History of Rental Housing in Toronto

In Toronto, a large majority of rental units are in large multi-unit apartment buildings. Policy and market circumstances from the 1950s to the 1970s created this large apartment-style housing sector, sprinkled across most post-war suburbs, which appeared in conjunction with the development of publicly funded (social) housing. These apartment-style housing units were built to meet high overall population growth in the post-war era to support the demand for housing for baby-boomers, and to provide affordable housing options to working-class families and the families of veterans.

An average year saw 8,000 new private rental units built (1955-75) in conjunction with 2,000 new social housing units built (1965-95), and 1,000 new publicly-assisted private rental units built (1976-90). All this was sprinkled widely across the city and especially the suburbs – today’s inner suburbs - like the Jane-Finch area.

In 1981, almost every district of Toronto’s post-war suburbs, including newly developed suburban regions ranging from 0 to 35 years old, developed 30 to 50 percent of the City’s housing stock in multi-unit apartment-style rental buildings. Toronto achieved transit-supportive densities in its post-war suburbs precisely on the basis of this large presence of multi-rental housing, a phenomenon which has never repeated since cuts to publicly funded housing developments at federal and provincial level in the late 1970s/early 1980s.

Multi-rental housing development was supported by favourable tax law in the 1960s, and large private rental incentive programs in the early 1970s. New social housing was funded in large volumes and was integral to metropolitan planning. From the 1980s onward, social housing was built by and/or offloaded onto municipalities and community-based agencies scattered across the City’s outer suburbs; however, by the 1990s municipal funding for the development of social housing dwindled severely (gradually less and less until it remained little).

Social housing is estimated to have absorbed less than half the net increase in low and moderate-income multi-rental households over 1981-2001. As production tailed off in the ’90s and income trends worsened, more of each year’s added low and moderate-income renters have been absorbed in private rental. Newcomer immigrants’ presence in the multi-unit rental sector doubled between 1981 and 2001, where 1 in 4 households in this apartment-style housing typologies were occupied by newcomer/immigrants. These accounted for 85 percent of increase in low and moderate income households, and all net rental housing growth.

In short, affordable housing became essential housing for newcomers/immigrants in the City of Toronto seeking affordable housing in the private rental housing market – it’s worth noting that their citizenship status (i.e. lacking permanent residency) meant that they were excluded from accessing social/publically funded housing in the city. For many immigrants, private market rental housing was the only option.

In Toronto’s rental sector today, newcomers and others - with lower ‘real’ incomes than before - are finding fewer and fewer affordable options in the outer suburbs, and are often outbid in the gentrifying urban locals of the city. At any point in time, inner suburbs offer most available low[er]-cost private rental units and family-sized units. Of the 2,400 to 3,300 average annual increase in low income (bottom quintile) renters in Toronto, 55 to 60 percent were absorbed into inner suburbs between 1981-2001.

The inner suburbs appear to be set to continue absorbing increasing flows of the low and moderate income housing demand. This trend has arisen for multiple reasons, including ageing home-owners and down-filtering; the increasing concentration of low[er]-cost housing in the inner suburbs; relative declining in renter and new-immigrant incomes (i.e. vis-a-vis inflation and the consumer price index); and rapid gentrification in the City of Toronto’s urban rental locales.

The result is a progressive downloading of 20,000 multi-rental units categorised as ‘Growth Management and Affordable Housing’ typologies tasked with addressing affordable housing and urban sprawl to moderate and especially low income earners. Increasingly, this purposeful segmentation of rental market housing is trending toward the concentration of low-income/below low-income earners in the City’s inner suburbs, a phenomenon akin to the concentration of folks at-risk of/facing impoverishment and/or unsuitable housing conditions. If trends continue, low and moderate-income earners’ share of inner-suburb tenants would approach 75 percent by 2023, a 15% increase when compared to 60 percent shares in 1981.

These patterns are shaping the census metropolitan area faced by widening social distances since its amalgamation in 1998. The greatest fallout is borne by historically disadvantaged and/or equity deserving residents and neighbourhoods. Macroeconomic and structural changes in the housing market produce localised dynamics that contribute to the concentrated low-income individuals and families, essentializing media discourse that stigmatises these locales as social problems, and pathologizing the folks occupying these areas as ‘social deviants’. Extensive research in the US and UK suggests we should be concerned about “neighbourhood effects” associated with negative consequences for children, youth, schools and local social and/or community-based services. Housing stress related issues – affordability, quality, overcrowding, landlord exploitation, risk of being unhoused – are concentrated in these locales and amongst these groups, as are adverse effects on community health and individuals’ quality of life.