They staff the go-to neighbourhood bistros, race to the scene when there’s a serious collision and they assist the city’s most vulnerable residents. Increasingly though, the workers who make Toronto a great place to live can’t afford to live here, themselves.
Although it is a pervasive challenge, the Toronto Region Board of Trade mapped the affordable housing options of five job classes — paramedics, social services staff, construction formworkers, kitchen and grocery retail workers.
The maps illustrate how limited the city’s housing choices are.
To stay within the recommended 30 to 40 per cent of household income for shelter, most would need to live far from the core. Only the highest earners among them — the paramedics and builders — could afford a condo.
Many Torontonians working in career jobs are living like college students with roommates. Couples are giving up the dream of home ownership and families are coming to terms with raising their kids in apartments.
Median annual salary: $91,256
After tax income: $67,208
Monthly after-tax income: $5,601
Housing costs at 30 per cent of income: $1,680
Housing costs at 50 per cent of income: $2,800
Three years ago, Goran Mevic, 34, left his job as a full-time advanced care paramedic and acting superintendent in Ottawa, earning about $109,000, to live in Toronto with his girlfriend and be closer to family in Waterloo, Ont.
But under the Toronto paramedic system, he works only part-time in a primary care position.
“As soon as I got here the whole idea of settling down and buying a place — that’s kind of changed,” he said.
Mevic lived alone in the capital, never paying more than $1,300 a month in rent for a two-bedroom place in the popular Glebe neighbourhood, a charming residential district adjacent to the Rideau Canal that is a short walk from the lively pubs and restaurants in Ottawa’s downtown.
In that sense, it is similar to the fashionable Trinity Bellwoods area where Mevic lives now near Queen St. W. He and his girlfriend pay $1,200 a month combined to live in a house they share with three roommates.
“To be in your 30s and having roommates is kind of rough but it’s the reality of living in the city,” he said. “Being a shift worker does make it a little bit better because on my days off I have the house to myself.”
More shocking than Toronto housing prices is the rate at which they climb, he said.
“I’m just constantly wondering who’s living in Toronto, who’s buying here? There can’t be this many millionaires and all of them being in Toronto. That’s the shock, the housing prices are this high and still being sold,” Mevic said.
He and his partner, a teacher, would like to get their own place. Mevic figures they could afford to spend up to $800,000 if they were willing to be house poor. But even that won’t buy them much in downtown Toronto, where they want to be. So he figures they will continue to rent in the city but buy an investment property somewhere else.
Mevic earned only about $76,000 last year due to an injury, but the median wage for a paramedic here is about $91,000.
Some of his fellow paramedics, those with full-time jobs, got into the housing market early enough to buy condos. But those are mostly in suburbs, he said.
“Nobody I know is living in downtown Toronto,” Mevic said.
New part-timers rent, usually with roommates or partners. “I don’t even think it’s an option for them to buy,” he said.
“Those who do live on their own are further and further out of the city,” Mevic said. “There are people who commute from Barrie. I don’t understand how you work full-time hours and commute from Barrie.”
Social and community service worker
Median annual salary: $50,932
After tax income: $39,585
Monthly after-tax income: $3,298
Housing costs at 30 per cent of income: $990
Housing costs at 50 per cent of income: $1,649
Social worker Carol Lee, 45, shares her house with a roommate. She also shares her bedroom with her 6-year-old daughter. Lee’s son, 9, bunks with her roommate’s son on alternate weeks.
A community development worker with Dixon Hall, Lee sees Toronto’s housing crisis from two angles. She works with rooming house tenants — assessing their needs and connecting them with community resources and, as a sole-support parent, she struggles to afford adequate housing for her own family.
She still regrets a 2016 decision to leave a $1,300-a-month two-bedroom apartment. It was supposed to be a money-saving move. A friend approached her about splitting the $2,200 rent for a three-bedroom place, the savings looked too good to pass up.
