Affordable Housing Development in Toronto

The HBO series ‘Show Me A Hero’ premiered earlier this year, marking David Simon’s (creator of the wildly popular series ‘The Wire’) return to what made his other work (including Generation Kill and The Corner) stand out from the rest – an unmistakably immersive reality, unflinching in its critique of who we are as humans.

Taking place in 1987 Yonkers, a boro of New York City, the series focuses on the massive amounts of political strife as the City of Yonkers was being forced by a federal judge to build affordable housing units which prior city councils had for years delayed amidst public opposition. The case was so contentious, it wasn’t resolved before the courts until 2007.

Here in Toronto, while the debate has not reached the point where anyone has mailed threatening notes containing bullets to councillors for voting in favour of affordable housing, nor are city councillors being threatened with jail time, nor is the city being threatened with fines to the point of bankrupting the municipal government, what must be acknowledged is that Toronto has been historically slow to respond to the demonstrated need for affordable housing units, especially given the rate at which cost of living has climbed in the GTA.


Photo: HBO, ‘Show Me A Hero’, Source: http://bit.ly/1GGePQO

‘Show Me A Hero’ depicts the growing pains which accompany satisfying decades of public housing needs all at once – a lesson Toronto ought heed. This willful ignorance is proving to be every bit as detrimental to our city’s bottom line as the punitive fines handed down to the City of Yonkers at the time – at present, the repair backlog is at just under $1 billion, and will nearly triple in the next decade if left unaddressed.

Under the Ford administration, Toronto saw action on affordable housing come to a relative standstill via official initiatives, including an appointment of Eugene Jones as the head of Toronto Community Housing, who was subsequently forced to resign amidst allegations of official misconduct. He has since been hired as the head of social housing in Chicago. At present pace, the creation of affordable housing is lacking the overwhelming demand, and is not so much addressing the need as it is slowing the rate at which the deficit grows.

The can has been kicked times to numerous to count. Now, the City of Toronto is faced with a defining moment in the city’s history – will we finally embrace the need to create affordable housing, or will we continue to ignore at our own peril?


Photo: Yonkers City Hall, 1988 Source: http://bit.ly/1H7cjxN

There are glimmers of hope in Toronto currently, with some innovative examples of creating affordable housing – the trend is moving away from large-scale, high-density institutional, and is edging towards partnerships which encourage incorporation of affordable housing into planned developments – the most notable of which is the Regent Park revitalization.

Two recent examples of this innovation include the use of Section 37 contributions to secure a percentage of units in a condo during the sales and building phase, as well as the city investing $12 million in another development – a move vehemently opposed by then-Mayor Rob Ford, citing that the city should not use prime waterfront real estate for affordable housing units. Following examples of inclusionary zoning as have recently been attempted in New York City, Toronto has already seen some impressive firsts in pursuit of a more affordable Toronto for everyone.

Now, Mayor John Tory is making a unique promise to help facilitate more projects like these, which would see developments including affordable housing see an unprecedented level of co-operation with the City of Toronto. While it won’t solve all of Toronto’s affordability issues all at once, at this point, action needs to be taken.


Photo: Regent Park demolition, 2011 Source: http://bit.ly/1icXqng

For better or for worse, Toronto is moving away from the style of affordable housing development which has come to characterize so much of the north and west of Toronto in areas such as Jane and Finch, and is looking to find a market approach to creating smaller pockets of higher-quality affordable housing units, in better-serviced areas of the city.

Will it work? It’s too early to tell, but it’s better than the inaction of administrations past.