Poverty is on the rise in "the City Above Toronto," and their feeble social safety net isn't equipped to support those most in need.Forty minutes or so north of Toronto, driving along Highway 400, you’ll see a track, 70 metres high, rolling above the pavement. As you approach, you’ll notice a tower and a mountain and a waterfall gushing out of it. If you get close enough and roll down your windows, you may even hear people screaming. By this point you’ve reached the rows of mega homes, each one a perfect iteration of its neighbour, facing out brazenly like soldiers defending their castle.
The landmark, Canada’s Wonderland, is the first sign that you’re in Vaughan, the self-professed “City Above Toronto.”
At a glance, it may seem true: there’s no grit or grime, no one pan-handling on the corner or shivering at the bus stop. The houses are big and pristine, and the roads are crowded with expensive SUVs.
But there’s more to the story.
Over the past 25 years, the suburb exploded with rampant development and a population spike of nearly 190 per cent. It’s become a haven for people with money looking to buy themselves some extra space just 45 minutes outside Toronto. In Vaughan, the average household income is nearly $114,000, well above the provincial average of $86,000 and $76,000 in Toronto. The median house price is $890,000, and you’ll be hard pressed to spot any homelessness or decrepit high-rises.
It almost appears as though Vaughan has bypassed poverty entirely. That’s why when Vaughan Community Health Centre (VCHC) opened its doors nine years ago, many residents thought the service would go unused. “Community health centres are for the marginalized, for the poor,” says Isabel Araya, executive director of VCHC. “People were saying: ‘Why are you going to be located in Vaughan? Where’s the poverty in Vaughan?’ And much to my surprise, I am seeing a great deal of poverty and marginalized populations.”
While Vaughan has a large proportion of high income residents, poverty in the city, and York Region in general, is growing rapidly. The Vaughan Community Wellbeing Report, initiated by the VCHC and released in November, shows that the number of low-income residents in the region increased by 61 per cent between 2000 and 2012. During a similar period, the average cost of a new single detached home increased by 87 per cent, while hourly wages only rose by 26 per cent. Between 2008 and 2012, the wait list for social housing increased by 63 per cent.
“Poverty is there,” says Araya, “but it’s hidden.”
She and other staff at VCHC see it every day, though, through the 9,000 active clients who come to the centre for health care and social assistance. “The demand is so unbelievably high,” says Araya. “Often, we reach capacity and have to close the doors.” The VCHC is one of the few social services in Vaughan for low-income residents—there are no homeless shelters and just one food bank and one legal aid clinic to serve more than 300,000 residents. The report also identified transit affordability and accessibility as major problems for people in poverty.
In the early days of Vaughan’s urbanization, there was little need for such services. But that’s quickly changing as the city becomes increasingly unaffordable. Meanwhile, there’s no social safety net in place to catch the growing low-income populations.
Peter Wixson is another Vaughan resident hip to the city’s hidden poverty problem. He’s been the executive director of the Vaughan Food Bank since it opened in 1995, and has been helping to feed the poor since 1988. “Back then it was called the community food bank and it ran out of a woman’s house,” Wixson recalls. He says demand for food donations has skyrocketed since then. Last week alone, the food bank saw more than 100 new clients. Wixson estimates that on an annual basis, they dole out about 750,000 meals to supply each client and their family members with two meals per day. “I just pray that one day we could walk out of here and we wouldn’t need it,” Wixson says about the service. “Unfortunately the reality is, the way things are working, the way jobs are and whatever else, it’s just not going to happen. The poverty is growing instead of going the other way.”
Araya and Wixson both note that many of their clients are working poor. Some earn incomes over $35,000, which in other towns or cities could support a comfortable lifestyle. In Vaughan, it’s a stretch. The report highlights that professionals like nurses, teachers, and police officers can no longer afford homes in the city.
One major barrier for low- and even moderate-income residents is the lack of affordable housing in Vaughan. The vacancy rate for rental housing is a mere 1.5 per cent; a healthy rental market is expected to have 3 per cent vacancy. And while the province has mandated Vaughan to implement secondary suites (rental units on residential lots), the city is dragging its feet on getting it legislated. “It seems to me that some residents believe that if they have a mixed type of housing within their neighbourhoods, that would lower the values of their homes,” says Araya. Minutes from a February 2014 meeting on secondary suites reflects that attitude, showing that residents are worried about limited parking space and feel suites change the character of their neighbourhood in a negative way. “Some stakeholders,” it states, “also cited their concerns about residing next to ‘strangers’ who are perceived to be more transient.”
As residents wait for affordable housing, multiple families are cramming into one house. “Vaughan has beautiful big homes,” says Araya, “but in those homes we have two or three families sharing this space.” The Community Wellbeing Report confirms that the number of multiple family homes has increased by 65 per cent between 2001 and 2011, now making up 5.5 per cent of all households in the region.
Of course, illegal boarding houses, and poverty in general, are common in any city. But in Vaughan, it signals a problem that’s not being addressed—one that’s wrapped in a veneer of wealth, making it all too easy to ignore. But that doesn’t make it better for those suffering the plight of poverty. “To be poor is difficult, but to be poor among the rich is much, much worse,” says Araya. “Everything looks so beautiful and so out of reach.”