“Internet, heating, everything was all included,” Lee said.
It was great until they were evicted because the landlord said he wanted to move in. Instead, he sold the place. The only rental they could find in Lee’s children’s school district was a three-bedroom house for $3,000 a month plus utilities in the east end. Lee figures her rent and associated expenses are up about $600 a month compared to two years ago. The loss of her previous job means she is also making less money.
“I don’t know how I’m going to afford it moving forward,” she said.
Lee makes about $47,000. The median pay for social services work in Toronto is $50,932. She says she is frugal and has been relying on severance from her old job and the use of her parents’ car.
Even though she checks in with Toronto Community Housing Corp. (TCHC) about once a year, she doesn’t hold out much hope of ever getting in. She has been on the wait list since 2008.
“There’s been no real affordable housing built. They’re looking at shelters which are Band-Aid approaches,” Lee said.
The city’s housing challenges are compounded by contract work, inadequate child care and education, she said. Working people like her are occupying the low end of the Toronto housing market, leaving fewer options for more economically and socially disadvantaged residents.
“I know other housing workers, they can’t find any housing for clients who are on assistance,” Lee said. “I don’t know what people are doing … I feel like there’s lip-service and no political will. I think we need a more humane way to do things.”
Median annual salary: $80,000
After tax income: $59,580
Monthly after-tax income: $4,965
Housing costs at 30 per cent of income: $1,490
Housing costs at 50 per cent of income: $2,483
Brian Torres isn’t complaining. The construction sector is booming. He has been promoted and hasn’t been subject to the building industry’s usual months of winter layoffs. The 29-year-old figures he grosses about $100,000 annually — more than the average wage of a formworker, whose job is to build the forms for concrete.
Even so, Torres cannot wrap his mind around housing prices, which have far surpassed income growth.
“Ten years ago you could buy a nice house in Toronto for $400,000. Now you need $1 million, which is hard to understand,” he said.
He and his partner, Natalie, began saving every penny toward a house after their son Leandro, 4, was born, living with family to accumulate a down payment.
But when Toronto real estate prices soared, they settled for a pre-construction condo for about $560,000. Initially it felt smaller than Torres had expected but, he says, they have adjusted.
They’ve been in the two-bedroom apartment near Park Lawn Rd. and Lake Shore Blvd. W. for about a year and are awaiting the arrival of another baby in October. That’s opened up the subject of house hunting again.
“It’s a comfortable spot. You’ve got 900 square feet of living space … until the next (child) starts running around. Then we’ll have issues,” he said.
Torres blames GTA housing costs for a generational struggle.
“If you haven’t bought anything yet, you’re kind of screwed. Obviously people have parents who are able to help financially, which is a bonus. But if your parents cannot…”
His own place would cost more than $2,000 a month to rent, he said.
“I can’t grasp that,” he said. “But people have to live somewhere. That’s the reality. You pay or you don’t have a roof.”’
Median annual salary: $38,000
After tax income: $30,590
Monthly after-tax income: $2,550
Housing costs at 30 per cent of income: $765
Housing costs at 50 per cent of income: $1,275
Toronto’s kitchens buzz with talk of the city’s housing challenges, says sous chef Scott Birss, who has been cooking for about 12 years, the last two for the Art Gallery of Ontario’s events catering division
“The younger cooks are always looking for housing solutions. Shared accommodation is fairly common. It always has been, I suppose. But the prospect of having to find an apartment is one of the least desirable positions for a young person to be in right now. The thought of trying to find a place quite frankly scares the hell out of them,” Birss, 47, said.
Even though he earns more than his younger colleagues — about $60,000 annually, nearly twice the industry’s $38,000 average — he knows their pain. He has been through it himself recently.
“Finding a home is just challenging. The idea of finding a home for a family that’s livable, affordable and, at the end of the day, somewhere you want to live and raise a family. We were very lucky to find a place,” he said.
