Toronto may finally have found a better way to build affordable housing

Posted on January 22, 2019 in Inclusion Policy Context

Source: — Authors: – Opinion/Editorials
Jan. 21, 2019.   By

At long last, Toronto is prepared to leverage its biggest asset — city-owned land — to build more of the rental housing this city desperately needs.

A plan to develop 11 parcels of surplus land to produce thousands of new rental apartments, with some of them at more affordable rents, is an important change in city policy that should be welcomed and expanded on over time. It’s a big improvement over just selling the land to the highest bidder, all but ensuring that nothing but condominiums get built.

The city’s “housing now” report outlines zoning the sites for more than 10,000 units of housing and requiring that at least two-thirds of them be purpose-built rentals. And at least half of those rentals (about 3,700) must meet a measure of affordability that, overall, would drop monthly rents by some $275.

On its own, this certainly won’t fix the city’s affordable housing crisis. Homeless shelters are bursting at the seams, the wait-list for social housing runs tens of thousands deep, and there are still more renters struggling to keep up with rents that rise faster than incomes.

But it does start to tackle part of the problem by increasing the supply of rental housing. And, perhaps just as importantly, it shows the city finally realizes that if it wants different outcomes, it must conduct business differently.

Status quo development in Toronto isn’t working for far too many people. This plan, which is to go to the city’s executive committee on Wednesday, provides one way to change that. Councillors should support it.

The affordability of life in Toronto was a big issue in last fall’s municipal election, and affordable housing was a particular focus of the mayoral campaign.

Mayor John Tory was re-elected on a promise to build 40,000 affordable rentals over 12 years, but it was his challenger Jennifer Keesmaat whose housing plan included a better definition of affordability. Toronto’s existing definition is terrible and claims average market rents are affordable.

Everyone knows that’s not the case. Keesmaat rightly argued that a better measure — up to 80 per cent of market rates — is needed.

The plan for these surplus sites adopts that measure. That’s a good start for the city and it should apply at least that measure to its other affordable housing programs.

It’s also requiring, in exchange for all the development charges, fees and taxes the city will waive to achieve more affordable rents, that they stay low for 99 years. That, too, is an important advance in policy given that past programs have maintained affordability only for 25 years or so.

These rentals still won’t help the lowest-income tenants who need much stronger government supports, but it will help provide housing for a swath of people. Indeed, things have gotten so difficult in the housing market that businesses are even warning that Toronto’s ability to attract workers will suffer because of it.

The inclusion of a $1-million fund to help non-profit organizations participate in these developments could ultimately help achieve some of the much lower rents the city still desperately needs.

Non-profit housing providers and community builders aren’t looking for the biggest profits in a deal; their desire is to produce housing at rents that low-income tenants can actually afford. But they often struggle just to get through the bid process against deep-pocketed private development companies. So it’s a smart city investment to help build their capacity to bid, hopefully successfully, on some of these 11 sites and beyond.

Toronto has long faced criticism that it hasn’t used its land — its most valuable asset — to get the kind of housing the city needs. That city council doesn’t make a priority of development projects that meet a public need. And that when the city does deal with developers it gives away far too much for what it gets.

This plan, if implemented well, could be the city’s answer to all that, and proof that Toronto has finally turned an important corner to better city building.

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