POVERTY IS VERTICAL – and the elevators are terrible

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Toronto’s poverty is increasingly vertical according to a landmark United Way study, published last week.

(In the context of the report’s release, I am interviewed about HIGHRISE  in this week’s issue of Eye Weekly.)

The United Way report says “Poverty by Postal Code 2: Vertical Poverty presents new data on the growing concentration of poverty in the City of Toronto and the role that high-rise housing is playing in this trend. The report tracks the continued growth in the spatial concentration of poverty in Toronto neighbourhoods, and in high-rise buildings within neighbourhoods. It then examines the quality of life that high-rise buildings are providing to tenants today. Its primary focus is on privately owned building stock in Toronto’s inner suburbs.” The report is downloadable here.

The first  part of the study looks at the last 25 years of census data to track the concentration of poverty in the inner suburbs, and in particular, highrise buildings. The study shows that while incomes have declined, rents have increased since 1981. ”

“As a result of this “squeeze” on incomes and rents, close to half of the tenants surveyed say they worry about paying the rent each month. Another third say their families do without necessities, including food. Highrises also became more densely populated during this time with the percentage of units housing more than one person per room doubling.”

According to a front page story in The Toronto Star, “The report, believed to be the first of its kind in Canada… calls on the public, private and charitable sectors to properly maintain highrise housing and provide community space and programs for tenants. With demand for rental housing in Toronto predicted to grow by another 20 per cent by 2031, action is urgently needed, the report warns.”

The second part of the study gives a snapshot of current housing conditions in the 1,000+ highrises in Toronto. United Way surveyed 2,803 highrise tenants in the city’s inner suburbs, and conducted a series of focus groups.

The results do not surprise anyone who has spent any time recently in a Toronto suburban highrise. One key finding of special note to us at HIGHRISE relates to elevators.

“[T]heir elevators are so unreliable that a United Way report … calls for a task force specifically targeting their repair. Thousands of interviews with residents indicate these buildings have grown notorious for vermin and vandalism,” notes The Globe and Mail.

Elevators were the focus of one of Jamal’s stories in our own HIGHRISE documentary last year, called THE THOUSANDTH TOWER. This is what Jamal had to say about his highrise experience with elevators:

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JAMAL: “Growing up in Rexdale has been a challenge. I saw a lot at the age of 7, my first year living here. From what I can remember, the building has always been decrepit. The elevator would skip floors, jumping and jolting, moving up and down. I used to wonder if we would survive if the elevator dropped from the 13th floor to B2. I was so terrified when my family went in there. I had disturbing thoughts that they wouldn’t come out. To this day, I’m scared of the elevator.”

The United Way Report makes 26 recommendations, including:

* The City of Toronto continue to take a dedicated program approach to revitalizing the social and physical conditions of aging high-rise apartment buildings across the city, and sustaining this important housing resource for the city’s lower income and newcomer populations.

* The provincial government make its Community Opportunities Fund accessible to private-sector tenant groups for the purpose of engaging tenants and building their capacity to be active participants in the revitalization of their tower communities.

* The federal government to establish a National Housing Strategy which sets out standards for adequate, accessible and affordable housing.


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