Making progress on poverty


daniele-zanotti-2017Our guest blogger this week is Daniele Zanotti, President & CEO of United Way Greater Toronto. With more than 20 years of experience in the public and non-profit sectors, he has earned a reputation as an accomplished, strategic, and energetic leader. During his tenure, the organization has applied an increasingly regional lens to its work, collaborating with organizations and community partners in Peel, Toronto and York to fight local poverty in all its forms.

In 2008, something transformative happened in Ontario.  The provincial government introduced the Ontario Child Benefit, direct financial assistance to low-income families with children.  It was a cornerstone of the Poverty Reduction Strategy that was unanimously adopted by all three parties at Queens Park and supported by a wide network of community organizations across Ontario, including United Way. The OCB helped lift tens of thousands of children out of poverty at a time when the province was hit hard by one of the worst economic recessions in recent memory.  The OCB proved that when implemented right, bold policy and investments that put community at the heart of decision making can help build a stronger future.

Ten years later, the fight against poverty is still very much on.  Despite progress that has been made in reducing child poverty, much work remains to be accomplished.  Day after day, many community organizations are once again stepping up to raise their voices on the issues that matter to the residents they serve.  The movement is called Ontario for All – it has gained momentum across Toronto, Peel and York Region, and become a new front in the newly-merged United Way Greater Toronto’s fight against local poverty.  United Way has brought together many of its funded agencies and other community partners to work together on highlighting five priorities that are critical in creating an inclusive, connected and prosperous province where everyone belongs.  They are:

• Fully implement the Calls to Action of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission
• Build an economy with fair and equitable opportunities and decent work for all
• Create pathways out of poverty by ensuring that everyone has income security and the supports they need to live with dignity
• Ensure affordable, appropriate and safe housing is available to all
• Invest in inclusive, healthy communities with affordable and quality childcare and public education, pharmacare and dental programs, transit and transportation, and community programs and services

These five priorities have been shared with all four parties in Ontario, with the invitation for them to work with Ontario for All partners in including these in their election platforms.  But beyond helping to put a focus on poverty reduction during the campaign, this process has done something more powerful. It has built an uprising of care in neighbourhoods across the region, where at least 150 conversations have happened and more are underway. At least 80 organizations have endorsed the five priorities, and all political parties and their candidates are being encouraged to make poverty reduction a focus of their work.

United Way and many community organizations have co-created a plan to engage each other, their boards and staff, residents, volunteers, local election candidates and the media on why these five priorities are important for our communities.  So poverty reduction is making its way into agendas of board meetings, local resident circles, media interviews and online social media activity.

Because, our hope remains, any or all of these priorities could become the bold, transformative investments that the OCB was in 2008.  And that is one way to secure a brighter, more secure future for our communities.

Changemakers to watch: Hadley Nelles

Everyone deserves a safe, affordable place to call home. For Hadley Nelles, it’s this rallying cry and commitment to social justice that inspires her to work to tackle our city’s affordable housing crisis. In 2015, more than 82,400 individuals and families in Toronto found themselves waiting for affordable housing—with an average wait time of over eight years. Driven by skyrocketing rental rates and dwindling vacancies, it’s a crisis that won’t go away without community conveners like Hadley. She believes passionately (with the research to back her up) that a home is the foundation of a good life and a gateway to stability, security and opportunities that put people on the path to a better life.

WHO: Hadley helps spearhead affordable housing work across Toronto as Housing Initiatives Lead at Maytree, a foundation dedicated to advancing solutions to poverty. She’s also been a pivotal player in a number of other housing projects including the United Way-led National Housing Collaborative—a group of partners that help put policy into action so that people with all levels of income can find a suitable home, while also having a choice in their housing. She also co-launched an ideas incubator in the heart of Regent Park that helps community innovators tackle complex social issues like poverty and unemployment.

