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What would a Doug Ford Premiership mean for housing?

March 15, 2018

In 1995 the Conservatives swept to power heralding the Common Sense Revolution. Within one month of taking office they had cut social assistance rates, cancelled community housing development and begun to replace legislated protections for tenants.

Will history repeat itself should Doug Ford become Ontario’s next premier? It’s hard to know. To my knowledge Ford did not mention housing affordability, housing policy or anything at all related to housing in his brief leadership campaign. But his campaign rhetoric could have been word-for-word from the headlines in the Common Sense Revolution: 1) lower taxes, 2) cut spending, 3) “send a signal around the world that Ontario is open for business again,” and 4) cut the size of government.

Cutting is easy. Building is the hard part.

Those of us working in housing in the late 1990s will remember the chaos. But the chaos was not random. The pattern of Common Sense Revolution (CSR) housing promises that were kept, and those that were dropped, could be helpful in imagining a Doug Ford premiership today.

In 1995, the cuts came fast and deep. The CSR promised a moratorium on non-profit housing and within one month the ax fell. In the same month, social assistance rates were cut by 21.6%. These cuts had an immediate and lasting impact. Fifteen years after the Conservatives were voted out of office social assistance rates are still almost 20% lower than 1994 rates, and annual affordable housing starts hover around the 1000 unit mark – 1/10th the number created solely through provincial funding in 1991.

The CSR also promised to “return to a shelter subsidy program for all Ontarians who need help in affording a decent level of shelter . . [ and] be in a position to eliminate the two-year waiting list for affordable housing. That promise never happened at all.

The CSR’s final promise was to “Direct Ontario Realty Corporation to develop a plan to sell the more than 84 thousand units owned by the Ontario Housing Corporation,” preferably by offering tenants the chance to own their own homes.

The Tories quickly learned that Ontario is not the UK, where Council Housing made up the majority of the UK’s rental stock, was occupied chiefly by working families, and included many houses and row-houses. They also learned it was much cheaper to keep tenants in their homes than subsidize them elsewhere. But the Tories achieved their goal of “getting out of the housing business” by downloading the costs to the municipal level – one part of a trade that would allow them to achieve an even bigger priority: uploading and taking control of education spending.

As for non-profit and co-op housing that was already up and running, they were never really at risk. The government cannot sell what it does not own.

Back to the base

If Doug Ford is the new Mike Harris, his base will be similar: businesses big and small; immigrants and long-time Canadians in Etobicoke, Scarborough and the 905; small town and rural families and possibly residents in Ontario’s own “rust belt” towns.

The vast majority will be homeowners. Their housing priorities will be stable neighbourhoods and a rising real estate market that will protect their own assets and save for their children’s education and their own retirement. They are unlikely to share downtown Toronto’s concerns with gentrification, skyrocketing rents, rental protection or creating new affordable housing.

What about tenants, who are now bearing the brunt of Ontario’s affordable housing crisis? Rob Ford always professed a soft spot for TCHC tenants, and there are plenty of private sector tenants in Etobicoke North, where Doug Ford is likely to run. But when Rob Ford came to office, TCHC swallowed a 10% budget cut, just like everyone else at the City.

What is at risk today?

First the good news. Let’s rejoice that the Federal Government has resumed its rightful housing role in providing unilateral, multi-year funding. Is it conceivable that a Tory government might turn away $2 Billion in federal Canada Housing Benefit funds, just to avoid matching the funding? It would be a crazy idea, but Ford’s “the Feds can’t tell us what to do” rhetoric is concerning.

We can also be grateful the independent status of non-profit and co-op housing will help shield them from funding cuts. I’m also hopeful plans for new supportive housing will be fulfilled. True, Doug Ford had a rather unfortunate response to a three-person home for children with autism in his own ward, saying “No-one told me they would be leaving the house.” But the need is obvious, and the economic benefits of permanent housing over either shelters or hospitals is indisputable.

I think just about any other direct provincial funding program is at risk, and especially any associated with small-l liberalism. (Anything with the word “green” in it comes to mind.) I also wonder about the potential cuts to transfers to the cities. Toronto’s Shelter, Support and Housing Division now receives $238 M in provincial funds – 29% of its total revenues.

I’ll be curious to see the future of rent subsidies. The traditional arguments against housing allowances – that they sustain high rents without improving quality – can also be seen as “good for business.” The bad news for tenants will likely be to incomes, starting with postponing the increase to a $15 minimum wage.

