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Anna-Kay Brown, vice-chair of the Jane and Finch Education Action Group, speaks at an event in her community on Sept. 2.

Yader Guzman/The Globe and Mail

In her home on Toronto’s Driftwood Avenue, Anna-Kay Brown has trouble finding some distance. “It’s a small apartment, and you’re not necessarily able to have space that is strictly yours for a moment,” she says.

Ms. Brown, a vice-chair of the Jane-Finch Education Action Group, shares her two-bedroom apartment with her husband and three children. And while they’re cramped, she says, they’re more comfortable than many of their neighbours in the city’s northwest. “It’s common to see two families living in one home,” she says. “You find people who are forced to live in a small unit, and there might be six or eight people living there.”

Data from the city and Statistics Canada, and assembled by the Centre for Urban Research at Ryerson University, bear this out. Ms. Brown’s is among a few Toronto neighbourhoods, largely in the city’s northwest, that have both high COVID positivity rates and high rates of “core housing need." That measure, developed by federal policy-makers, indicates that people are living without enough space, in a home that needs repairs and paying more in rent than they can afford.

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This pattern echoes those in other large cities, particularly Montreal. According to that city’s health agency, the low-income neighbourhood of Montréal-Nord has had the most cumulative cases of any borough.

In this, as in other ways, COVID-19 has highlighted existing inequities. Many of those hardest hit by the pandemic live in low-income and racialized communities, and many of the same people lack adequate access to housing. The connection between inadequate housing and the pandemic is clear among homeless and underhoused people, and Toronto – along with Vancouver and other cities – has responded with efforts to acquire and build deeply affordable housing.

The problem in communities such as Ms. Brown’s is more subtle. Even families like hers, whose income and housing are secure, don’t have space to maintain physical distance. “With three kids” – aged 2, 6 and 12 – “life can be overwhelming,” she says.

The coronavirus appears not to spread easily between neighbouring apartments. But in households with extended families and roommates, it’s more difficult to avoid contracting COVID-19 – especially if, like many apartment dwellers, you lack outdoor space and the ability to easily access fresh air.

Ms. Brown’s family is technically in core housing need, along with 36 per cent of households in her Black Creek neighbourhood. That’s considerably higher than the Toronto average. Across the city, according to a 2019 report to the City of Toronto, in 2018 there were 122,250 households in the private rental market with incomes below $30,000 who spent more than 30 per cent of their incomes on shelter.

As Ms. Brown suggests, this means many of those people are crowded. And they are therefore more vulnerable to catching or spreading the coronavirus.

Access to fresh air can mitigate the risk of transmission by reducing the concentration of virus in the air. In 1960s and 1970s apartment buildings like Ms. Brown’s, “the easiest way to do that is to open a window,” says Graeme Stewart of ERA Architects, who has worked extensively on retrofitting apartment towers like Ms. Brown’s. “The problem is that, in extreme weather conditions, it’s very difficult to do that and to stay comfortable.”

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The ventilation systems that were standard in buildings of that era are inferior to today’s standards, adds Cara Sloat, a building services engineer with Reinbold Engineering Group. They rely on a system of pushing air into the corridors of a building, under apartment doors, and out through bathroom and kitchen exhaust fans. There’s a risk that such systems may not be well maintained or even operating at all. “During COVID,” she says, “the question to ask is, did your building owner fix the equipment?”

If so, Ms. Sloat says, it is unlikely that apartment dwellers will catch COVID-19 from neighbours. “But you absolutely have to manage the risk within a suite and within a household,” she says.

In the first months of the pandemic, some commentators argued that high-density places – particularly New York – were especially vulnerable to the virus, often implying that apartment living was part of the problem. In fact, that notion has been widely discredited. “Living in a high-rise, based on what we know today, is not necessarily a high risk,” Ms. Sloat says.

But the particular challenges of apartment living can aggravate the risks of crowded housing.

As Ms. Brown points out, it’s difficult to separate housing from other risk factors, such as going to work in service or factory jobs. “I have a laptop job,” she says with a laugh, “but there are many people” – including her husband – “who do not.”

