“Who is John Galt?”
The Toronto Star ran a heartbreaking article on Friday, February 26 entitled “Months to live, but a longer wait for housing.” Part human interest story about 41-year-old terminal abdominal cancer victim Lisa De Medeiros, a single mother of a young son and a teenage daughter, part statistical nightmare about affordable housing in Toronto (and Canada as a whole, really), I felt compelled to write something on the subject, if not for the moral imperative then for my mother, who for decades has fought for greater funding to be directed towards rent-geared-to-income housing in this grossly overpriced city.
In Toronto, there are currently 95,280 households (or 238,200 people according to the latest Stats Can numbers) on the two-bedroom waiting list for subsidized housing. However, the city has only 70,000 units to go around, so the length of time someone has to wait for one of these units is, on average, 8.5 years.
Not months. YEARS, baby!
There is one exception (in theory), however. Victims of domestic abuse and the terminally ill shoot to the top of Housing Connection’s list. The average wait time for a two-bedroom unit for these people is said to be 9 months, but that’s a load of hooey. De Medeiros applied two years ago and has still not been accepted. Is Housing Connection, caretakers of Toronto’s social housing wait list, an evil empire of doom? No. The mortifying reality is that they could only move in 145 households last year and – even more horrifying – there were “emergency” applicants on the list who had been waiting longer and/or had a more severe situation than De Medeiros.
Toronto has built 2,848 affordable housing units over the last five years, about 570 units a year for a city with 2.6 million people, or roughly one new unit for every 4,500 Torontonians annually. Compare that with the more than 80,000 private condos waiting to be built/waiting for approval from Toronto City Council.
Here’s the real problem: Approximately 604,000 of us in Canada’s wealthiest city live at or below the poverty line ($18,759). Put another way, 23% of Toronto citizens are poor and the city has enough rent-geared-to-income units to accommodate 7% of the city’s households (not individuals). Furthermore, according to the City of Toronto Urban Development Services, Toronto’s population is expected to grow more than 15% by 2031, while the population of the GTA is forecast to grow about 35%, to 7.45 million.
It’s not much better at the provincial or federal levels. Ontario’s population is 13.6 million and cities and towns around the province have built a meager 18,030 subsidized housing units over the last 10 years, or 1 home for every 7,500 Ontarians a year. Perhaps the most troubling statistic is at the federal level. In the Netherlands, 33% of all homes are subsidized. In England, that number is 17%. In Canada, the second largest country in the world, one of the world’s wealthiest nations, and a land blessed with much bounty and seemingly infinite natural resources, 5% of homes are subsidized nationally.
Today, Doris Riker, the mother of Lisa De Medeiros, has raised a thought-provoking point in her ongoing letter campaign to officials, the mayor’s office and her local MPP: “If they can help find all these Syrian refugees find affordable apartments, why can’t they help my daughter find one?”
Indeed, while we (the “haves” Canadians) like to pat ourselves on the back for being such kind, gracious global citizens when it comes to assisting refugees, the rest of us (the “have-nots”) can’t help but sit back and wonder, Why are we spending an estimated $678 million over six years on the expected 25,000 Syrian refugees to Canada when we can’t even properly care for our own nationals? Is a feather in our political cap on the international stage worth more than providing adequate housing – a basic human necessity and integral element to our dignity – to the 4.9 million Canadians who currently live in poverty?
In Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged, a novel as controversial in many ways as our housing policies, the story opens with the American economy falling apart and workers being laid off in staggering numbers. Just as worrisome, the country’s brightest lights and top talent are literally disappearing, one by one, and crippling the fields of commerce, science, and the arts. Not long after the brain drain begins and the impending demise of the American economy looms morbidly on the horizon, a phrase starts creeping into the lexicon of people’s everyday banter: “Who is John Galt?”
It’s almost used in a pejorative way:
A: “The economy’s going down the crapper, eh, Billy Bob?”
B: “Yeah, but who is John Galt?” (i.e. Yeah, and what the hell are we supposed to do about it, genius?)
As Dagny Taggart, the novel’s heroine, opines, there’s a tangible despair that John Q. Public feels and ultimately expresses through this apparently banal – and unanswerable – question. Yet those four words still manage to capture the hopelessness of a bitter, frustrated society.
It’s only later in the novel that we learn there really is a John Galt, the “invisible everyman” floating undetected throughout society, and he has been spearheading the brain drain since establishing his utopian home of Atlantis, a remote valley where the country’s smartest, most gifted minds now live in a valley somewhere deep among the Rockies in an effort to escape the incompetent and dictatorial government they don’t wish to live under any longer.
And that brings us to our present housing dilemma in Canada, especially in the country’s most populous city. Is there any chance that we will have the foresight and compassion to provide affordable accommodation to our poorest citizens?
Perhaps that question is best answered by Lisa De Medeiros, who has been forced to leave her current apartment because the landlord wants it for his own use and will, 12 days from now, on March 10, 2016, be homeless. As the terminal inflammatory fibrosarcoma mother of two put it, “By the time I get affordable housing, I’ll be dead.”
Let’s pray the answer to the above question lies not in the rhetorical nature of the former Atlas Shrugged parable, but in the hope offered in the latter one, a scenario whereby society’s wealthiest and most intellectually able can come together to find a solution to our present-day subsidized housing quandary – and not in the middle of nowhere, but in cities and towns across our great country.