining attention. In fact, some argue that there are enough empty homes to house those individuals who are not sheltered.

Vacant Homes in Toronto and Vancouver: An overview

1. Toronto

The overall vacancy rate for properties in Toronto in 2016 was 1.3%, according to the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation (CMHC). At the same time, there are a number of individuals (particularly young people, large families and newcomers) whose housing places them in a state of core housing need. This means that their housing does not measure up to the adequacy, suitability or affordability standards and/or they spend at least 30% of their income before taxes on housing. Those in core housing need comprised 12.5% of Canadians in 2011.

2. Vancouver

Similarly,the City of Vancouver found that there were 25,445 dwelling units that were unoccupied or occupied by temporary or foreign residents in 2016. Of these properties, 86% were unoccupied (21,820 units) whereas 14% belonged to temporary or foreign residents (3,675 units).

In an effort to give property owners an incentive to rent out their homes, Vancouver implemented an Empty Homes Tax (EHT) where vacant homeowners are charged a 1% tax on the assessed value of their homes.

Why are there so many empty homes?

The City of Vancouver’s report includes some reasons that people provided for their decision not to sell or rent out their homes. 57% said that they used the home occasionally for personal/family use, 22% said rental restrictions, 12% said tenant issues/landlord protection, 5% said other and 4% said they were holding the property for future/personal family use.

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The fact that many people are living in homes with more bedrooms than they need is another issue that’s been gaining attention. Inadequate city planning and the shelter demand/supply mismatch have been thought to contribute to this issue. For example, individuals in their elderly years who may be looking to downsize cannot find as many affordable, “gentle density” options such as townhomes and duplexes compared to detached homes. The Canadian Centre for Economic Analysis (CANCEA) reported in May 2017 that approximately 45% of households in the Greater Toronto and Hamilton Area (GTHA) live in detached homes, 35% live in apartments and only 20% live in “gentle density” homes such as semi-detached, row-homes, townhomes, multiplexes and courtyard apartments. Such gentle density options take up less space, and cost less.

It seems that the issue isn’t about a lack of housing in general, but for many, a lack of affordable housing. According to the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation (CMHC), affordable housing can be viewed as falling along a housing continuum, from “emergency shelters” to “market homeownership housing.” Along this continuum, subsidized housing is included, which is housing that is financially supplemented by the government.

The lack of affordable housing that exists in Canada today has been partially attributed to the cancellation of the 1993 federal social housing program. Even now, in major Canadian cities like Toronto, there is a critical need for social housing repairs and long waitlists for social housing units.

Overall, despite the difficulties Canada faces in regards to its demands for affordable housing,it may be cheaper to house people first, rather than utilizing more expensive emergency services.

Solutions

There is a growing understanding that the best way to help individuals with housing needs is to provide them with adequate and affordable shelter first. Shelter is the first essential step to help people move forward with their lives.

Housing First

Housing First is an approach that focuses on immediately placing individuals in housing, without any terms or conditions, and then providing the necessary supports for these individuals once they have shelter. Supports provided after shelter is given may include mental health, education, employment, substance abuse and community connections.

Raising the Roof’s Reside Program

Raising the Roof’s “Reside” programis a project that has the goal of turning many of the abandoned century/heritage homes across the GTA into affordable housing for individuals who have struggled to keep permanent shelter over their heads. Itwould also create work for unemployed and marginalized youth, as they would be a part of the renovation process through an organization called Building Up. Building Up is a non-profit organization that provides training in the trades, for people who are in need of employment.

Respite Accommodation and Host Homes

This is an approach to youth homelessness that aims to divert youth from relying on the emergency shelter system. This accomplished by providing youth with temporary housing, supports and interventions that enable them to maintain their social support systems (i.e. friends and family) in their own communities.

In the Halton region of Ontario, there is a Host Home program called Bridging the Gap, with resources in each of the major Halton communities: Burlington, Oakville, Milton, Georgetown and Action.

Youth who wish to access this service must get in touch with a Bridging the Gap worker. As part of the screening process, youth are pre-screened for addictions and mental health crises, where they may be referred to other services if it deemed more appropriate.

Once accepted, youth have access to a private sleeping area, shower access, laundry facilities and meals for up to four months.

Canada’s 10-Year National Housing Strategy

The Canadian government has announced a $40 billion, 10-year plan to deal with the homelessness and affordable housing crises in Canada. $4 billion dollars will go towards the Canada Housing Benefit, providing an average of $2,500 in rent subsidies for families, starting in April 2020.

The strategy aims to:

  • Use a gender-based analysis to provide affordable housing to senior women and women fleeing domestic abuse
  • Repair 300,000 affordable housing units
  • Reduce chronic homelessness by 50%
  • Ensure that 385,000 homes keep their affordable housing
  • Eliminate the housing need for 530,000 households
  • Financial assistance for 300, 000 households through the Canada Housing benefit

Conclusion

To deal with the issue of vacant housing, various programs have been put in place to provide adequate and affordable shelter, such as Housing First. This approach helps to quickly move people out of their situations of homelessness and into secure housing. The main concern and top priority when addressing homelessness should be to place individuals into permanent housing. Their other concerns can then be dealt with after they’ve attained suitable shelter. 

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The analysis and interpretations contained in the blog posts are those of the individual contributors and do not necessarily represent the views of the Canadian Observatory on Homelessness.