Marielle Vernier is familiar with her internet being disconnected.
As a mother with five adult children living in Toronto’s rent-geared-to-income housing, sometimes the bills just pile up too high. Something had to give, which meant relinquishing their digital connection. “There’s times where I couldn’t afford it and I had nothing,” she said.
Having internet was more than an indulgence, Vernier said. She told the Star several of her kids had mental health challenges and disabilities, and relied on the web for social interaction. Others she knew in subsidized housing depended on internet services they could scarcely afford for job searches and accessing health care, she added.
If those costs were taken off their plates, Vernier believes it would make a world of difference.
And right now, Toronto Community Housing Corp. (TCHC) — the city’s largest provider of public housing, and Vernier’s landlord — is mulling that over. The agency’s board of directors voted in December to study what it would cost to provide all of its subsidized, affordable housing and market-priced tenants with internet services (an early estimate by TCHC for subsidized tenants alone — which is the group the agency is considering covering — pegs the cost between $7 million and $11 million per year, plus $15 million in start-up funds). The report back on that analysis is expected by late November.
The consideration has been attributed, in part, to research on the high stakes of internet access for low-income tenants by the University of Toronto’s Michel Mersereau.
“We see basic needs, child care, other caregiving demands, education in particular, which make having household internet access effectively compulsory,” Mersereau told a TCHC committee last fall.
His research divulges stories like that of a single mother in a Regent Park TCHC community, who feared she couldn’t hold a job if she didn’t have substantial internet access at home. She could only leave her son, who has autism, at home if he could play games and puzzles online.
“When the internet goes down it’s a disaster. I have to leave work to get home quick. Sometimes the neighbours will call me saying that he’s yelling or banging things around,” she told Mersereau.
A low-cost internet plan is currently available to Toronto’s subsidized housing tenants, which offers a 25 Mbps speed plan for roughly $10 per month through Rogers. But Mersereau’s research — which involved interviews with residents in 2018 and 2019 — found that many were eschewing that option in favour of higher-cost services. That was especially true for families with kids, with many citing the extra demands of school work.
Vernier was in the same boat, labelling the plan just too slow for a household of their size.
Across two TCHC buildings Mersereau studied, he found tenants were paying an average of $200 a month for their internet and mobile plans, including data services.
“Offsetting these costs has required residents to incur credit card debt, sell household items, access food bank services, and forgo leisure expenses,” he wrote.
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Another Regent Park tenant told Mersereau of their father falling behind on a Bell payment, and the family being put on a repayment plan. After missing some of those payments, their internet and phone services were cut off.
“My brother and I were screwed, especially with school work,” the tenant said, recalling sitting in the local library until it closed, then moving to a Tim Hortons. Their brother didn’t have a laptop, so he had to transfer all his school files to the library on a digital key. And neither parent had the money, or access to credit, to get the services turned back on.
“Our mom doesn’t have a credit card, and dad was maxed out on his, so I ended up getting one through the university student plan and putting the payments on that. Took me almost a year to get it paid off.”
Since COVID-19 hit, TCHC says its tenants’ ability to rely on public internet touchpoints such as libraries and coffee shops has been disrupted, with some cut off altogether. Groups such as the Toronto District School Board have tried to step in, providing internet and device support to its students who’ve been left without. Mersereau, at committee, said his analysis of more than 21,000 requests from TDSB student families showed 70 per cent were at postal codes “affiliated with TCHC facilities.”
The school board said it was unable to validate Mersereau’s finding themselves.
Coun. Ana Bailão, who sits on TCHC’s board, said the pandemic highlighted the high stakes of adequate internet connectivity — from kids being able to attend school virtually to navigating vaccine booking portals or earning an income from home.
“These are families with very low incomes, and we need to make sure we’re giving them the tools to succeed,” Bailao said.
The effort to ensure more internet access in public housing has seen support from some of the agency’s top staffers.
“It’s clear that as we’re all moving to digital delivery models, not having access to internet for our tenants puts them at a true disadvantage,” then chief operating officer Sheila Penny said last fall, following a presentation by Mersereau at a tenant services committee.
“What his work has helped us understand is that provision for internet services is now becoming a basic utility, like we provide heat, we provide water and electricity for our tenants.”
If the agency decides to provide internet to its subsidized rent tenants on the heels of this fall’s report, they aren’t expecting to roll out the services right away — with an estimated timeline of roughly five years.
In Vernier’s eyes, it’s an effort that can’t come fast enough for low-income households.
“The internet has become the core of life now,” she said.
Victoria Gibson is a Toronto-based reporter for the Star covering affordable housing. Reach her via email: [email protected]
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