WHY: “Housing is essential for building healthy, productive lives and a key ingredient to strong communities,” says Hadley. “When we help people access affordable housing and strengthen community connections, neighbourhoods become more inclusive and resilient.” Hadley’s passion for making a difference, as well as her skills as a highly-effective partnership broker, is leading to real results in the housing sector. One of the secrets to her success? “Collaboration is key,” she says. “A big part of my job is working with individuals, organizations and government partners across numerous sectors and communities to look for durable solutions to affordable housing and poverty.” One example? She’s currently helping to guide the Tower Renewal Partnership. Funded and co-led by United Way—and informed by our research—the project aims to transform aging apartment towers in the inner suburbs—often in dire need of repair—into more affordable, livable and vibrant places to reside for people living on a low income. This includes giving high-rise communities more control over local development—bringing jobs, shops and services to neighbourhoods that need them most. Hadley is also making sure the voices of residents are being heard loud and clear. “Sustainable solutions come to light when we engage residents in the decision-making process,” she says. In fact, just this past year, Maytree partnered with United Way to convene conversations with residents to help inform Canada’s National Housing Strategy. “New forms of social policy, like advocating for a housing benefit that can support folks in their affordability gap, play an important part in achieving our goal.”

WHAT’S NEXT: With Hadley and the Partnership continuing to roll out renewal projects in Toronto and Hamilton, they’re looking for new collaborators that can broaden the scope of their work across the GTHA; their goal is to create even more on-the-ground “showcases” that demonstrate the benefits of keeping housing affordable and sustainable—for residents, developers and entire neighbourhoods. Maytree is also supporting housing advocates across the city to protect everyone’s right to housing. In Parkdale, for example, they’re working to keep the ever-evolving neighbourhood diverse and affordable.

Ask the Expert: Can we end poverty?


Daniyal Zuberi
RBC Chair & Associate Professor of Social Policy, 
University of Toronto

Daniyal Zuberi is the RBC Chair and Associate Professor of Social Policy at the Factor-Inwentash Faculty of Social Work and School of Public Policy & Governance at the University of Toronto. In 2015, he was elected to the College of New Scholars, Artists and Scientists of the Royal Society of Canada. He was previously the William Lyon Mackenzie King Research Fellow at Harvard University. His innovative social policy research has made important contributions to the study of urban poverty, inequality, health, education, employment and social welfare. He has authored three books and other publications that examine the impact of public policy on vulnerable and disadvantaged populations in Canada and the United States. Imagine a City spoke with Daniyal for our ‘Ask the Expert’ series to provide a big-picture lens on poverty across North America. 

1. What are some of the common drivers that contribute to poverty across North America, whether in Winnipeg or Washington?

adsc_5343Poverty in North America is multi-faceted, affecting many individuals, families, and communities. The real cause of poverty is the lack of income. Many people are working longer and harder simply to tread water, living only one or two missed paycheques away from major financial hardship. With the explosion of precarious employment, too many households struggle to balance work and family life requirements as individuals take on multiple jobs to make ends meet and deal with the stress and anxiety of supporting their families. A job is no longer enough and they struggle as the “working poor” trying to find affordable housing and childcare for their families.  For those unable to find work, they receive very limited support. Most of these individuals can’t access employment insurance benefits due to program restrictions. They join tens of thousands of others on wait lists for housing assistance and subsidized childcare as well as heavily-subscribed charitable programs such as food banks. Instead of helping and enabling these individuals and families, we trap them in poverty, failing to provide the training, support and education they need to upgrade their skills and find secure living-wage employment.

2. Discuss the recent U.S. election and how it has put a spotlight on the growing issue of rising income inequality.

The failure to adequately address the growing insecurity experienced by all too many North American households is one cause of the unexpected election outcome in the United States. Most of the economic gains over the past several decades have flowed exclusively to those at the top, especially in the U.S. Growing economic insecurity threatens social cohesion and people react to fears that their fortunes have stagnated, or that they’re falling behind. Countries that are more equal, or those with narrower income gaps, have much higher social development outcomes. Life expectancy is longer, infant mortality is lower, there is greater social trust, lower crime and incarceration rates, less mental illness and better health and educational outcomes. Importantly, there is also more equality of opportunity. One of the best ways to address growing inequalities is to support those struggling at the bottom of the socioeconomic hierarchy.


