#The Big Idea: Give essential workers cheap housing

Teachers, daycare workers, firefighters and nurses keep our cities running. Too bad most essential workers can’t afford to live in them.
A photo of a row of houses under construction. The sky above them is blue.

(Photograph by iStock)

Gregor Craigie is the host of CBC’s On The Island and author of Our Crumbling Foundation.

Essential workers—paramedics, teachers, nurses, daycare workers, firefighters—keep our country running. These are the people who the Toronto Board of Trade, in a recent report, called the “invisible backbone of our city.” And yet their wages are modest at best, far too low to keep up with the runaway housing markets in the cities they serve. In 2021, the Board of Trade co-produced a report with the social housing provider WoodGreen, estimating that 90,000 essential workers in Toronto earned between $40,000 and $60,000 a year—too much to apply for social housing, but too little to afford a decent place to live in a city that has become one of the priciest real-estate markets in the world. The idea behind essential-worker housing is simple: publicly supported homes for the people who provide these front-line services. “One in five Toronto renters live in overcrowded units, and nearly half of them spend more than a third of their income on rent,” reads the Board of Trade’s report. “If these trends continue, Toronto will follow San Francisco and New York as places where only a select class of professionals can afford to live.”

Of course, it isn’t just Toronto—not anymore. In Canada’s largest cities, at least, many essential workers have already left. In the past few years, Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver have lost more residents to smaller communities in their provinces, and to other provinces altogether, than they’ve gained from those sources. The only reason their populations are growing is immigration. Nearly 100,000 people left Toronto between the summers of 2021 and 2022. Montreal lost 35,000 residents, and 14,000 left Vancouver. And while people are decamping from our big cities, health-care workers are also quitting their jobs across Canada; Statscan reported 95,000 job vacancies in health occupations in 2023, more than double the number in 2020.  

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Consider Nicola Montgomery, a woman I met while researching my recent book, Our Crumbling Foundation: How We Solve Canada’s Housing CrisisMontgomery is a young registered nurse who relocated from Calgary to Toronto in 2021 for her partner’s new job. The couple flew to Ontario with a cat and a month-old baby in tow, then moved into a three-bedroom rental apartment in Mississauga. It costs $2,200 a month.“It’s very run down,” Montgomery told me. “The fire alarms go off three or four times a month randomly, so there are a lot of safety concerns. Plus, we have mice in our apartment. We keep trying to get rid of them, but we have no idea where they’re coming from, which makes us feel really dirty.” 

Buying a home was out of the question: the average price of condos in Toronto has recently shot above $700,000, and above $1.3 million for detached houses. “You’re looking at a house that might be $900,000 but it’s super run down, full of mould or just horrible. And you just basically have to gut it and start over,” said Montgomery. She and her partner abandoned the idea of homeownership and instead began scouring rentals ads. They applied for several places, only to lose out in bidding wars against other prospective tenants, some willing to pay hundreds of dollars above the asking price. 

Montgomery told me about other nurses she knows who’ve found side hustles. Some take shifts in plastic surgeon’s offices, giving Botox injections. Others work in real estate part-time. And though Montgomery is well aware of the irony of making money from a housing market that’s increasingly squeezing workers like her out of the communities where they work, she’s considered a similar career switch. (In the end, she stuck with nursing. “I love it too much,” she said.) 

Contrast Montgomery’s experience with that of another young Canadian essential worker. Emily Bere was in her 20s when she moved to the U.K. She found an apartment in London’s East End, living with roommates, and began working as a primary-school teacher. Bere became pregnant in 2006, a few years after she arrived in London, and her roommates told her she had to leave. On a teacher’s salary, there was no way to afford a one-bedroom apartment. (For context, in 2016, the mayor of London estimated the average London rent equated to 66 per cent of an average London nurse’s take-home wage, and that figure has only grown.) 

So Bere had a choice: to leave the job she loved (and leave London with one less teacher), or end up homeless. It was not really any choice at all. But after some digging around, she found a program known in Britain as key worker housing—programs specifically designed to help nurses, firefighters, police officers, teachers, paramedics, care aides and other people with essential jobs pay the rent. Another program offers subsidies to help key workers buy a portion of a home in a shared ownership arrangement between the worker and the government or a non-profit housing agency. Another offers rent-to-buy plans.

Bere applied for the simplest program, which set aside homes to rent at a below-market price. Because she was a teacher and pregnant, she shot to the top of the waiting list and got a two-bedroom flat, paying £450 per month—about one-third of a market-rate equivalent. She lived above a nurse and a firefighter and was a 10-minute bike ride from the school where she taught. After paying reduced rent for seven years, she managed to save enough for a down payment and bought the flat from the local council.

In Canada, most essential workers can only dream of such an arrangement—but the idea is gaining steam. The Toronto Board of Trade and Woodgreen are actively lobbying for it, calling on all levels of government to make major investments in workforce housing. This could take many forms, ranging from whole buildings of subsidized rental apartments reserved exclusively for essential workers to preferential loans and grants to help those workers buy their own homes. Various Canadian jurisdictions have taken baby steps along these lines. In Toronto’s Regent Park neighbourhood, an 11-storey co-op housing complex reserves apartments for members of a hospitality workers union. In Whistler, the municipally owned Whistler Housing Authority oversees a housing inventory, paid for by the builders and owners of resort properties, of more than 6,000 beds for local resort workers. And in Vancouver, the University of British Columbia has developed something similar by building more than 600 housing units that are rented to faculty and staff for 25 per cent below market rates. 

More like this is necessary, but it has to be done right: vulnerable employees whose employers are also their landlords might be at risk of exploitation. New immigrants may not raise concerns or ask for better pay for fear of losing their housing. They might also decline offers of better work for the same reason. Well-designed key worker housing programs will have clear rules laid out at the beginning, and many will allow people to stay in their homes after switching jobs if they work for a predetermined minimum length of time. Public-sector employers may be better suited to providing these programs, which are usually more regulated.

It isn’t a silver bullet. That’s evident in Britain, where key worker housing programs have been instrumental in retaining essential workers, but insufficient on their own to solve the country’s affordability crisis overall. But it’s a necessary step to keep our front-line workers in our communities—and keep the lights on in our daycares, hospitals and schools. 

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