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Okay, Toronto. It’s up to you

June 11, 2018

As I watched last Thursday’s election results, I was reminded of the motto printed on housing hero Steve Pomeroy’s letterhead: focus on what you can do, not what you cannot.

It’s a motto I hope Toronto will adopt.

The incoming Ontario Government does not have an affordable housing plan. According to the PC website, Doug Ford’s Conservatives commitments are to:

  • preserve rent control for existing tenants (suggesting that controls could be lifted for new development)
  • increase the supply of affordable housing in the GTA and preserve the Greenbelt (suggesting a reliance on new mid-market supply to bring down costs)
  • spend an additional $190 Million per year on mental health and addictions services, including housing supports – the only mention of housing with a price tag attached. The plan will depend on matching federal funds.

It’s an improvement over the outright destruction of the Mike Harris Conservatives, who cancelled non-profit and co-op housing already in the pipeline, eliminated second stage housing for women fleeing domestic violence, and downloaded social housing costs onto the municipal tax base. But if we are going to see any relief for the 47% of Toronto renters who cannot afford their homes, we will have to make it happen on our own.

Time for Toronto to step forward

The good news is that the City of Toronto has many powers at its disposal. Let’s start with Toronto’s super-power: regulating land use.

As Ontarians marked their ballots last Thursday, Toronto’s Planning and Growth Management Committee took a step towards protecting rooming houses and residential hotels – home to many of Toronto’s most vulnerable tenants — from demolition or conversion to condos, single-family homes or high-priced micro-suites. If the motion is approved by City Council, staff will begin consultations to extend the protections now in place for rental units to dwelling rooms in buildings with ten or more rooms.

The natural next step: legalize shared houses and other affordable housing options in all parts of the City, with a regulatory regime that keeps rooms safe AND affordableRight now, rooming houses are legal only in the old cities of Toronto and York, and only Toronto has a licensing regime. But most Toronto rooming house operators – even good ones — don’t apply for a license because they can’t meet the very stiff Fire & Building Code requirements for shared houses. Over the past few years, literally hundreds of rooms have been lost to City closures. (One fire inspector told me he had personally shut down 40 rooming houses – that’s a minimum of 160 rooms.) We need a zoning solution, but we also need a regulatory solution that expands the supply of affordable housing rather than shrinks it.

Zoning is also the ticket to create “missing middle” housing. Last week we inched forward when the Toronto & East York District Council agreed to permit laneway houses in their jurisdiction. But there is so much more scope for new housing opportunities – duplexes, sixplexes, townhouses and small apartment buildings – in the 65% of Toronto’s residential lands now reserved for single detached and semi-detached houses.

What other powers does Toronto have?

Toronto is the sole shareholder of 58,500 affordable housing units.Toronto City Council has often treated these holdings as a burden. In fact, they are assets, and a far better long-term investment that the $500 or even $600 per month in housing allowances the City now pays to house low-income people in privately owned buildings.

In July 2017 Toronto City Council committed itself to bring forward a sustainable funding model for Toronto Community Housing in 2019. It’s been the missing piece since TCHC was first created: a permanent, predictable revenue stream that covers the real costs of operating these homes. Put this funding formula in place, and TCHC will no longer need to rely on stop-and-go grants, capital bailouts, or one-shot property sales. It can be – like non-profit and co-op housing already is — the asset the keeps on giving.

Toronto has land, and lots of it. I understand Toronto is already on the case, combining the resources of the TTC, Toronto Parking Authority and other city property owners to advance goals that are important to the city’s success. I don’t know whether representatives from TCHC’s development team and the Affordable Housing Office are at the table, but I hope they are. We can’t afford single-story TTC stations, libraries or daycares without putting a few storeys of housing on top.

Toronto approves development applications.Private developers often complain about how long it takes to push a new development through the approvals process. Non-profit developers face the same delays for much smaller and less contentious buildings. (Witness St. Clare’s Mutlifaith’s two-year effort to get a simple 22-unit infill development approved despite the wholehearted support of neighbours and the local Councillor.) Let’s recognize the lack of housing supply as the crisis it is, and give the Planning Division the resources to help housing get built.

It has the power of strategic planning. Toronto’s ten-year Housing Opportunities Toronto plan is coming up for renewal in 2019, and the Poverty Reduction Strategy is due for an update next spring. The challenge, of course, has always been holding City Council accountable for the plans they approve. This time round, let’s lock these plans into the City budget. If there are no dollar signs beside the promises, then it’s not a real plan.

It has the power to tax. This is the big one. Over the past eight years City Council has not used this power as effectively as it might, so that now Toronto’s residential property tax rate is lower than our GTA neighbours, and other potential revenue tools have sat idle. Instead, Toronto drained its once-substantial housing reserves to balance the budget, and now, when we may need those reserves most, they are gone.

Time to reverse the decline. As City Councillors campaign in the upcoming municipal election and City staff begin to pull together the 2019 budget in their absence, I hope they will take heart at the great swaths of orange in Toronto’s June 7thelection map. The majority of Torontonians did not support a Doug Ford agenda. So let’s not give them one.

The power to mobilize

In this blog I have focused on the powers Toronto wields on its own. But 29% of Toronto’s Shelter, Support and Housing Budget – and 49% of such crucial services as emergency shelters, street outreach, housing help centres and drop-ins – comes from the province.

When these services fall short, it is often the City that takes the blame. It shouldn’t. I trust everyone at Queen’s Park understands the moral and economic imperative of housing the homeless, and keeping the precariously housed in their homes.  But if they disappoint, I hope the City will make clear where responsibility lies.

And advocates should act accordingly.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. June 11, 2018 12:20 pm

    Hi Joy:

    Great article. Can I share on Facebook?

    On Mon, Jun 11, 2018 at 12:07 PM Opening the Window wrote:

    > Joy Connelly posted: “As I watched last Thursday’s election results, I was > reminded of the motto printed on housing hero Steve Pomeroy’s letterhead: > focus on what you cando, not what you cannot. It’s a motto I hope Toronto > will adopt. The incoming Ontario Government does not” >

  2. mrwensleydale permalink
    June 11, 2018 3:57 pm

    I thought that was a great intro about Steve’s motto.

    Also, the entire blog was timely.

    >

  3. Jeremy Withers permalink
    October 5, 2018 11:54 am

    Great points Joy, this blog’s full of inspiration.

    One question, re: “Toronto City Council has often treated these holdings as a burden. In fact, they are assets, and a far better long-term investment that the $500 or even $600 per month in housing allowances the City now pays to house low-income people in privately owned buildings.”

    Do you know of any studies that set out to quantify just how much better a longer term investment social housing is for government, compared to paying private landlords allowances?

    Parkdale Neighbourhood Land Trust’s Rooming House Study adds up an estimate of all the subsidies and allowances payed to rooming house owners, and warns that all these expenses are being lost every time a Rooming House is sold off to a family or ‘upscaled’. But I’d love to know of any studies that add up such expenditures, city-wide, say, since the mid-90’s. For example, you could compare how many residents were housed by them, to how many would have been housed if those expenditures were being fed into investments in social housing.

    Surely there are lots of ways to corroborate your argument that community-owned assets are a far better long term investment. I’d love to hear from anyone who knows of some.

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