How Women Facing Violence Struggle to Access Safe Housing
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How Women Facing Violence Struggle to Access Safe Housing

Skyrocketing rent prices makes it difficult for women to afford to leave abusive situations.

Four and a half years ago, Billie W.* was living with an abusive father—but she couldn’t leave. She experienced PTSD and alcoholism as a result of her abuse, and was unable to afford rent for her own place. “The price was too high to come up with first and last,” she says. It was only when she accessed free sober living housing that she escaped the situation, found a job, and went back to school.

“The rental market was and is so overpriced that if I was not currently in a relationship where we are sharing rent, I probably still wouldn’t be able to afford to live in my own place,” she says.

Billie’s story is not unique. Living in Toronto is expensive, evidenced through home prices that continue to soar and a seemingly bottomless well of bidding wars. Meanwhile, Toronto’s rental market has reached an all-time high. Ballooning rent costs are edging out the poor—many of whom are women. According to Toronto Councillor Kristyn Wong-Tam (Ward 27, Toronto Centre-Rosedale), “The majority of individuals currently living in social housing are women and the majority on the waiting list are also women.” Often, women like Billie who experience violence are left even more vulnerable: they can’t afford to leave abusive situations.

This past year, with stories of rape and abuse overtaking headlines, community mobilization around violence against women in Toronto reached a critical threshold, with passionate debates about the role of the justice system, mainstream media, and public education systems in responding to violence against women and girls. It’s time we add a critical examination of Toronto’s housing systems and policies to this discussion.

Not only are women overrepresented in social housing, but across the board, poverty in Toronto falls along lines of gender, race, geography, and disability, with Aboriginal people, racialized people, female lone parents, recent immigrants, and people with disabilities experiencing higher rates of poverty than the general population. Research has also shown that racialized women and immigrant women work for minimum wage far more often than the rest of the population does. It’s a cycle: as rent prices skyrocket, racialized women and other marginalized groups in Toronto are disproportionately shut out of the market. And unlike the uproar about home prices, there has been little discussion about the implications of unaffordable rent.

The combination of high rent and lower income does more than create economic instability for marginalized women: these conditions create vulnerability to violence. Although domestic violence happens across all races, cultures, and income levels, the high cost of rent in Toronto is an additional hurdle low-income women trying to escape abuse must overcome.

“Lack of affordable housing options is the number one reason women return to abusive relationships,” says Leila Sarangi, co-chair of the Violence Against Women Transitional Housing and Support Program Network in Toronto. According to Sarangi, lack of access to first and last months’ rent and lack of a credit history are also systemic barriers to accessing the private rental market. “The combination of these barriers and the high cost of rental markets means that many women who are living in abusive relationships either choose to stay, or become part of the hidden homelessness population,” she says.

In addition to making the rental market more accessible and increasing the social housing stock, more funding needs to be allocated to women’s shelters. On any given night in Canada, more than 300 women are turned away from shelters be cause they are full. The waiting list for social housing in Toronto is infamously long. Wait lists for free trauma counselling supports for survivors in Toronto remain just as long; many will have to wait at least six months to see a counsellor, if they’re not turned away altogether.

We also live in a culture that still tends to blame survivors for the violence that happens to them. A recent study by Interval House found that 37 per cent of Ontarians blame the victim for not leaving an abusive relationship, and 66 per cent of Ontarians believe that a woman can be “lying or exaggerating” if she reports that she is being abused.

But there have been gains made for women fleeing domestic violence. The practice of conditional permanent resident visas, which has been widely criticized for forcing immigrant women to live with a sponsoring partner for two years, is being revoked. Anyone in Ontario experiencing domestic violence can now access two hours of free emergency consultation with a lawyer.

There is movement in the housing landscape as well. Ontario’s new Long-Term Affordable Housing Strategy includes a $17-million investment in a portable housing benefit for domestic violence survivors to immediately find housing in their community; the project is currently being tested in three communities. Just two months ago, the Ontario government gave municipalities the power to implement inclusionary zoning, which makes it mandatory for new residential development projects to include a certain amount of affordable housing units.

What City Hall will do with these new powers remains to be seen.

As it stands, the unchecked rental market in Toronto acts as a barrier between survivors of domestic violence and safety. It’s high time we develop policies and city planning that opens those doors.

*Pseudonym has been used to protect identity.

If you are experiencing domestic violence or concerned about someone who is, there is help. In an emergency, please call 9-1-1. For other assistance, please call the Assaulted Women’s Helpline, Toll Free at 1.866.863.0511