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Losing the power to choose

September 18, 2011

If you live in Toronto you’ve no doubt read the City Manager’s September 9th report to City Council’s Executive Committee.

His recommendation: No new affordable housing, period. The Affordable Housing Office can wrap up projects that are already in the works, but it can’t start anything new – even if good opportunities arise.

Housing veterans will remember this scenario from 1995, when the Harris Government cut all new housing development. The difference this time?

The Harris cut was designed to save the province money. This cut doesn’t save any money at all. Instead it merely restricts the choices available to City Council, now and in the future.

Under the Ontario Government’s new Investment in Affordable Housing program, Toronto will receive $108 million over the next four years to make housing affordable. It’s up to City Council to decide how to spend that money, mixing and matching from among four choices:

  1. Create new rental housing
  2. Renovate to preserve private rental housing, help disabled people stay in their homes, or to create second suites
  3. Provide forgivable loans to help renters buy a home
  4. Offer rent supplements (direct subsidies to landlords) and housing allowances (direct subsidies to low-income households).

The City Manager’s recommendation would take Choice #1 off the list entirely and, in a second ambiguous recommendation, may hobble Choice #2.

Why strike options off the list? 

For years, this city has called on senior governments for a flexible “toolbox” approach to housing funding.  Now, at last, we’ve got it. So why would City Council rob itself of the tools it needs?

We know Mayor Ford favours rent supplements. Nothing wrong with that. Despite their drawbacks, rent supplements can offer quick help to people on the social housing waiting list. Housing allowances are even better, putting money directly into the hands of low-income people.

But it’s not the only tool in the toolbox.

If rent supplements are the quick fix, new construction is the legacy we build for the next generation. Think of St. Lawrence neighbourhood in the 1970s, Frankel Lambert in the 1980s, the revitalized Regent Park today, and the West Donlands tomorrow. It’s new affordable housing construction that turned each of these developments into mixed–income neighbourhoods.

And renovations? The City Manager’s report calls for reductions “to a service level supported by funding from the federal, and provincial governments.” As far as I can tell from the KPMG report, it costs the City $300,000 to deliver an average $8 million per year to home and apartment owners. If the program can be administered for less money, hurray! But if not, do we really want to say goodbye to a program that multiplies the City’s investment 27-fold?

The reality is the City needs it all. We need short-term and long-term solutions; new construction, renovations and rent subsidies.

It’s no surprise, then, that Toronto’s 10-year housing plan, Housing Opportunities Toronto, calls for a mixed approach that takes advantage of all the options at its disposal. This is the plan we ought to be using to guide housing decisions, and monitoring to make sure we carry through on our plans.

Walking away from opportunity

Accepting the City Manager’s recommendation is also a decision to tie Council’s hands for years to come.

Want to take advantage of one-time funding, like the Economic Stimulus Funds the federal government pumped into housing in 2009? Or introduce affordable housing in, say, the Portlands? Or stack new provincial health funds with federal housing dollars to house people with mental illness?

Too late. Once you gut the City’s capacity to facilitate new housing, you can’t get it back fast enough to respond to these inevitably time-limited opportunities.

Losing the capacity to think

Which brings me to a more obscure cut: the proposed cuts to “Housing Policy and Partnership Activities.”

The City Manager recommends these activities be reduced “to a service level supported by senior government funding.” Again, the level of cuts, or what specifically would be cut, is not clear from the report.

What could be gained from these cuts? According to the KPMG Core Service Review, the potential savings would be “low – up to 5%” of a net budget of $500,000.

What do we jeopardize?

