It took a deadly pandemic to get Toronto to embrace a faster way to build affordable housing

Posted on May 6, 2020 in Equality Debates, Inclusion Delivery System

Source: — Authors: – Opinion/Contributors

Big number: $190,000 – the per-unit cost of 250 modular units of supportive housing for shelter users, in a plan approved by Toronto council last week

It almost sounds too good to be true. Last week, at its first meeting held in cyberspace, Toronto council endorsed a plan to build 250 units of housing for people in the shelter system. The units, funded by a combination of municipal and federal cash, will be built using a modular process, constructed off-site then shipped to Toronto where they can be hoisted up by cranes and snapped together like Lego pieces.

That’s super cool — Lego is awesome — but here’s the best part: the first phase, with 110 units at two sites, will be in place and open for tenants, the plan says, by September. Five months to occupancy.

In the context of previous attempts to build affordable housing in Toronto, this is ludicrous speed. It’s as if, after years of toiling away at a process that typically takes years to achieve affordable housing goals, Mayor John Tory and councillors have found a cheat code that lets the city skip a bunch of levels. Think of it like the warp whistle from “Super Mario 3,” but for housing.

Seriously, just compare this affordable housing plan to the city’s previous efforts. Toronto’s Housing Now program identifies publicly owned land that can be used for developments that offer affordable rental housing. Launched in 2018, it’s a good program, but it’s not exactly quick: people aren’t expected to move into the first four Housing Now sites until 2023.

That’s five years for that strategy compared to five months for this new modular one.

There’s no single reason for why affordable housing construction typically takes so long. It’s a complex series of factors, including stuff like governments squabbling over funding responsibilities, zoning policies that heavily restrict where housing projects can be built, and community consultation requirements that mean every stage of planning forces an encounter with fired-up residents.

The modular plan cuts through that. Instead of prolonged intergovernmental negotiations, federal funding is in place from the start. The full plan for 250 modular units – the second phase of 140 homes is scheduled for 2021 – comes with a price tag estimated at $47.5 million, or about $190,000 per unit. The Canadian Mortgage and Housing Corporation, a federal agency, has said it can provide $18.75 million through grants and loans.

The sites for the modular buildings are not yet selected, but the city has a set of criteria designed to streamline that process. The city promises consultation with the community, but the priority, for the first time, is speed. The COVID-19 pandemic has laid bare the inadequacies of the city’s crowded shelter system – getting shelter users into housing is a life-saving move.

Even if the humanitarian aspect doesn’t convince you, the costs should. As the city has moved to expand shelters and rented hotel rooms to help the homeless practise physical distancing, the monthly cost of providing shelter has jumped from about $4,000 to almost $6,000 per bed, according to a city report. The kind of supportive housing that will be offered in the modular plan — which will include a meal program, health care services and rent subsidies for tenants – is estimated at about $2,000 a month per unit in operating costs.

This strategy is not perfect, of course. Because of the rush, the contract for the first phase is being sole-sourced to a Canadian company, Horizon North, with manufacturing likely to take place in Grimsby. Had the city embraced a strategy like this earlier, there would have been an opportunity for a competitive bidding and vetting process.

But if this plan is executed well, it will be a significant step forward. Yes, it’s reasonable to lament that it took a pandemic for Toronto to identify ways to get housing built quickly, but there’s opportunity in crisis, and the end of the pandemic does not need to be the end of building affordable housing quickly.

Now that Toronto has found this warp speed strategy, there should be no going back to playing the game the old way.

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