3. How have changing labour market conditions, including precarious employment, impacted poverty?

The changing labour market is a major contributor to growing poverty in North America. With a shift away from manufacturing to the service sector in a globalized economy, we’ve seen a rapid expansion of precarious employment including poverty wage, part-time, and insecure jobs that fail to lift individuals and families above the poverty line. Our employment protections and social welfare policies have failed to evolve to protect people from poverty in this new economy. When hours are cut or workers are laid off, many can’t receive support from employment insurance because they haven’t worked enough hours to qualify. It’s important to note that these changes do not affect all workers equally. Women and racialized minorities, especially new immigrants, are the most likely to work in these precarious jobs. They’re forced to make impossible tradeoffs between working extra hours, but spending more on childcare, paying for rent or food. This is true in both Canada and the United States.


4. Discuss the changing nature of poverty in North America and how it differs in urban, suburban and rural contexts.

Poverty exists in cities, rural areas, and suburban areas. Many of the causes and consequences of poverty in these three contexts are similar, but important differences also exist. For example, poor individuals and families in the suburbs are less visible. In Vaughan, a wealthy area in York Region, we see “hidden homelessness” where people are doubled or even tripled up living in other people’s basements. In suburban and rural areas, there are also problems with social isolation that also include greater challenges in terms of accessing transportation for services and employment opportunities. But the urban poor face some unique challenges too. Especially if high housing costs force them to live in stigmatized areas with high concentrations of poverty, where transit is less accessible, less frequent, and of poor quality. While it may be easier to access services for individuals living in urban neighbourhoods, living in a high poverty urban neighbourhood can also it make more difficult for a person to successfully obtain employment as a result of discrimination on the basis of ethnicity and postal code. It can also require coping with more challenges including violence and schools that lack resources to address the major challenges facing their student populations. Fundamentally, in urban, suburban and rural contexts, poverty comes down to a lack of resources.


5. Is there a single, best way to tackle poverty? If not, what are some common solutions we should be working towards?

No, I don’t think there’s a single solution. We need to continue to promote proactive policies and programs to prevent poverty and support struggling individuals and families. For example, we can raise social assistance rates to bring those households up above the poverty line. Expanding access to high-quality early childhood education will increase maternal employment and incomes by sending more mothers into the workplace, generating greater tax revenue and also reducing poverty. The research is clear that “housing first” and harm reduction approaches are far more effective than punitive measures to address problems such as homelessness and addiction. The latter results in an extremely expensive, reactive system where we end up spending more than required for policing, incarceration, hospitalization, and shelter services. We also need to focus on issues like raising the minimum wage, addressing a growing mental health crisis and providing individuals, including youth, with the training and support they need to find good jobs. Solutions at the local level are also important and include investments in high quality transit and community infrastructure. These include things like community hubs and health centres, parks, and community gardens that can really improve the quality of life for people in low-income neighbourhoods. These programs, along with significant policy reforms, could work together to reduce poverty quite dramatically.


6. What is the role of the non-profits like United Way in mitigating the effects of poverty?

We have a healthy and vibrant social services sector. We need to continue to build on that and expand it. United Way and other organizations do great work in providing services and supports for vulnerable and at-risk populations. United Way does a particularly great job of raising awareness of important issues like precarious employment through its research. It also brings together coalitions to mobilize, to advocate for policy reforms and new programs and to fundamentally address some of the root causes of poverty with the goal of eradicating it.

