How Neighbourhoods Are Built to Keep Out Single Women

If we want more affordable housing, then we need to stop designing communities for traditional families

A miniature wooden neighbourhood
The Walrus/iStock

Community consultations are meant to give local residents an opportunity to provide feedback about a change in their neighbourhood. In 2016, Toronto city officials acknowledged the limits of this process, reporting that those who attend these sessions are predominately “white, male, homeowners, and over the age of 55.”

The narrowness of the demographic that participates in these consultations results in policies and decisions that respond to the interests of those most concerned about how new development or lower-income residents could reduce the values of their homes.

What, then, happens when lower-income women participate?

Single women are particularly vulnerable. Systemic gender bias reduces their access to affordable housing. The symptoms of exclusion are most evident during the hunt for a home to rent or purchase. Women typically earn far less than men and, as such, have a higher need for low-cost housing. The 2016 census revealed that, in 2015, the average working woman earned $35,461 a year—$12,598 less than the $48,059 in average earnings for men. This wage gap allows the average man to easily outbid the average woman for housing.

Historically, paternalistic ideology have shaped the conversations that built Toronto’s neighbourhoods. Like other marginalized people, women were subjects of, rather than participants in, the community-planning process. This process and the biases that informed it are the foundations of many of Toronto’s neighbourhoods. And yet, from the start, women have helped to shape cities that were not built with their independence in mind—and they’ve often had to fight against discrimination to do so.

In the early 1900s, some magazines and newspapers warned of the dangers of female independence. Apartment buildings were described as a threat to family values. According to a 1903 article in Canadian Architect and Builder, “not only is [women’s] pride in their families vanishing but pride in their housekeeping as well….[A]partment life will complete the process.”

Apartment buildings, added a 1914 column in the Globe and Mail, would produce “stunted children and unhappy adults.” Women, in other words, were best suited to be mothers in the privacy of single-family homes.

Despite the pushback from pundits and the political establishment, single women found apartment buildings to be an affordable housing option. Between 1905 and 1920, the average apartment building was three to four storeys. This typology afforded women some flexibility: wealthier single women could be independent and rent bachelor apartments, while lower-income women rented multibedroom apartment in groups, opting to share a flat instead of boarding in single-family homes. Low rents, in fact, were key to the independence of single women who earned low wages. By the Depression, Toronto women accounted for about a quarter of all wage earners, and 84 percent of them were single.

The dominant ideology of the era held that a moral society took care of women by pairing them with men. This belief was exemplified by the treatment of unemployed single women. In 1932, the rent subsidy for an unemployed single woman was two dollars a week. Three years later, the provincial government halved that to one dollar a week. This reduction had negative impacts on the independence and well-being of unemployed single women. Their monthly costs rose dramatically, and many of them had to eat out because they could no longer afford housing with a kitchen.

Two years after the cut was implemented, Ontario’s minister of welfare, David Croll, revealed the role gender biases played in halving these allowances. In a February 1937 report, he claimed, “The home placement plan in the case of single women has already demonstrated that we are correct in our attitude.” Policy following the “home placement plan” for women sought to “make the single man part of a family group.” Lowering unemployed single women’s access to adequate and affordable housing was an early test for the effectiveness of forcing family formation. Women had less political power to oppose such a strategy and so were an ideal group to test the effectiveness of paternalistic housing policy.

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The gender ideologies that influenced the housing policies of the early 1900s still flourished in the middle of the century. Unlike the downtown, which permitted single-family and multifamily houses within the same neighbourhood, Toronto’s postwar suburbs were developed with separation in mind. Municipalities and developers prioritized wealthier nuclear-family households through planning neighbourhoods that exclusively permitted detached homes or limited multifamily home development to a tiny minority of land area.

The Etobicoke suburb of Thorncrest Village serves as an excellent example. Built between 1945 and 1960, like many other subdivisions of that era, it contains exclusively detached housing designed for single families. Marshall Foss, the neighbourhood’s lead developer, described Thorncrest’s layout as an asset that ensured “your property values and your living values are secure and stabilized.” And, indeed, the exclusive design reduced the ability of single women to live in the neighbourhood. In 1961, in Thorncrest, 27 percent of women were single, 5 percent fewer than the 32 percent average at the Metro Toronto level.

More affordable neighbourhoods typically contained a greater number of multi-unit houses (duplexes, walk-up apartments, mid- and high-rise apartments) than more exclusive neighbourhoods. In 1961, for example, 42 percent of women were single in the six Toronto neighbourhoods where 80 to 90 percent of the housing stock consisted of multi-unit homes. This correlation persists to this day. Neighbourhoods like Thorncrest are still zoned exclusively for detached houses, limiting who is able to access housing in those communities. According to the 2016 census, only 38 percent of Thorncrest’s resident women are single, whereas the average across the city is 52 percent.

