Opinion: Why we need to talk about Kingston’s shared housing crisis

Editorial note: The following is a submitted op/ed article. The views and opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect those of Kingstonist.

When people talk about “affordable” housing, there are many levels of housing they might mean. For the wealthy, affordable housing is about the cost of buying a home for your nuclear family. For the poor – who are almost never centred in such discussions because, well, who cares about the poor? – affordable housing becomes a conversation about the cost of a room in a shared house.

Many people are too poor to afford their own studio or one-bedroom apartment. Ostensibly, university students can be counted in this group, though most are living in shared housing because they want the experience of living with their friends or because they don’t really care about where they live yet, rather than because they strictly can’t afford something better. The real groups that have to live in shared housing long term are those living below the poverty line on disability and welfare.

For those who depend on social supports, such as ODSP or Ontario Works, shared housing can be both a blessing and a curse, but here in Kingston, it’s virtually nonexistent in the shared housing formats seen in most cities. Photo by Andrea Piacquadio.

I used to live in Toronto, where people say rents are high. But in Toronto, it’s not hard to find a room in a shared house for $550/month in a decent neighbourhood. In Kingston, by contrast, you’d be lucky to find a room for that price in the worst neighbourhoods. And when the cost of transit is prohibitive and almost none of us own cars, your neighbourhood matters a great deal and ends up being where you have to spend most of your time. In the better neighbourhoods in Kingston, $750/month is more typical for a room, and rooms in shared houses can go as high as $900/month.

I live on disability because I am too disabled to work. On disability, one receives $1,169 per month, with $497 intended to be for housing. Of course, no one can manage on that, so a large part of your remaining $672 per month for everything else can end up going toward living in a crappy shared house in a place you had to take, dealing with too much noise and an utter lack of solitude and privacy. Add in housemate problems, ranging from having to be an unpaid maid to having to live in genuinely unsafe situations because the only alternative is leaving and becoming homeless, and the fact that you are paying 70 per cent of your income for such a place becomes more difficult to stomach.

And that’s if you find a place at all. Those with the privilege of not being intimately acquainted with Kingston’s shared-housing rental scene will quickly see, with a glance through Kijiji and Facebook Marketplace ads, that many of them say discriminatory things like “must be a student or working,” which is illegal yet common, and which leaves those on social assistance with nowhere to go. Throw pets into the mix, which most shared housing won’t allow (which is legal if there are tenant or landlord allergies), and losing your current place can easily result in homelessness. I, for example, will be losing my place in May, and after three months of checking all the new ads a few times a week and posting my own, I still haven’t found something suitable for my cats and me. I will have to begin homelessness planning in earnest in a couple of weeks if I haven’t found something, and a shelter isn’t an option when I have cats. When you’re at the bottom and you live in Kingston, it’s just that easy to get here.

Officially, social housing is the solution for people like me. Social housing, or rent-geared-to-income housing, gives discounted housing to those who couldn’t otherwise afford an apartment of their own. In Kingston, however, the wait list for social housing for a single person is about eight years.

I’m only six years in.

I chose to live in Kingston because I love being on the water. I like living in smaller cities and, unlike most small cities, Kingston is on a train and bus line. When my disability forced me to retire young, I chose Kingston to retire to.

Now, as the date of my move nears, I find myself considering the heartbreaking idea that Kingston is just too expensive for people like me — that perhaps if I went somewhere new, leaving behind all the people I care about here and giving up my hard-won spot on the social housing wait list, I might find a place we could afford somewhere else, a place where students don’t always get priority and where we might get a shot at a better life than what Kingston has to offer.

How little people on disability receive is the shame of the Ontario government. But Kingston’s shared housing crisis is its own unique problem, and so many of us are suffering here every day because of it.

At the very least, this city needs to own that.

Frances Koziar is a young (disabled) retiree and a social justice advocate who has lived in Kingston for the past five years. She also manages a few hours a week of writing and has published work in over 75 different literary magazines and outlets, including other poverty-awareness pieces in ‘Best Canadian Essays 2021’ and ‘CBC Opinion.’

Share your views! Submit a Letter to the Editor or an Op/Ed article to Kingstonist’s Editor-in-Chief Tori Stafford at [email protected].

2 thoughts on “Opinion: Why we need to talk about Kingston’s shared housing crisis

  • I so get it! I do not think the city owns all of the responsibility. The landlords should be taken to task too. Why buy a home above your financial means, then rent a room to pay part of your mortgage? But in so doing you price people out of a place to live. Why should a room be more that $500.00? It bogles my mind. Mary Ellen Hannah

  • Beautifully written article. Miigwetch for explaining the term “ social housing” so well. Kingston must insist all NEW housing developments MUST have 25% of units at affordable rental rates, not market rates, and be used first for social housing… I admit that I then sought out the author and read several of her stories. Wonderful work! – J Jerreat

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