7. Can we end poverty?

Absolutely, yes. Fundamentally we have to understand that we can end poverty if we have the political will. There are many places in the world—including Scandinavian countries—that have largely eliminated poverty. But it’s still extremely rare. Canada has done a lot more in terms of supporting those living on a low income and reducing poverty compared to the United States where we’ve seen a lot of cutbacks and a really rapid increase in deep poverty. Although there is a long way to go, I don’t think we should ever lose hope. I think, in fact, this is an important reminder why this work is so tremendously important. We can’t stop fighting to improve the quality of life for people living in poverty.  One of my friends is a congressman in the United States and he recently sent out an email with Dr. Martin Luther King’s message: “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.”

ICYMI: 3 must-read blog posts

We wanted to send a special shout-out to you, all of our loyal blog readers, for continuing to visit Imagine a City to learn more about the social issues that matter most. We know you’re busy…so we’ve put together a list of some of our most popular blog posts over the last year. Happy reading!

What is hidden homelessness?

When most of us think of homelessness, we picture people living on urban streets or spending their days and nights in temporary shelters. In Toronto, for example, some 5,000 people find themselves without a place to live on any given night. But homelessness isn’t just a “big city” issue. In York Region, poverty is often hidden. This means some individuals “couch surf” with friends or neighbours, while others—many who are newcomers—are forced to double or even triple up with relatives just to make ends meet. Check out this post to learn more about this important issue from homelessness expert Dr. Steven Gaetz.


5 Women who inspire us

For International Women’s Day 2016, we put together a list of inspirational women who are changing lives and making our communities better places to live. From a Canadian senator who’s championing the rights of newcomers to a 13-year-old philanthropist and Richmond Hill resident who is creating big change in the world of charitable giving and social justice, we dare you not to be inspired!


What if you had to choose? 

Imagine having to choose between eating or keeping a roof over your head? Or what would you do if staying home to care for your sick child could cost you your job? In this eye-opening blog post, we introduced readers to some of the daily, harsh realities faced by 1 in 4 adults in Toronto and 1 in 8 people in York Region who live in poverty. Missed the post? Test out our digital poverty simulator, Make the Month, here.

Looking beyond our borders for solutions to affordable housing

By Pedro Barata, VP, Communications & Public Affairs and John Brodhead, Executive Director, CityWorks


Housing affordability is key to city livability. With average monthly rent for a two-bedroom apartment spiking to $1,800 and over 78,000 households currently on the city’s social housing waiting list, calling Toronto home is becoming more difficult. And not only for low-income residents. Modest and middle-income families, too, are increasingly feeling the squeeze of stagnating incomes outstripped by the rising cost of living. The GTA Housing Action Lab is a collaborative working group bringing together diverse partners on the housing front, including United Way Toronto & York Region and Evergreen CityWorks to help move the affordable housing agenda forward.  This summer, we ventured to New York City to search for creative solutions to Toronto’s affordable housing crisis.

Here are five things we learned:

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio recently launched a 10-year affordable housing strategy to address significant housing challenges—median apartment rents that rose by 75% between 2000 and 2012 and the loss of 400,000 affordable apartments in the same period, to name a few. A closer look at New York’s game plan promised to inform and inspire our own way forward.

1. Champions with ambitious plans will create results

During his campaign, Mayor de Blasio heard about housing issues in every community. Since taking office, he’s made it his signature initiative, focusing on affordability for low, modest and middle income families. He’s set bold targets—200,000 affordable units in 10 years—to rally other stakeholders around an affordable housing strategy. And that rallying cry has ensured that housing has become a cross-agency concern, bridging jurisdictions from education and children’s services to libraries, parks and transportation.

2. There’s no one silver bullet to creating affordable housing.

Affordable housing is a large and complex issue. In New York, where the New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA), the city’s largest landlord, is responsible to 400,000 residents, 176,000 households and 110,000 kids, they’ve looked for solutions across sectors. They’re balancing new builds with preservation of existing units—indeed, over half of the city’s target focuses on preservation of aging and affordable rental, mostly in the private sector. Public lands and assets are being leveraged, while private sector engagement requires the support of a clear development process and fair and predictable incentives. And various measures such as tax benefits and rent supplements play a role. Hudson Properties is just one developer that has truly embraced the city’s incentives to build new affordable units through inclusionary housing policy.

