Toronto’s essential workers earn between $40,000 to $60,000 but can’t afford to live here

Tess Kalinowski
Rechev Brown

Mon., Nov. 30, 2020

Grocery clerk Rechev Browne is a pandemic hero, an essential worker who can’t afford to live in the city he serves.

He earns about $44,000 a year at an Etobicoke store.

Last December, Browne, 34, decided he could no longer afford to pay $1,150 a month to share a house with three other people. So he has moved back in with his mom in a two-bedroom apartment near Keele St. and Wilson Ave.


“It’s way cheaper for us this way,” he said.

But his 15-minute bike commute is now a 90-minute bus trip to work. When he boards the bus at 5 a.m., he says it is packed “like sardines” with people of colour — folks like him who can’t risk being late for work.

Browne is profiled in a new report by the Toronto Region Board of Trade (TRBOT) and WoodGreen Community Services, one of the city’s largest providers of affordable housing. Published Monday, “Housing a Generation of Essential Workers Modelling Solutions,” looks at what it will take to build housing that is affordable for workers like him.

Browne told the Toronto Star that early in the pandemic he wasn’t allowed to wear a mask at work in case it panicked customers. In the report, he says COVID-19 has made life more complicated in other ways.


“You’re working harder but you’re not making more money … It’s beyond you, it’s just the housing market and how expensive it is. Housing prices aren’t going down during COVID. In some cases, they’re actually going up,” he said.


He also talks about the systemic racism that makes it difficult for him to find housing even though he has good credit.

Toronto has long focused on housing for its most economically challenged residents. But the conversation is expanding to incorporate the next tier of workers, people who earn too much to qualify for TCHC housing, but too little to afford market prices.

The board of trade calculates there are about 330,000 workers in Toronto earning between $40,000 and $60,000 a year. About 90,000 of those perform essential jobs.

“The COVID-19 pandemic has laid bare just how much our city — and our world — depends on these key workers such as nurses, shelter staff, custodians, transit operators and restaurant workers,” says the report.

The second of three papers called, “Housing a Generation of Essential Workers,” it is designed to spur action among all three levels of government, institutions and the private sector, said Craig Ruttan, TRBOT director of policy.

“With the right land solution and the right partners at the table we can build a lot more housing without the need for a lot more government funding,” he said. “It’s not just a civic duty around ensuring our society remains vibrant and all the people working have a chance to live here. It also makes economic sense in terms of having mixed income communities that are vibrant and they create stronger societies.”


To build a diverse mix of housing — Toronto has committed to building 40,000 new rentals by 2030 — the city will have to leverage government-owned land because that cost is the biggest barriers to creating affordable homes, says the report.

Another challenge is the “scaleability” of housing projects — building enough units to make the projects economically viable.

“We’re pushing for density and scale because that’s the only way we’re going to meet these targets for 2030,” said Ruttan.

But that can be controversial. Neighbourhood objections to big housing projects can add costs by lengthening approval times. The higher cost of construction means that some housing models that worked in the past would no longer be affordable now. The report provides the example of the Local 75 Hospitality Workers’ Housing Co-op with 85 units. Built in 2010, it likely couldn’t be replicated because of the increase in hard construction costs.

“A mid-density affordable housing project in downtown Toronto is no longer financial viable,” says the report. “A similar project in 2020 would need to be at least 50 per cent larger to meet construction financing thresholds.”

But that doesn’t mean highrise homes are the only option, said Ruttan, citing opportunities to add “gentle density” to Toronto’s Yellowbelt — mature neighbourhoods that have been zoned for single-family housing but are being opened to secondary suites and small multi-unit residences.

Still, he said, “On government owned sites we’re leaving a lot of housing on the table if we don’t build the kind of density those sites support.”

The report also considers the possibilities for shared equity financing models that open up the potential for home ownership among some of these workers. It points to non-profit developer Options for Homes that provides condos to middle-income households that can come up with 5 per cent toward a down payment.

Habitat for Humanity is also building “modified equity” models that benefit the home’s occupant but allow a non-profit to re-buy the place when the owner moves on, retaining it as affordable housing.

COVID has upended a lot of things, said Ruttan.


“We have to have a vibrant, functioning city. The people we’re talking about in this report will always have frontline jobs to do even as the city transforms,” he said. “Planning solutions that work for them are one of the smartest and safest plans we can make in housing in the city right now.”

The first report by the board of trade and WoodGreen, released early this year, looked at defining the problem of affordability in the city. The next will look at the cost of failing to address the problem.