Deadline extended for thousands of Toronto residents to sign up for online affordable housing portal
Roughly 33,000 Torontonians in need of affordable housing have been granted a reprieve after concerns were raised about people losing their spot on the rent-geared-to-income (RGI) wait list if they didn’t sign up for the city’s new online system by the end of the month.
On Thursday morning, the city’s Planning and Housing Committee voted unanimously in favour of supporting a motion by chair Coun. Gord Perks to re-evaluate several changes to the RGI application system, most notably moving the Sept. 30 MyAccesstoHousingTO registration deadline to Jan. 31, 2024.
The committee’s decision comes after advocates and community members spoke out about their concerns with the changes to the RGI application system.
Earlier this week, the Shelter and Housing Justice Network (SHJN) and Toronto Citizens Collective issued an “urgent call to action” asking people to contact the city’s Housing and Planning Committee to demand that it put a stop to them, which they said “directly harm unhoused people and exacerbate the housing and homelessness emergency.”
The groups called for an immediate retraction of the Sept. 30 deadline and that it not be reinstated until the city has “clear infrastructure in place to effectively transition the many existing RGI applicants to the online system, including the 34,000 applicants on the waitlist who have not yet registered.”
In his motion, Perks recommended that the online system, as well as the process to transition people to it, be compliant with the Ontario Human Right Code and take a human rights approach to housing as described in the Toronto Housing Charter and the city’s Digital Infrastructure framework be taken.
The motion called for council’s endorsement of a two-year grace period for non-registered individuals so that the day on which they last applied for RGI housing is maintained. Perks’ motion also included a provision to extend this timeframe, as needed, so that no one seeking and entitled to RGI housing loses their spot on the waiting list.
It also recommended that adequate resources and staffing be put in place to help RGI waitlist applicants transition the new system and that additional training be made available for the shelter and outreach workers who help them.
Lastly, the motion requested considering if more staff should be installed at city’s Application Support Centre to reduce wait times and “effectively” support applicants, and that funding needed to do that be set aside in the 2024 budget.
“I’ve conferred with that staff (that) all of this is do-able and I want to be clear, most of this is work that the mayor has suggested that we go and do because she, too, has heard the outcry,” Perks told the committee.
He went on to say that Toronto “lost a generation’s work” when the federal and provincial governments “essentially stepped out of the housing game” in the 1990s, and that the consequences of that are being felt today.
“All you have to do is look at one of the downtown parks in the city of Toronto where despite living in one of the wealthiest places in human history, there’s somebody living in a tent,” Perks said. He referenced the “anguish” heard in the deputations made at the committee from people struggling to “navigate a way in to a housing system that is absolutely overburdened” as well as from those with an annual household income of $100,000 who “cannot make it without some form of public support for housing.”
One item advocates also said they would like to see is an appeals process for anyone removed from the RGI waitlist. They asked that it be developed and implemented clearly and fairly, and in a well-communicated way.
Greg Cook, an outreach worker at Sanctuary Ministries and a steering committee member with the Shelter and Housing Justice Network, stands next to the Toronto Homeless Memorial.
“There are a lot of holes in this new system. … It further marginalizes unhoused and very low-income people,” SHJN member Greg Cook told CP24.com on Wednesday evening.
“It’s very clear that whoever designed the new system, that none of the people involved have ever experienced homelessness or have never been poor, for that matter. … It raises a lot of barriers and I think that the people who designed it don’t have that in mind.”
A long-time outreach worker in downtown Toronto who works directly with highly vulnerable people, Cook raised concerns about the new system’s “digital divide” as many of the community members he serves don’t have consistent access to a cell phone or internet.
He spoke about the new choice-based system where applicants select the buildings where they want to live and have just one opportunity to accept or reject the unit they’re offered or be removed from the list.
Cook further noted that the City of Toronto should have re-evaluated its Sept. 30 transition deadline back in June with the auditor general noted that more than half of the people on the existing RGI waiting list hadn’t moved over to the new system.
He said that losing a spot on the affordable housing list can mean “life or death for tens of thousands of people” and that a clear appeals process for reinstatement must be put in place.
“All of this just breaks trust in the system. It seems very arbitrary,” he said.
Other challenges raised by the groups include the lack of proper training for frontline workers like city staff, shelter providers, and library workers, and that not enough resources in general are being dedicated to assist people in signing up for and navigating this new and more complex online system, which requires applicant to re-upload all required documents. They said that this is resulting in the city not being able to meet the “service demand” and is causing callers seeking help to have to wait up to two hours to speak with someone, adding that the call-back feature is not practical for those without access to a phone or for providers making multiple calls.
Lastly, advocates charged that there has been an insufficient effort to reach the “most vulnerable applicants on the RGI waiting list as letters are “likely not reaching people who have moved in the many years that they have been waiting, or who have no fixed address.”
Community advocate and former Youth South-Weston MPP Faisal Hassan has been sharing information and outlining his concerns about the changes to the RGI application system on social media in recent weeks.
He told CP24.com that he sees a number of inequities with the changes, especially for elderly people, those who are non-literate, and those who face language barriers.
Hassan said more “out of the box”’ efforts must be made to let applicants know what is expected of them, including better multilingual outreach and support directly in the community.
“To lose a spot on this list, it would be devastation for many,” said Hassan, a former frontline worker for people experiencing homeless or at risk of it.
“There are opportunities to do the right things. … Digitizing this system isn’t a bad thing, but it takes time to get people moved over.”
TORONTO WORKING FOR 2 YEARS TO TRANSITION APPLICANTS
The City of Toronto has been working since June 2021 to get the roughly 85,000 applicants on its Centralized Waiting List (CWL) to register and activate their account online, said spokesperson Diala Homaidan.
She told CTV News Toronto that they’ve done five mailout campaigns and have been calling applicants’ listed phone numbers. They’ve also sent out robocalls to households who haven’t been in contact with the city’s Access to Housing team in two to four years.
“If City staff cannot contact applicants, we cannot support them to access housing,” Homaidan said, noting RGI applicants on the CWL must complete an annual review and provide up-to-date contact information among other things.
Anyone who is removed from the list has 24 months to rejoin, she noted, and maintains their original application date.
This “robust,” multilingual awareness campaign has been running since August, Homaidan said.
“In addition to multi-lingual automated outbound calls (robocalls) to unregistered applicants and their alternative contacts, the campaign includes 100 bus shelter ads across the city, multi-lingual community newspaper ads and social media ads,” she said.
“These tactics are in addition to ongoing technology adoption campaigns since July 2021, where the City conducted five letter campaigns through Canada Post, telephone surveys, registration clinics and workshops, and granted system access to more than 800 shelter and community partner agency staff in order to provide support to RGI applicants.”
More details about the MyAccesstoHousingTO portal can be found online or by calling the city’s Application Support Centre at 416-338-8888. In-person appointments can also be booked at the Housing Resource Centre at 176 Elm St.
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