  • The capacity to think – to make decisions based on quality data, research and expert opinion
  • The capacity to advocate – to analyze local data to make the case for senior governments to do their part
  • The capacity to consult — as the Affordable Housing Committee did when it developed its 10-year plan, and is now doing through its Private Sector Roundtable
  • The capacity to work with others. The “partners” in “policy and partnership” include everyone from Canada Mortgage and Housing to Habitat for Humanity Toronto. These organizations have money, volunteers and ideas. We need them at the table.
  • The capacity for co-ordinated action. Creating affordable housing is not just a matter of administering funding programs. It’s about using all the tools at the City’s disposal – the Official Plan, planning protocols, property taxes, development charges, and more. That takes co-ordination and the ability to view every city policy and decision through a “housing lens.”

The work only government can do

I sometimes meet people who have given up on government.  If government is not up to the job, they say, we’ll simply do the work ourselves.

I’m happy to wave the flag for the voluntary sector. After all, I’m part of it.

But we are not a substitute for a city’s own research and policy capacity. We can bring new ideas into the mix. But we can’t sift through competing visions to set city policy. We can’t instruct staff to act. And we can’t co-ordinate services.

That is the work of government. And that is my call to City Council.

Take up your rightful role. Don’t limit your power to make choices about housing in Toronto. Reject the City Manager’s recommendations.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. Jean Stevenson permalink
    September 19, 2011 1:15 pm

    Joy – this is a brilliantly laid out set of logical reasons why City Council should reject the City Manager’s recommendations re the Affordable Housing Office.

    Clearly this should be sent to all city councillors asap & maybe you have.

    My councillor is Karen Stintz & I am happy to send this onto her.
    I am just wondering if you have a plan to make this more of a petition approach.

    Your article could be slightly revised and sent out to all of your subscribers to sign a petition to save the Affordable Housing Office and for the city council to commit to not limit choices & options that are available through the provincial Affordable Housing program funding that the city receives.

    Subscribers would also be asked to send the petion onto as many people as they can.

    What do you think??

  2. September 20, 2011 7:15 am

    I agree entirely with Jean’s assessment and would love to do my part to circulate such a petition. Not that a petition is enough! There are a lot of them floating around these days especially with the drastic measures the Mayor is taking to pare down the City’s resources, especially to those who most need them.
    But every petition helps, as does every form of protest resisting the move of this City to one which favours only the privileged.

  3. September 20, 2011 10:58 am

    The biggest conundrum is that Mr. Ford destigmatized the inner suburbs by saying he respected them while noting that the war on their preferred mode of transportation was over and some of the inner suburbs too would get a subway. He said tax $$$ would not go to bike lanes and streetcars.

    During the campaign he was the only candidate to support a housing benefit as he thought this may depopulate subsidized housing.

    Prior to that, people (who don’t live in the inner suburbs) consistently and relentlessly stigmatized the inner suburbs noting “creeping and spreading poverty” – as if it was a disease – or “declining neighbourhoods” – THAT made the inner suburbs feel good about themselves (not)!

    The conundrum is that Ford Nation wants to cut the services that defined the inner suburbs such as subsidized housing.

    But here’s the answer:

    We were told by people outside the inner suburbs that we were in decline because we had all these terrible attributes like subsidized housing. That in a nutshell is why those suburbs still support Mr. Ford. He wants to get rid of what defined them as being in decline and the victims of spreading poverty.

    No one in David Hulchanski’s City 3 describes their neighbourhoods as in decline or recipients of spreading poverty unless thay are into self-loathing.

    The real key will be for City 1 dwellers to change their narrative that looks down on the places that are zoned as poverty-friendly.

    Whenever I hear the ‘priority neighbourhood’ or ‘in decline narrative’ being espoused, I ask where they live.

    Not once in a decade of asking has the person ever lived in the inner suburbs – not once ever.

    So now someone can successfully call an end to affordable housing and have that actually happen.

    Look who voted for Ford and look closely at the narrative that made them feel like children of a lesser God. This tells us why we are where we are now.

  4. July 19, 2012 1:54 pm

    Your right we will do the work ourselves.We all can help the veterans.Real nice piece of work if I say so myself. Good job- Thanks for the info Jamie

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