3. Partnerships are key to success.

Cities can’t tackle the challenges of affordable housing alone. They need developers and not for profits to help keep driving that agenda forward. In fact, municipal investment in NYC to the tune of $8 billion over 10 years is expected to leverage $41 billion from the private sector. State and federal governments also play a large role in funding building and housing supplements in both the private and social housing sector. And fundamental to any success, of course, is building on the interests and insights of residents. After all, it’s not just about housing; it’s about creating communities. Getting locals involved and giving them the tools to be part of the project is essential. Grassroots community group Women’s Housing and Economic Development Corporation (WHEDco) in the Bronx is just one example of an organization whose efforts are contributing to a vibrant and healthy community.

4. Housing strengthens local economies.

Construction and preservation of 200,000 housing units is expected to generate 194,000 construction jobs and over 7,000 permanent jobs targeted to the city’s employment initiatives. And at the New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA), where almost 25% of the employees are residents, they’re now planning to double the number of employees working on greening initiatives from 2,000 to 4,000.












5. Be persistent.

New Yorkers across the affordable housing sector showed us that they don’t give up in the face of major challenges. They’re energized and ready to find solutions. And that perseverance is taking them where they want to go. Already in the first year of this massive undertaking, 17,376 units have been funded. The Via Verde Project in the South Bronx illustrates how this new approach is taking root and transforming a great city to make it a better home for all.

The visit to New York offered some great lessons for the City and Region on how to tackle this important challenge. Fortunately, there seems to be a renewed energy behind Toronto’s affordable housing agenda. Just as the provincial government wrapped up public consultations for their Long-Term Affordable Housing Strategy, Toronto City Hall introduced its new ‘Open Door’ approach to fast-track building of affordable housing.

The opportunity is in front of us, but we must take it.

Bringing home solutions for affordable housing


Pedro BarataOur guest blogger this week is Pedro Barata,Vice President of Communications and Public Affairs at United Way Toronto. He has experience working within, and across, a variety of settings: from community-based organizations, to strategic philanthropy, and various levels of government.

The conversation about affordable housing is not new to Torontonians. But some of us might be surprised to learn that there are residents in our city who wait almost 10 years before being offered an affordable home.

According to the Ontario Non-Profit Housing Association’s annual report, the province’s wait lists grew by more than 6,600 households to a record 165,069 in 2013. This is the largest single-year increase since 2010.

It’s time for a fresh approach. The GTA Housing Action Lab is an initiative of Evergreen CityWorks that brings together a number of partners across a variety of sectors, including United Way Toronto, to build a more sustainable, affordable and equitable housing system.

By working together to find common ground among our collective programs, policies and practices, the GTA Housing Action Lab aims to create:

  • Programs and policies that support the affordability of housing to ensure residents of all incomes have the best chance to live in a suitable home and have a choice in their housing.
  • A more sustainable housing system in the region by increasing public support for intensification, awareness of the benefits of complete communities, and policies that support creative infill in our urban centres and a connected region.
  • A policy and regulatory framework that encourages diversity in form and tenure, intensification and affordability and creates incentives aligned with the needs of the residents of the region while creating an economically-viable housing sector.


    Ed Clark, former President and CEO of TD Bank Group, is calling for leadership from all sectors to put affordable housing on the public policy radar.

Innovative approaches to affordable housing require leadership and collaboration from multiple partners. At a forum convened by the GTA Housing Action Lab on November 19, former President and Chief Executive Officer of TD Bank Group Ed Clark, added his voice to the conversation.

Clark called for leadership from all sectors to put affordable housing on the public policy radar. He talked about the need to support innovative and new approaches to old problems and pointed to the role that non-profit organizations and programs can play in this respect.

