This week thousands across the GTA will celebrate Christmas. For
one woman — an accountant by trade — who thanks to a unique
housing program managed to push poverty away, the season will be
like no other.
“Every now and then, when I’m with my daughters I say, ‘I can’t
believe that we’re together.’ It’s like I’m still dreaming,”
says Martha, sitting in her spacious two-bedroom apartment just
south of Eglinton Ave. near the Don Valley Parkway. A large
flat-screen TV stands opposite the matching sofa set; shining
hardwood floors spread out across to the balcony; a Christmas
tree with presents underneath is next to the couch.
A few years ago, after arriving in Canada
as a refugee, she found herself isolated by an abusive
relationship. Martha (not her actual name) was surrounded by the
various forces that trap many victims of abuse — high rents,
poor job prospects, a lack of support. It all seemed
insurmountable to her.
But thanks to an initiative by Interval House called Her Home
Housing Project, and the generosity of private sector landlords,
Martha escaped that life. The not-for-profit organization began
partnering with large property owners in 2004, matching women
escaping abusive relationships with apartments offered at rents
geared to income.
In 2011 Martha moved into a bachelor apartment next to High Park
that rented for $1,050 a month. She only had to pay $300, an
amount she could afford with her new administrative job that
Interval House helped her find. She was making $1,750 a month,
after taxes, and had enough left over to send home to her kids
“One of the biggest barriers to women leaving an abusive
situation is poverty,” says Ashleigh Saith, Interval House’s
director of development and partnerships. “Many think they can’t
pay their own rent or all the other bills.”
Saith explains that women in dangerous situations who are
committed to becoming self-sufficient are given
rent-geared-to-income units, usually in desirable locations, for
one year. After that they transition to market-rate housing.
Weeks after Martha moved into her High Park apartment the
emotional scars began to heal. She was able to establish
herself, found a financial footing and soon started the process
of bringing her daughters here; they arrived this summer after a
six-year separation from their mother.
“It was a very positive transition,” she says. “I was very
grateful. They had arranged it in a nice area, beautiful. It’s
one of the most beautiful neighbourhoods, a five-minute walk to
the subway. Being able to be on my own, to save money, to do
things for myself, it made me feel — wow. I thought I had lost
that in my life, the independence.
She says the setting of the apartment and the location helped
her put her life back together. “It wasn’t the type of place
that you typically associate with poverty or hardship. I never
thought that I could actually live in that neighbourhood.”
Shortly after moving in, she began the complex immigration
process that allowed Martha to reunite with her kids.
They now live together in a market-rent apartment, and Martha
wants to eventually go back to school so she can get her
Canadian accounting certification.
Martha’s story brings satisfaction to Scott Andison. He’s the
president and CEO of the Federation of Rental Housing Providers
of Ontario, which represents the private partners that have
contributed the units to help victims of abuse. There are now 15
such apartments across the GTA.
“Our members don’t look at it as a handout, it’s a way to help
people on their own become self-sufficient.” Andison says
tenants in the program typically pay about 30 per cent of market
rent, with property owners covering the lost revenue.
“We’re getting interest from landlords in other parts of
Ontario,” says Saith. In November, Interval House expanded the
program to Ottawa and Hamilton. “We do see this as a model to
Martha says she wants to spread the word to other women lost in
abusive situations. Asked what it will mean to have her kids
with her for their first Canadian Christmas, Martha’s eyes grow
“My kids, the other day they said, ‘Mommy, what am I going to
get you,’ and I said, ‘you are my Christmas presents.’ ”