While policy preference for single-family housing was established with the nuclear family in mind, it did not respond to the complexities of the female experience. In a 1979 report entitled Metro’s Suburbs in Transition, Social Planning Toronto noted that the prioritization of detached housing didn’t account for “the different demographic trends (declining birth rates) and social conditions (e.g. non-family, single parent households, working mothers, ethnic minorities)” observed over the thirty-year period since the 1940s. Because the zoning effectively prioritized the development of single-family housing, as opposed to housing affordability, the social networks of divorced women were weakened because the neighbourhoods where they lived during their marriages did not offer an adequate supply of housing affordable to them when they became single.

The focus on developing single-family housing led to policies that discriminated against women. The case of “family” zoning in North York serves as an example. Beginning in 1946, the township of North York explicitly zoned for “families.” This bylaw defined “family” as a household whose residents were related to one another. This was a particularly gendered policy considering that single women with lower incomes often had to live in groups with other unrelated, single women.

In 1971, the Globe and Mail reported on a high-profile case that ultimately challenged this bylaw. That year, after five weeks of searching, four women rented a $300-per-month basement apartment in a house on Walwyn Avenue, just north of Weston. Their tenure violated the zoning bylaw, which only permitted families to live in the area.

Within a month, a North York bylaw inspector warned the women that they had to move out or face a court case. The women immediately began to lobby North York to change the bylaw. One of the tenants, a teacher named Barbara Greene, was elected as North York’s first female councillor on the heels of her popular fight against the bylaw. In office, she pushed to have the Ontario Municipal Board review the bylaw. In 1974, Greene celebrated after the discriminatory bylaw was overturned.

Yet today, more than four decades after Greene’s victory, community-planning consultations continue to underrepresent the interests of lower-income women. The City of Toronto has acknowledged that the current design of community consultations is flawed. To address this failing, city officials set up a Planning Review Panel in 2016, consisting of thirty-two residents from across the city who volunteer to provide feedback on a range of high-level community-planning studies. The diversity of the panel broadens engagement for city-wide consultations, but the feedback on local projects remains narrow and most responsive to those concerned about protecting the dollar value of their homes.

The Weston area serves as a typical example. Weston is a neighbourhood that has much in common with other lower-income communities. Here, the proportion of single-parent households is higher than the city’s average; indeed, almost a third of Weston families are led by single women. The neighbourhood’s residents are more likely than those in other parts of Toronto to rent and are typically paying more than 30 percent of their income on housing. Yet it is difficult for these residents to get a word in edgewise about their interests when it comes to housing development in their neighbourhood.

In April 2018, the city held a community-consultation session to canvass the neighbourhood about a twenty-two-storey condo tower proposed for a location near the Weston UP Express/Go station. The area planner, the local councillor, and the developer were all present, along with about sixty other people, most of them homeowners. After the planner’s presentation about local land-use policies, shadow impacts, and traffic projections, the attendees were invited to speak. One after another, the participants stood up to say they opposed the addition of any more affordable housing, even though the developer hadn’t proposed any.

“Are there affordable-housing units?” one person said. “I hope not, because it will lower the value of my home.” Added another: “There is too much affordable housing in Weston.” About a dozen local homeowners took to the floor to represent their interests. They also voiced concerns over the potential damage that would come with affordable housing, increased traffic, and shadows. As homeowners, they seemed to feel entitled to express their views.

But almost no lower-income residents attended or spoke out. One local tenant-advocacy group made a statement, and at the end of the session, a young woman interjected to state her views. The meeting’s tone, however, had already been set: the majority of those present had loudly opposed any affordable housing.

If the city doesn’t make affordable housing a priority at key locations along main streets or adjacent to transit, how can it be made a priority elsewhere within the broad reach of neighbourhoods?

To ensure women’s rights to affordable housing, we need to redesign the community-planning consultation process. One attempt to rethink the process was Housing in Focus, a series of community-planning workshops I developed that focused on human rights and the lived experience of residents. From August to November 2018, 140 residents across the city of Toronto participated, exploring how community planning could improve their access to affordable housing. Instead of allowing middle-aged male homeowners to dominate the discussion, the workshops were designed to be accessible to renters, women, and people of various ages. The participants’ conclusions differed widely from what is typically produced in traditional consultation sessions.

One of the six workshops was attended solely by women who used shelter services. They reported that access to affordable housing was their priority, as well as access to amenities such as daycare and transit. The participants developed land-use maps they believed could provide a layout that would allow them access to adequate affordable housing. The goal was inclusion, not exclusion, as well as the protection of the health and well-being of individuals, not just real estate values.

Adapted from House Divided: How the Missing Middle Will Solve Toronto’s Affordability Crisis published by Coach House Books.

Cheryll Case
Cheryll Case is the founding principal of CP Planning. Since graduating from Ryerson University’s Bachelor of Urban and Regional Planning program in 2017, Cheryll has been a driving force in public discourse about community planning and belonging.