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Nine ideas for Mayor Tory’s housing agenda

November 6, 2014

Mayor-elect John Tory campaigned on a united Toronto and a united City Council. So no wonder he named housing as one of his top priorities. Good housing policy benefits us all. It is also one of those “nuts and bolts” issues where good ideas can come from any point on the political spectrum.

I don’t know what Tory’s housing plans might be. But if I were crafting a housing agenda for Council’s next term, here are nine “neither left- nor right-wing” ideas that would be on the list.

1. A Task Force to “fix TCHC once and for all”

This was Tory’s campaign promise, and it’s a good one.

Fourteen years ago, TCHC was amalgamated based on back-of-the-envelope thinking. The result has been organizational challenges that five CEOs and three TCHC Boards have not been able to fix, and homes that have fallen far below the standards enjoyed in other non-profit and co-op housing.

So this time, let’s do it right. Tory has wisely promised to include tenants on the Task Force – a good way to keep the process focused on outcomes – alongside experts to inform smart, evidence-based decisions.

I’m hoping the Task Force will tackle such fundamental questions as: How do we achieve the best service for tenants? What functions are best performed on the large scale, and which can be better managed in the field? How do we protect the public investment these buildings represent, but stop TCHC from being the political football it has become? How do we engage the under-used resources – and particularly the ideas and initiative of tenants – to create healthy communities?

The answers lie in TCHC’s rich operating data, international experience, the experience of other Ontario non-profit housing, and the history of TCHC and its forerunners Cityhome and The Housing Company. Let’s draw on it all.

 2. Civic action to end homelessness

In 1998, Calgary businessman and Conservative Art Smith heard a radio broadcast about homelessness, and decided it was the responsibility of the business community to do something about it. He called on his good friend Ralph Klein and 30 or so business leaders, and the Calgary Homeless Foundation was born. Six years into the Foundation’s Ten-Year Plan to End Homelessness, 5,842 people have been housed.

The City’s staff have already compiled the stats and prepared the framework for a good homelessness plan. What’s missing is the flat-out commitment of civil society and the business community to make it happen. No-one believes more in “civic action” than John Tory. Time to put those connections to work.

3. Harnessing the power of the development industry

This week I heard it from a seniors’ group. The week before it was east-end advocates. And this morning it was my next-door neighbour. Everyone asks, “Why can’t we include some affordable housing in all those new condos going up?”

It’s the common sense solution, and yet it is happening only on the tiniest scale. This may be the Council who finally makes it work.

 4. Cut the red tape

Social housing is riddled with rules that hold tenants back, complicate their lives, and waste housing managers’ time. Some of these rules are set by the province; some are simply the practices of individual TCHC staff. Rumour has it the Province may be open to reviewing these regulations in 2015. It could be an opportunity for changes that seem small, but could make a big difference to tenants.

5. The end of the housing queue

Last summer Toronto City Council approved a breakthrough that will let social housing applicants choose where they live, just like everyone else. Now it’s this Council’s turn to make the most of this great start. I’ll need a future blog entry to talk about the potential I see. For now, I just want to add it to the agenda.

6. A lasting housing health + housing partnership

Everyone saves when we beat homelessness. For the Ministry of Health, the savings are in shorter hospital stays and lower emergency room use. For the City, the savings are in reduced shelter, policing and social service costs. But who pays for the rent subsidies that give people a home to go to? Or for the supports that enable homeless people to keep a home, often for the first time in years? There is tremendous good will from both housing and health funders. Now is the time to build on the good work that has already been done to create a sustainable and integrated housing/health system.

 7. Rooming house regulation for the 21st century

Shared houses of all types have become the affordable housing solution for students, minimum wage-earners, newcomers and seniors – and they are going to the neighbourhoods where the houses are large and the basements are high and dry. Time for our antiquated by-laws to catch up.

8. Intrinsically affordable housing

Last summer I visited a charming laneway house, one of hundreds dotting Vancouver’s east side. The City of Vancouver’s by-laws permit these affordable homes in all single family neighbourhoods.

Toronto doesn’t have Vancouver’s many laneways, but we do have the same need for rental housing, and the same motivated homebuyers who would welcome rental income to pay for hefty mortgages. Why not “made in Toronto” by-laws that bring similarly affordable homes here?

