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Accessibility matters: Pathways to a more inclusive future
Innovation Issue 36: Spring 2022

Financial instability due to housing precarity impacts quality of life for Black families

Policy & Perspective 

Financial instability due to housing precarity impacts quality of life for Black families

A small Black child holding a teddy bear is surrounded by boxes and adults packing in the background

How does housing precarity impact Black families? 

It results in a loss of community and stability that plagues Black communities both in Canada and south of the border in the U.S., says professor Nemoy Lewis of Toronto Metropolitan University’s School of Urban and Regional Planning.

Professor Lewis studied foreclosures in the cities of Chicago, Illinois and Jacksonville, Florida. While there was a lot of data on foreclosures, the research lacked a human element. “I wanted to study the lived experiences of foreclosures,” he said. 

In the chapter he penned for the book Critical Approaches Towards a Cosmopolitan Education, professor Lewis engaged a number of Black families to talk about how foreclosures impacted their overall life experiences. 

The research literature on sub-prime mortgages in the U.S. showed that Black homeowners were more likely to be paying higher interest rates on mortgages, suggesting racial profiling by financial institutions that could make homeowners more susceptible to default on their loans. 

On a personal level, Black parents were struggling emotionally with losing their homes while simultaneously trying to put on a brave face for their children. “It impacted their finances. There were limitations on extracurricular activities, vacations, even on the foods they were consuming,” said professor Lewis. In more extreme circumstances, families would forego utilities like electricity in order to stay on top of their mortgage payments. Parents would take on extra jobs, and some were even hospitalized for exhaustion, all in effort to maintain their homes.

When homes were lost, the research showed it was a traumatic experience for children. Children were often displaced from their home schools after foreclosures and forced to start over at new schools because parents had to relocate to more affordable neighbourhoods.

“It has an effect on their academic performance,” said professor Lewis. “The kids didn’t adjust well with the move, they wanted to go back to the neighbourhood they were familiar with, and so the kids were acting out.”

When professor Lewis looked at the housing market in Canada, he saw similar patterns of displacement emerge. In Toronto, Black families who are renting face displacement due to untenable rent hikes, consistent applications by landlords for above-average increases to rent, and landlords motivated to evict tenants to profit from decontrolled rent rates for vacant units.

“Tenants have expressed that it’s been a very stressful experience to have their rents hiked while their income remains stagnant,” said professor Lewis. Residents are already paying upwards of 50 per cent of their income on housing, leaving little room for the consistent rent increases. 

In the predominantly Black neighbourhood of Little Jamaica, an area along Eglinton Street West in Toronto, corporate landlords have been snapping up multi-family dwellings since the construction of the Eglinton light rail transit (LRT) project began. Professor Lewis’s research also shows that a new financial player has emerged in the rental real estate market, as private equity and asset management firms are buying up rental properties. 

“Before the announcement of the LRT construction in 2007, corporate landlords owned less than 20 per cent of units sold in the area,” said professor Lewis. “Upon construction, in 2011, it doubled to 40 per cent. Since then it has gone up to 62.” 

As more investment firms buy up properties and rents continue to rise, making it impossible for Black families to save for a down payment, people are being priced out of their communities, said professor Lewis. Moreover, Black renters are experiencing evictions at twice the rate of their white peers. “A lot of people would characterize this as a displacement,” he said. “But it is more of an expulsion. Housing is becoming very income polarized. Only wealthy Canadians will be able to continue to live in our cities.”

More legislative protections need to be put in place for low-income renters, professor Lewis says. Without them, landlords continue to hold all the power in a red hot housing market where the demand continues to outstrip the supply. Moreover, municipalities must do more to address the lack of purpose-built, affordable rental units, which has left the door open to low vacancy rates, driving up the cost of available units.

Municipalities must do more to address the lack of purpose-built, affordable rental units, which has left the door open to low vacancy rates, driving up the cost of available units.

Professor Lewis’s work has been funded by the Ontario Graduate Scholarship (OGS) Program and by a Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC) Insight Development Grant. He is supported by his three research assistants: Dimitri Panou, Abena Takyi and Suad Sidow.