Habitat for HumanityEgaleWoodgreen’s Homeward Bound and United Way’s Toronto Enterprise Fund are demonstrating concrete ways in which we can help break the cycle of poverty and take a holistic, collaborative approach to addressing not just the symptoms of poverty—but the root causes.

Hopefully, this will inspire public policy support to scale these examples to the benefit of more and more people.

Bringing home solutions for affordable housing is a complex issue that won’t be solved overnight. But as Ed Clark says, “No one should sleep on a slab of cement.”

And change is up to all of us.



An Innovative Path to Supportive Housing

Our guest blogger this week is Steve Lurie, the Executive Director of the Canadian Mental Health Association in Toronto, a post he has held since 1979. Steve mhc june 2011has played an integral role in the development of mental health policy both in Canada and abroad, writing and lecturing extensively. Notable contributions include principal authorship of Ontario’s Graham Report, Building Community Support for People (1988), technical assistance to the Senate Committee Report, Out of the Shadows At Last: Transforming Mental Health and Addiction Services in Canada (2006) and chairing the Service Systems Advisory Committee of the newly-established Mental Health Commission of Canada in 2007. Recently awarded the Canadian Mental Health Association’s CM Hincks award for national leadership in mental health, he shares his knowledge and expertise with students at the University of Toronto Faculty of Social Work where he is now an adjunct professor.

In his in-depth study of Toronto, The 3 Cities within Toronto, Income Polarization, international housing and neighbourhood expert David Hulchanski shows that Toronto is at risk of becoming a third-world city, where only a fortunate few enjoy prosperity, while the majority experience increasing poverty. Access to safe, affordable housing is recognized as an essential part of poverty reduction. Yet for the vulnerable group of people living with mental illness compounded by histories of homelessness, ensuring housing opportunities is particularly difficult. Today the situation is dire. People are often discharged from hospitals and safe bed facilities to homeless shelters or the streets. With a wait list for supportive housing at 8,000 and no increase in rent supplement funding in almost 10 years, current practice is not resulting in solutions.

In 2013, the Mental Health Commission report Turning the Key: Assessing Housing and Related Supports for Persons Living with Mental Health Problems and Illness identified the need for at least 100,000 new supportive housing units across the country to support 120,000 homeless and 520,000 people vulnerably housed and living with mental illness. Following the report’s release, a group of supportive housing providers partnered with MaRS Discovery District to investigate the opportunities to leverage private capital and impact investing to respond to this need. Together, we produced a report, Blended Financing for Impact: The Opportunity for Social Finance in Supportive Housing, with case studies exploring the potential of this approach.

It shows that housing is a good investment and that the social finance marketplace will grow from $3 billion to $30 billion over the next 10 years.

The message is clear that there is money available to finance new construction. However, a challenge remains: finding a way to ensure that rent and operating costs are covered either by government or philanthropy.

With this in mind, funding was received from United Way to study the feasibility of using a Social Impact Bond (SIB) for this purpose. Essentially, SIBs generate private investment to fund social programs, with governments providing repayment for successful programs that ultimately result in cost savings.

We are now building a model for an SIB using costing from the Mental Health Commission project National At Home/Chez Soi. This project was integral in proving the value of investing in housing and services, not only in cost reductions to the health and justice systems, but also in producing better social outcomes. Indeed, it is in meeting such long-term goals that the SIB offers the greatest potential benefit. While the At Home/Chez Soi findings did show a substantial cost savings was realized with high service users—an average savings of $23,000 per person—the achievement of 70% housing stability for SIB participants compared to about 30% for those in the control group is particularly promising.

The other significant issue is scale. 10,000 supportive housing units and support services would cost $3 billion over 5 years if capital costs were included and $954 million if costs were restricted to services and rent supplements. It remains to be seen what size of investment the private sector would support and what size governments would back.

Stay tuned. Our report will be available in August.