Overcrowded housing is a systemic barrier to the right to housing

March 18, 2021

One year ago, when the COVID-19 outbreak began, the World Health Organization urged all governments to implement comprehensive measures and recommendations for testing, contact tracing, physical distancing, and quarantining. Despite these calls, thousands of residents in overcrowded homes in Canada have been unable to safely quarantine or physically distance themselves from those who share their living space, putting everyone under these roofs at greater risk of contracting the virus.

While the negative impacts of living in overcrowded housing have been exacerbated by the pandemic, decades of unaffordable housing and poverty have been the main drivers leading people to double-up and crowd in together. Overcrowding is a symptom of what happens when the provision of rental housing is left to the private market, and the failure of our governments to ensure that the right to housing is realized for all people in Canada.

The housing affordability crisis that is driving overcrowded conditions and, as a result, increased exposure to a highly contagious and deadly virus is another systemic violation of the right to housing.

What is an overcrowded home?

The United Nations defines an overcrowded housing unit as having the density of three or more persons situated per room under any circumstance. The Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation (CMHC) defines it in terms of whether a unit is ‘suitable’ to live in according to the National Occupancy Standard (NOS) which sets out a specific number of bedrooms corresponding to the size and make-up of residents in a household, as well as the level of affordability of an accommodation.

The NOS requirement is one bedroom for:

  • each adult couple
  • each single household member 18 years old and over
  • a same-sex pair of children under age 18
  • an additional boy or girl in the family, unless there are two opposite sex children under 5 years, in which case they are expected to share a bedroom

CMHC identifies the failure to meet these requirements, along with any major repairs needed, as an indication of unsuitable housing and core housing need. Given the scale at which overcrowding exists in Canada, as well as the people who are disproportionately impacted – low-income and racialized individuals – it is also a systemic barrier to the right to housing.

What is the ‘right to housing’ and what are ‘systemic barriers’?

Under international human rights law, the ‘right to housing’ is recognized as the right of every person to a safe and secure home where they can live in security, peace and with dignity. A set of standards have also been recognized to ensure that a home is adequate for its inhabitants, including that it is affordable, secure, habitable, accessible, close to services, in an acceptable location, and culturally appropriate.

All of these standards apply to housing in Canada. The National Housing Strategy Act recognizes that housing is a human right, however this right has yet to be realized for many people across the country. Several groups of people face similar housing challenges, not because of their individual circumstances, but because they stem from the same root causes. These are ‘systemic barriers’, and the unaffordability of housing that causes overcrowding is one of the main barriers to realize the right to housing in particular for marginalized, low income and racialized households.

Unaffordable housing is a leading cause of overcrowding

Across Canada, housing unaffordability and poverty remain the leading causes of overcrowded housing.

Between 2018 and 2019, average rental prices across Canada sprung up 3.9% for 2 bedroom apartments, which is the minimum size for a family. The average price for a family-sized apartment now starts at $2,416 in major cities like Toronto and in 2018 Statistics Canada reported that 20% of rental households in Toronto lived in overcrowded conditions. On average, only 7% of households in the lowest income bracket are able to find rental housing that they can afford.

Marginalized families who are financially strapped resort to living in multi-generational households with relatives, and statistics show that this is the reality for many racialized new-comers and Indigenous communities. This trend is especially acute in Toronto where there are three times as many racialized individuals living in overcrowded housing as compared to non-racialized individuals.

The pandemic has also added new challenges for individuals who live in overcrowded housing, as positive COVID-19 rates have been four times higher in neighborhoods with high levels of overcrowding.

Overcrowded housing is compounding the COVID-19 public health crisis for marginalized individuals

In densely populated areas where the rent is very high, many residents – especially those with lower income – have limited housing options that they can afford, forcing some to seek smaller and cheaper places to live by doubling up and crowding into homes that are already at capacity. In Toronto, the areas most heavily affected by the pandemic are also those with most densely populated, with predominantly low income, new immigrant, and racialized households.

When a living space is too small, doesn’t have enough bedrooms, and is unsuitable for residents, individuals within a household may not be able to physically distance themselves or self-isolate. If any of those household members is an essential worker, the chances of them contracting and spreading COVID-19 within the household and community is even higher.

This is especially the case for racialized women, who are more likely to work in the lowest-paying jobs and in occupations that also put them at greater risk of contracting COVID-19, including as janitors, cashiers, nursing assistants, and personal support workers.

Migrant farm workers in Southern Ontario are also reported to be more vulnerable to COVID-19 because of the crowded housing that their employers provide for them, and several COVID-19 outbreaks among migrant workers were reported in 2020. While the federal government outlined basic guidelines for migrant workers’ housing and physical distancing, it did not require proof from employers that the guidelines were being followed, and employer-provided housing is exempt from Ontario’s Residential Tenancies Act, meaning there is little recourse to address this issue among migrant workers.

Governments must address the underlying issues causing overcrowded housing

In the fall of 2020, the Government of Canada announced funding for 140 new Voluntary Self-Isolation Centres in Toronto that people living in crowded homes who tested positive for COVID-19 could live in temporarily, and similar measures have been taken by other cities in Canada and the United States where overcrowded housing caused by unaffordability and poverty is also an issue.

However, these voluntary initiatives still require residents of overcrowded housing to choose to use these facilities, and the underlying causes of overcrowded housing which are contributing to a higher risk of COVID-19 spreading have not been addressed.

An unregulated private rental market that fails to provide adequate and appropriate housing options for people at affordable levels, and the lack of action from governments over decades to realize the right to housing have directly contributed to the housing challenges and increased risk of COVID-19 faced by residents of overcrowded housing today. Unless action is taken by all levels of government to progressively realize the right to housing in Canada, more and more people, predominantly those who are low income and facing marginalization, will be forced to live in overcrowded housing and face all the challenges that come along with it, during this pandemic and far beyond.

Get the latest updates about the right to housing in Canada