Birss and his wife were paying about $1,600 a month to live in a Bloor Village West lowrise that was showing its considerable age. With their son starting school, the couple decided to roll some of their daycare savings into a new apartment.
They spent two or three frustrating months answering ads and searching listings.
“By the time we would get to the apartment to view it, they would have rented it already. The demand is so high I can’t really blame landlords for doing that. I would probably do the same,” Birss said.
He was walking his son to daycare one day when he got lucky with a walk-in inquiry at an older highrise undergoing a “condo-style” renovation. The two-bedroom unit they eventually rented for $2,300 a month — about half his salary — has new appliances, new floors, new bathroom fixtures, a redone kitchen and a swimming pool.
“At least in terms of our comfort level and our way of life, we’re quite happy now in spite of the price,” he said.
Birss says they have come to terms with the fact that home ownership, something that was a given when he was growing up in Durham Region, likely isn’t in the cards.
“It was almost seen as something we were entitled to. Our friends, our friends’ parents, regardless of what they were doing professionally, everyone was walking the same path toward home ownership,” he said.
“We’re choosing to look at it positively. Instead of putting money into home equity we are putting money into retirement funds as best we can,” he said.
Birss remembers seeing a small two-bedroom detached house selling for about $450,000 in their favoured Bloor West Village neighbourhood.
He can’t even imagine what that house would be worth now: “In the millions I’m sure. That’s not so long ago.”
Retail grocery worker (about assistant manager level)
Median annual salary: $43,005
After tax income: $34,293
Monthly after-tax income: $2,857
Housing costs at 30 per cent of income: $857
Housing costs at 50 per cent of income: $1,429
When Deb Henry dropped in on her mom one day, three-and-a-half years ago, and found the fridge empty, it became vividly apparent that the senior was struggling to pay the $900 rent on a one-bedroom apartment.
“She didn’t even have a condiment. I didn’t realize that because my mother always came to my house,” said Henry, a produce clerk at Metro, where she has worked for 15 years.
Meantime, Henry’s daughter, a part-time grocery worker, and her son-in-law, a seasonal worker, who have three children ages 12 to 16, were also struggling to pay their $1,250 rent. Henry and her husband, who works at a fish and chips shop on Danforth Ave., weren’t happy with their own $1,050 two-bedroom apartment.
So the eight family members joined forces in a five-bedroom bungalow in Scarborough where they pay $2,500 plus utilities.
Henry says her mother, 83, is now eating properly and looks fabulous.
“As crazy as it all is, I do absolutely love it but it was out of necessity because we just couldn’t survive any more,” Henry said.
The clan recently had a scare when their landlord announced she was moving into the house. A similar home in Scarborough would cost at least $3,500 plus utilities, Henry said. If they separated, she said her daughter would have been looking at nearly $2,000 for a three-bedroom apartment.
“We were looking for a house and it was starting to make me sick looking at the prices,” Henry said.
“We pay a lot here too but we have a great location (near Warden Ave. and Ellesmere Rd.), we love it here, it’s good for my mom and everybody can pretty well get to work decently,” she said.
Fortunately, the landlord changed her mind and Henry’s family is staying put for now.
“Our situation’s pretty good but sometimes it’s tough to do anything outside paying our bills, and our food bill is so big because there are so many of us. We’re surviving, just barely. I was worried about where we were going to live if we had to move,” she said.
Henry says she’s among the fortunate retail workers with a full-time unionized job that pays about $19 an hour with benefits and a pension, which her husband’s employer doesn’t provide. She says she takes home about $35,000 annually after taxes and other deductions, about average for someone in an assistant manager’s job.
Retail work tends to be part-time but it’s not necessarily relegated to students, Henry said. Often, it’s people trying to feed their families. Even full-time staff often have a part-time side job.
“Many people have two or three part-time jobs and are still not making it,” Henry said.
Tess Kalinowski is a Toronto-based reporter covering real estate. Follow her on Twitter: @tesskalinowski