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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 months 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 29.8% lower in real terms 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.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. Jannie Mills permalink
    March 15, 2018 10:47 am

    Good decision , welcome back 😊

  2. homelessguide permalink
    March 15, 2018 1:41 pm

    Somehow we have to remind the electorate that taxes are a good thing. That way the electorate might be less inclined to vote for a party whose only policy is to cut taxes. The appeal to cut taxes is like telling someone wanting to lose weight, that bloodletting is a good idea. Weight loss can be a good thing, but not if it drains you of the very thing that keeps you alive.
    The same can be said of tax cuts. They lead to a bloodletting of education, healthcare, affordable housing, and social welfare programs. Again, cuts to government expenditures can be a good thing when it comes at the expense of military programs and government waste. But when they come, as they did in the Harris era, at the expense of the very things that make our society healthy, all they do is benefit the wealthy and increase the cost of everything that matters for everyone else. Tax cuts drain healthy communities of the very things that contribute to their good health: good education, good health care, good housing and fair taxes.

  3. Rosemary Gray-Snelgrove permalink
    March 15, 2018 4:15 pm

    Thank you, Joy, for bringing this to public attention good and early in Doug Ford’s tenure as P.C. leader. He may learn a lot in the next couple of months. Hoping…Rosemary Gray-Snelgrove

  4. Carolyn Horricks permalink
    May 27, 2018 8:30 pm

    I watched the leaders debate tonight and Kathleen Wynne is the only leader I believe!
    I am concerned what a Doug Ford government would look like and don’t know how realistic the NDP promises are?

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