Trauma to Triumph: Housing a key poverty driver

People walk past a panhandler on Bloor Street in Toronto. FILE PHOTO

While Jewish poverty rates in Canada’s major cities vary, one thing that is consistent is the impact that the scarcity of affordable housing has on those struggling to stay above the poverty line.

In Toronto, where more than 24,000 Jews are considered poor, there may be 10,000 people on a 10-year waiting list to access affordable housing offered by the Kehilla Residential Programme, said Nancy Singer, Kehilla’s executive director.

Kehilla, established in 1982 in affiliation with UJA Federation of Greater Toronto, has 338 units in three buildings along the heavily Jewish Bathurst Street corridor, 228 of which are subsidized. 

“The problem is that there are priorities given to homelessness and victims of abuse, so those are the people who are getting the units, so we may not even be getting to the chronological list,” Singer said.

“That is what is frightening and those are the scary statistics that we hear all the time – how we’re not making a dent, how we’re not moving forward and people who need housing are not getting affordable housing.”

Singer said the buildings that house the subsidized units were built when there was a provincial social housing program, “which was buried in 1995 by the [Mike] Harris [provincial] government, never to be resurrected. 

“There have been different, smaller programs… but nothing to the magnitude and the scale of funding that was available in those years,” she said, adding that in the 14 years that she has been at the helm for Kehilla, the agency has had to be creative about solutions to the affordable housing crisis.

For example, the Jewish Community Affordable Rental Program (JCARP) was launched in 2004, funded by UJA Federation and administered by Kehilla. The program is meant to identify and place clients of Jewish community agencies, including Jewish Immigrant Aid Service (JIAS) and Jewish Family and Child (JF&CS), in affordable units situated on or near the Bathurst Street corridor, where many poor Jewish families are paying between 50 and 70 per cent of their income on rent. 

Kehilla also assists about 20 families with rent subsidies – up to $300 a month – to bridge the gap between market rental rates and what Jewish families can afford.

Leah Berger, senior planning associate for Federation CJA in Montreal and the co-ordinator of its social advocacy committee, said that in her city, where the Jewish poverty rate is the highest in the country at 20 per cent, “there has been an increasing recognition for the need of a community response to the pressing housing needs of the Jewish community.

“There is a scarcity of low-cost, safe and well-maintained housing options, which compounds the challenges faced by individuals and families living in poverty who often spend a disproportionate amount of their monthly income on rent, frequently on sub-standard housing,” Berger said. 

She added that the current wait time for affordable housing can be up to 10 years, and there are very few options in the areas of Montreal that are heavily populated by Jews.

While low-cost housing for Jews is available at B’nai Brith House and the Caldwell Residences, they are for seniors and the units are studio or one-bedroom apartments that can’t accommodate families.

“What we are looking to do is provide low-cost quality housing in areas of Montreal that would be desirable for members of the Jewish community, such as Cote Saint-Luc,” Berger said. 

“We are working with a consulting company who we use to interface between community organizations and the government. The process of applying for public funds is quite complicated and extensive, and so they are… guiding us through the process to help us develop our application,” Berger said.

In Vancouver, where the Jewish poverty rates sits at 16.1 per cent, Susana Cogan, the housing development director at Tikva Housing Society, said the agency’s affordable housing facilities are at capacity, with many families on the waiting list.

“Vancouver has the most expensive housing of the whole of Canada. Yes, there is an affordability problem that affects everyone including members of the Jewish community,” Cogan said.

“For this reason, with the help of members in our community, Tikva raises money to expand housing capacities in order to meet the needs of our community.” 

Cogan explained that Tikva owns an 11-unit building, the Danny Guincher House, where it rents to people at 30 per cent of their income, or if they’re on income assistance, at $375 per month.

“We are also building on two additional sites in the city of Richmond. As part of a larger building, Tikva will own 10 family apartments. The apartments will be offered to families with annual incomes under $55,000 and rent will be geared to income. On a Vancouver site, Tikva will be operating 32 new townhouses. These units will be geared to a mix of families earning between $15,000 and $85,000 per year… Both these projects are being developed in conjunction with other non-profit housing societies,” she said. 

Through the Esther Dayson Rent Subsidy Program, people who qualify pay 30 per cent of their gross family income to cover rent, and Tikva provides a subsidy to cover the market rental rate. Tikva assists about 15 households through this program.

“Five out of 44 applicants are presently homeless, living on the street, in shelters and couch surfing,” Cogan said.

Although Ottawa’s Jewish poverty rate is Canada’s lowest at 8.9 per cent, Mark Zarecki, executive director of Jewish Family Services of Ottawa, said affordable housing is still a big problem for his community.

“A small rental here is about $800 a month, and welfare is about $650 for one person. So there is no food in there. People are going into horrible rooming houses, and I’m talking about horrible – there are drugs and filth and prostitution, there are lots of people with multiple challenges. The waiting list for public housing is four to six years, and again, many of them are drug-infested, crime-infested. We have many Jews who are living in these places and they want to get out because they fear for their safety,” Zarecki said.

“We advocate, but it’s a general community issue. Since the Canadian government has moved to the right, they have reduced the building of public housing and stuff like that. So government policy is aggravating this situation.”

Advocating for affordable housing in Ottawa, members of the Jewish, Christian and Muslim communities support the Multifaith Housing Initiative, a non-profit coalition that works to raise awareness and funds for affordable housing in Ottawa, where there are 10,000 people on a waiting list.

Zarecki said that what makes the issue of poverty more complex for members of the Jewish community is that poverty can make it impossible for a Jew to affiliate. 

“For somebody who wants to affiliate with the community, it costs money. Eating kosher food, sending a child to a Jewish school, going to a synagogue, living near a Jewish facility – often the rents are higher in an area where there is a concentration of Jews. For someone who is low-income, the cheapest place in Ottawa to move is Gatineau, and it does not have a Jewish community,” he said.

Toronto resident Vadim understands better than most the impact that affordable housing can have on a person’s quality of life.

The 24-year-old bartender, who emigrated from Israel to Toronto six years ago, was referred to Kehilla as a JIAS client.

“I was living in a basement apartment. It was dark, cold, in North York, in a remote area,” Vadim recalled.

Now, he’s living in a building called “The Charlie” at King and Charlotte streets in a subsidized condominium unit – one of four gifted to Kehilla by Great Gulf Homes. 

“Living downtown is more convenient for me, because it’s now closer for me to reach possible employers, and it’s easier for me to move around. When I was uptown, it was more difficult in terms of transportation and it was not the best place to live,” Vadim said. 

“I think the fact that we have such institutions [is great] and that the Jewish community… is so helpful. There is always somewhere to go and somewhere you can get help, or they will give you information about where you can get help. There is always support. It helps the Jewish community to grow, because we are all one family and at the end of the day, one person’s growth means everybody grows.”