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Affordable housing crisis hikes hunger as food bank users make enough 'to cover rent, nothing more'

#FoodForThought: Food bank use partially stems from affordable housing crisis in York Region
March 2, 2022
Aileen Zangouei

“I’ve lost everything during this pandemic, and I’m likely going to be in a bad place for years to come."

That's the reality of a Food Bank of York Region (FBYR) Home Delivery program client who also said that unaffordable housing is part of the reason they rely on food banks for meals.

Another client of the Home Delivery program that sees fresh and non-perishable food items delivered straight to the doors of patrons across the FBYR's network of over 80 agencies said their income is just enough to cover rent.

"I don't think people realize how hard some of us have it. Our coach apartment is so small, but we make due. I only get enough off my disability to cover the rent and nothing more," they said.

After getting a minimum-wage part-time job, they said the little bit of extra income helps, but without the program, "we wouldn't be able to eat half the food you provided, let alone cover other bills."

In the FBYR's 2020 York Region Report on Hunger, drafted in collaboration with the York Region Food Network, the cost of housing and effects of skyrocketing rental markets was identified as one of the three leading causes of growing food insecurity in Canada, thus increasing food bank users.

"Rising costs of rent and food place immense pressure on low-income households, leaving them vulnerable to food insecurity and higher risk of poor physical and mental health," said Alex Bilotta, Founder and CEO of FBYR.

In early 2021, York Region Council rectified the issue by officially declaring an affordable housing crisis.

To those who work in the social services sector, it came as welcome news, said Yvonne Kelly, chair of the Social Planning Council of York Region.

"We commend the acknowledgment of the region and the elected officials to do something about it now that we recognized we are in a housing crisis," Kelly said.

But effective long-term change to loosen the financial constraints that surround the housing market will take time to happen. In the meantime, many people who don't earn enough to pay sky-high rents and can't get a spot in an affordable housing complex are opting to live in often squalid conditions in illegal rooming houses.

According to the FBYR's 2020 York Region Report on Hunger, 0.45 per cent out of 24,098 patrons using their Home Delivery program lived in rooming houses.

Private rental patrons consisted of 48.88 per cent, and 10.68 per cent were living in social housing.

81 of their clients said they were homeless.

As stated by Zoocasa Realty Inc., Brokerage, statistics in the fourth quarter of 2021 showed that inventory for both rentals and home sales was down from the third quarter of that year, leading to increasing prices.

The average price for apartments leased has gone up from $1,718 for a bachelor to $3,679 for a three-bedroom. However, the amount of apartments for lease has decreased by 48.9 per cent.

"This paints the picture of the inventory crunch we're seeing in the rental market and resale market alike, where there are too few options on the market for the demand we're seeing, resulting in upwards pressure on pricing," Zoocasa stated.

"Unfortunately, housing is not the only factor pinching at Canadians' wallets. Day to day, people are faced with increases in grocery, fuel costs, and transportation costs with inflation at a 30-year high," said Lauren Haw, CEO of Zoocasa.

In Bradford, the Helping Hand Food Bank has noticed that their patrons are coming in due to unaffordable housing.

"The pandemic and economic dislocation it has caused exacerbated existing needs in the region, and the cost of living rising is a real factor here," said Carolyn Khan, CEO of Helping Hand Food Bank.

"We’re pleased the town and county are building a new 50-unit affordable housing complex in our downtown, but there does need to be more done to support access to housing as a core way of reducing poverty," Khan said.

In October 2021, York Region Council spoke of introducing a vacant homes tax, which would collect an estimated 15 to $90 million and be directed toward affordable housing initiatives.

Bilotta said to address the issue, all levels of government must commit and build on affordable housing and sufficient income for a food secure York Region.