Illustration by Kathleen Fu

Then what lessons does COVID present for housing policy? Improving ventilation systems in older buildings is helpful, “and it’s also very valuable when people are sheltering in place,” says Mr. Stewart. Better air quality and more comfortable temperatures significantly improve people’s quality of life. “Being at home in a house with a backyard is very different than being at home when you’re three families sharing a two-bedroom apartment,” Mr. Stewart adds.

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Toronto’s public housing authority, which has its own set of 1960s and 1970s towers, is addressing these linked problems. “We consider these things from the point of view of tenant comfort and then energy savings,” says Noah Slater, director of capital planning, design and engineering at Toronto Community Housing Corp. The organization’s goal of resiliency, he says, also includes better amenities, making the buildings more pleasant and comfortable. “This all fits together with epidemic management,” he says.

In new or renovated housing, the technical problems associated with ventilation are easier to address. Ideally such housing should include systems that directly provide each suite, Mr. Slater and Ms. Sloat say, providing health and quality-of-life benefits. Access to outdoor space – even a balcony – is likewise valuable during this pandemic and afterward.

These factors shape the “tower renewal” efforts ERA have been pursuing with private and public landlords over the past decade, often in collaboration with Reinbold. One positive example is the Ken Soble Tower, a public seniors housing building in Hamilton. It’s getting new windows, extensive insulation and new mechanical systems that will bring fresh air into each individual unit. Additionally, the building’s common spaces, both indoor and outdoor, are being renovated. All this will provide a higher quality of life for residents, and make the community and the building better able to cope during extreme weather events or other adverse events – such as a pandemic.

All this would benefit tenants like Ms. Brown. But making it happen will take money. Same goes for fixing the most immediate problem. “The big challenge is affordability,” Ms. Brown says. “There needs to be much more building, and governments need to figure out how to provide good housing, not just adequate, to everyone who needs it.”


Toronto in focus: COVID-19 and housing need

Neighbourhoods hit the hardest by COVID-19 are low-income, largely racialized communities with high rates of “core housing need." That measure, developed by federal policy-makers, indicates that people are living without enough space, in a home that needs repairs, and paying more in rent than they can afford.

Percentage of households in each

Neighbourhood in core housing need

10

20

30

40%

Percentage of total city of Toronto cases

0.5

1.0

1.5

2.0

2.5%

Close-contact cases per 1,000 persons

5

10

Average income (thousands, 2015)

$75

$125

$200

$300

$500

Note: COVID-19 data as of Oct. 21.

MURAT YÜKSELIR / THE GLOBE AND MAIL, SOURCE:

THE CENTRE FOR URBAN RESEARCH AND

LAND DEVELOPMENT

Neighbourhoods hit the hardest by COVID-19 are low-income, largely racialized communities with high rates of “core housing need." That measure, developed by federal policy-makers, indicates that people are living without enough space, in a home that needs repairs, and paying more in rent than they can afford.

Percentage of households in each

Neighbourhood in core housing need

10

20

30

40%

Percentage of total city of Toronto cases

0.5

1.0

1.5

2.0

2.5%

Close-contact cases per 1,000 persons

5

10

Average income (thousands, 2015)

$75

$125

$200

$300

$500

Note: COVID-19 data as of Oct. 21.

MURAT YÜKSELIR / THE GLOBE AND MAIL, SOURCE:

THE CENTRE FOR URBAN RESEARCH AND

LAND DEVELOPMENT

Neighbourhoods hit the hardest by COVID-19 are low-income, largely racialized communities with high rates of “core housing need." That measure, developed by federal policy-makers, indicates that people are living without enough space, in a home that needs repairs, and paying more in rent than they can afford.

Percentage of households in each

Neighbourhood in core housing need

Percentage of total

city of Toronto cases

10

20

30

40%

0.5

1.0

1.5

2.0

2.5%

Average income (thousands, 2015)

Close-contact cases per 1,000 persons

5

10

$75

$125

$200

$300

$500

Note: COVID-19 data as of Oct. 21.

MURAT YÜKSELIR / THE GLOBE AND MAIL, SOURCE:

THE CENTRE FOR URBAN RESEARCH AND LAND DEVELOPMENT


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