Do I have fears for specific legislation or programs? I do. But frankly I’d rather not say which ones. Publicly naming them as vulnerable will only make them more vulnerable. But I do think it will be a useful exercise for everyone who cares about affordable housing to consider the steps we can take to keep and make housing affordable, no matter who is elected.

Starting with your vote.


Where will the next generation live?

May 2, 2017

I don’t blog very often these days. That’s partly because I’m busy. But it’s also because I hardly need to: the topics that are closest to my heart now make headlines on a daily basis. And few are closer to home than this question: what are the policy solutions that could keep downtown Toronto affordable for the next generation?

That was the topic of a blog I wrote back in 2011, and that’s the topic of my upcoming Jane’s Walk,, Where will the next generation live?” 

It’s a two-hour tour in my east-end neighbourhood. It used to be an ordinary working class district. But there is no place now for the working class, or even the middle-class young men and women who grew up here.  

Are there answers on the street?

There are if you look for them. Suites above, below and behind. Non-profit and co-op houses that were bought for a song — and can now be leveraged to create new homes. And then there are the local solutions we can’t see: community land trusts, fair rents, “tenants first” rooming house regulations and 21st century zoning.

These are some of the topics I hope to talk about on Saturday. I don’t pretend to be an expert. But I’m willing to share what I know, and pose the questions in hopes that someone on tour will know the answer. That someone might be you!

Come and join us.

The tour starts this Saturday, May 6th, 10 am in front of Roden School, 151 Hiawatha Road, just north of Gerrard, between Coxwell and Greenwood.


A rooming house policy that puts tenants first

October 25, 2016

On October 26th, Toronto’s City Planning and Municipal Licensing & Standards Divisions will bring their proposed rooming house[1] strategy to Toronto’s Executive Committee.

It’s a thoughtfully-written document, but a cautious one, recommending another full year of consultations – this after a comprehensive research and consultation program that began in 2014 and entailed 14 neighbourhood consultations, 7 tenant focus groups, meetings with post-secondary institutions, agencies and rooming house operators, and an online survey – simply to introduce a pilot project.

It is hard to predict the outcome of the consultations. But one thing I do know. If the City of Toronto hopes to make good on its 2010-2020 Affordable Housing Action Plan or its Poverty Reduction Strategy, its rooming house policy must put tenants first. Read more…

Rooming House By-laws for the 21st Century

May 10, 2016

I don’t often recommend the Globe and Mail comments section as a source of policy guidance. But I hope everyone who cares about rooming houses in Toronto spotted the most “liked” comment following John Lorinc’s recent article on “Dangerous – but affordable – fire-trap apartments.” Read more…

Homelessness Ends Here

May 3, 2016

Are you all planning to attend a Jane’s Walk this year? I hope so. They are a marvellous opportunity to learn more about the city and how it works.

I am leading my own walk this year. It’s called Homelessness Ends Here. It’s a look at the costs of homelessness — personal and public — and solutions developed over the past 30 years: Toronto’s Homes First pioneers (30 years before Housing First became a buzzword!);  the transformation of a hotel into permanent homes, a shelter into transitional housing, and another shelter into a multi-level response to an aging homeless population; a TCHC turnaround; new hope for veterans; and one of the very few deeply affordable housing developments created under new funding programs.

We’ll also have a chance to reflect on some of the questions for the next 30 years: gentrification; the threats to rooming houses; the future of advocacy; the opportunity created by driverless cars; and the power of beauty.

The walk begins this Saturday, May 7th, 10 am at the Toronto Homeless Memorial, Trinity Square, behind the Eaton Centre. It would be lovely to see you there.

An Ontario Affordable Housing Strategy for everyone

March 16, 2016

When we think about housing policy, we often think about people who have “fallen through the cracks.”

But what happens when the cracks become wider than the pavement? When the majority of people cannot afford their own home? When most people have precarious incomes? When Toronto has more low-income neighbourhoods – 49% of the City![1] — than middle-income neighbourhoods? Read more…

TCHC: A Case for “Non-Profitization”

February 18, 2016

On January 16th, the Mayor’s Task Force recommended that Toronto Community Housing be transitioned to a new community-based non-profit housing corporation.

It’s a good idea, but it’s not a new one. In the UK, the US, and Australia, governments have recognized the community sector can do a better job of creating and managing housing than they can.

It’s the same conclusion reached over 40 years ago in Canada. In 1973, the Federal Government abandoned the old public housing model – where government built, owned and managed the housing — in favour of independent non-profit and co-op housing corporations. Read more…