9. Revenues commensurate with responsibilities

It all comes down to this. Municipalities are paying for everything the eye can see – the roads and sidewalks, the parks and libraries, fire and police, public health and public housing, shelters and snow-shoveling – with only 8 cents of every tax dollar.

Meanwhile, the Federal Government is awash in money because it off-loaded its responsibilities but not the revenues. And it makes me crazy that the Feds are now using those revenues to buy votes while people are paying half their incomes on rent, or don’t have a home at all.

Fixing this imbalance is the key to solving Toronto’s housing crisis, and the key to a strong Toronto. Toronto City Council – and municipalities across the country – know this already.

This is the common cause that should unite City Councillors of every stripe, every housing advocate, and everyone who cares about the future of this city. Mayor Tory: lead on!

8 Comments leave one →
  1. Gordon Mack Scott permalink
    November 6, 2014 4:36 pm

    these are all valuable and well summarized ideas. might I suggest that in addition to tenants, a working group include some folks from the waiting list? they have a stake too.

  2. Antoinette Schokman-De Zilva permalink
    November 6, 2014 5:12 pm

    Your No.3 has been used by previous Mayors to give many many millions of dollars to billionaire condo builders as “development” and all they got is a small number, less than 1% of the units as supposedly “affordable housing” whose rents are based on Canada Mortgage whose statistics are extremely fraudulent and incorrect. Canada Mortgage statistics ignore to mention that their rent numbers include all utilities while the Mayor’s billionaire real estate friends charge those numbers as affordable housing BUT CHARGE the renters for all utilities, parking etc., IN ADDITION TO THE so-called affordable rent! So, in addition to NOT ASSISTING ANY SENIORS OR POOR PEOPLE WITH HOUSING UNITS, The City of Toronto is giving away condo units at a lower than market rate to the UPPER CLASS OF SOCIETY who are the only ones who could afford to rent these “affordable” units!!

    The City of Toronto has used the housing problem only towards awarding patronage to provincial and federal election donors! Nothing has been ever done over 4 decades (if Housing Connections spiel that waiting lists are from the 1970’s) to increase units for the poor or for seniors!

    The above issue has been broadly emailed to politicians of all parties by me and not one of them has done anything to stop the above “criminal” use of public funds.

    • November 6, 2014 8:53 pm

      Thanks for your comment, Antoinette. I wonder if we are talking about the same thing. As far as I know, Toronto has never had a comprehensive inclusionary zoning policy, although individual councillors have negotiated units in a few buildings. But I agree with your concern about the definition of “affordable housing.” If developers bring in units at 80% of CMHC’s average rent, then we’ll definitely need a piggy-back subsidy to make those units affordable to most of the people on the waiting list.

  3. Ryan Friedman permalink
    November 6, 2014 5:56 pm

    I completely agree with your list. Well done. Now let’s see Mayor Tory finally do something together, with the Feds and Provincial Liberals. Enough time campaigning. Enough time talking. Get on and begin the task of reducing the line-up for affordable housing, and ending the plight of the homeless.

  4. Paul Dowling permalink
    November 6, 2014 7:00 pm

    It’s great to see your blog again, Joy! Thank you for the excellent and comprehensive list. I am very optimistic that with leadership from Mayor Tory and ideas like these, the next few years will see some real progress on the housing front.

  5. November 7, 2014 1:10 pm

    What do you mean by the end of the housing queue and allowing tenants on social assistance to live where they want? Did I miss something in the news?

  6. November 9, 2014 11:51 am

    I guess Im in the minority I dont belive TCHC can be fixed I would rather fund tenants directly if they choose to go private and even fund mortgages for modest apts or small acreages outside TO.One of my friends is now going private after his non profit was sucked up by Woodgreen Its about how you are treated as a person and I dont belive these behemoths can do that .Im working on my dream now which is to have a cabin on a small lot.If anyone even tried to fix it they would be hounded out by those that want the misery to continue.But a starting point would be to end all tenant reps and phoney democracy,break it down into workable components.As somebody who was in one of those speakers bureaus I had all my illusions shattered about empowerment ect…Im empowered now as a private tenant treated a human being .Choice must be priority whatever form that choice takes

  7. Laurie Smith permalink
    November 13, 2014 2:50 pm

    Thank you Joy. Well-articulated ideas!
    I think there’s always optimism with a new Mayor (and Councillors), but even more so now with John Tory.
    Won’t it be great if he can be the bridge-builder he’s purported to be, and bring some of these ideas to fruition!!
    Best regards,

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