What does it mean to have stable housing? It’s having a choice over when and why you move. It means parents can have financial stability and children can focus on school. It doesn’t wipe the majority of a household’s earnings away each month. It keeps families safe, secure and healthy.
In Canada, unstable housing is a big issue, with women and children being disproportionately affected. According to the Canadian Women’s Foundation, more than 1.9 million women live on a low income with minority women and single mothers being most vulnerable to unstable housing. With an affordable housing shortage in Canada’s largest cities, it’s even more difficult to break the vicious cycle of living in poverty.
Habitat for Humanity is a nonprofit organization that partners with future and current homeowners to build safe, decent, and affordable homes for working families. I spoke to Adwoa Buahene, the VP of Donor and Community Partnerships at Habitat for Humanity, to better understand the barriers to affordable housing for women and how access to homeownership can help turn the tide for generations to come.
Women are disproportionately affected by poverty.
Statistically, women still have lower average incomes than men, earning 74 cents to every dollar a man makes. When women are the sole-earners, this divide is even more dramatic: In 2011, the median income for female-led, single income families with children under six was $21,200. On average, singles dads earn nearly double that.
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“Women are often the caregivers in the home — whether for children or for aging parents,” says Buahene. Taking on a higher proportion of unpaid work reduces women’s capacity to upgrade their education and move away from casual, low-income employment.
Thirty-seven percent of Habitat for Humanity’s partner families are led by single moms. Many endure crowded living situations, like six people splitting a two-bedroom. “For a lot of single moms, they’re not looking for luxury. They’re looking for something safe and decent and affordable,” says Buahene.
Homeownership offers relief from a hostile rental market.
In Toronto and Vancouver, there’s an affordable rental shortage.
According to the Toronto Real Estate Board (TREB), the average one-bedroom condominium rental in the GTA was $2,192, up 6.7 percent compared to this time last year. In the same time frame, the average two-bedroom condominium increased by 4.3 percent to $2,873. For many partner families, rent consumes over 65 percent of their income.
The vacancy rate in Toronto recently climbed to 1.5 percent — which actually offered some relief considering that this time last year, the vacancy rate bottomed to a staggering 0.3 percent. The shortage has spurred highly competitive apartment viewings, attracting hundreds of people armed with credit scores and first and last month’s rent. For those entering affordable housing lotteries, the competition is even tougher. One lottery had 4,000 applicants for just 75 units.
Renters are at risk of being evicted or enduring a landlord who fails to maintain the home. Buahene shares a story of a single, working mom and her two daughters who were living in an unsafe and unhealthy rental. “She couldn’t find something else within the range she could afford and made the really tough decision to move into a shelter with her girls for months so she could save up sufficient funds to find a place with suitable living conditions,” says Buahene.
It all comes back to kids. Harvard University released a report in 2013 that examined the social benefits of homeownership after the foreclosure crisis. It found that compared to American children of renters, children of homeowners were 25 percent more likely to graduate from high school, 116 percent more likely to graduate from college, and 59 percent more likely to own a home within ten years of moving from their parents household.
“Our partner families statistically do better year-over-year because of stable housing. We know from the reports we do with our homeowners that 84 percent report better health and 76 percent report better grades than before being homeowners,” says Buahene.
Removing the barriers to stable housing.
Removing the barriers to stable housing is a complex issue in a city like Toronto. Habitat for Humanity offers one solution by acting as the mortgage lender and removing the financial downpayment and high monthly payments.
Instead of a downpayment, partner families volunteer for 500 hours to build homes and work in the ReStore locations. It’s a true partnership: When you already have a full time job or sometimes two part-time jobs amounting to more than 40 hours a week, 500 volunteer hours is a serious commitment.
The other issue is that most partner families are already contributing at least 60 percent of their income to rent. To alleviate this stress, Habitat for Humanity caps monthly mortgage payments at 32 percent of the partner families income. They also recognize that families go through challenges — job loss, divorce, a spouse passing — and, unlike traditional lenders, offer relief in these circumstances.
Beyond this, Toronto’s residents need government intervention to tackle the housing crunch, low rates of social housing and population growth. There is currently a five to seven year wait for supportive housing and those on the waitlist remain in shelters, hospitals and rooming houses.
Poverty costs taxpayers and the government billions of dollars each year. The City is currently preparing a ten year plan to tackle the affordable housing crisis. Mayor John Tory’s Housing Now program is a step in the right direction — an initiative that will turn 11 surplus city sites into housing, resulting in thousands of units with rental prices below-market.
While this initiative has the potential to offer some relief, Toronto will also need support from community partnerships, nonprofits and the private sector. For example, Habitat for Humanity partners with developers to provide affordable units within traditional projects.
“We need further investments in affordable housing, both in the public and private sector,” says Buahene.