Affordable Housing & The New Year

As 2015 came to a close, we were left with significantly more optimism than has been warranted for quite some time.

2016 marks a brand new frontier for the topic of affordable housing, a topic which was largely lost amidst the frenzy that was transit and taxes in the 2014 Municipal Election, and it is long overdue that it sat so prominently in the minds of legislators.

The reason for optimism is a favourable alignment of political fortunes for at least the next few years which will place a priority on affordable housing unseen since the last half of the 20th century. With a progressive, yet fiscally-conservative mayor, a liberal premier who has emphasized poverty reduction and quality of life as issues of focus for the Provincial government, as well as a city-minded liberal Prime Minister who was elected on some big promises for Canada’s largest cities. 2016 will be the beginning of the change demanded by Ontario voters who rejected the Hudak model of urban policy, the Toronto voters who rejected the Ford model of city development and taxation, and the federal voters who rejected Harper model of reverse urban exceptionalism (anyone BUT Toronto, and other stokings of the urban-rural debate).

Much of Toronto’s city-owned housing was built between the 1950s and the 1970s, seeing massive tower blocks becoming the norm across much of the sprawling city. And such began the problem of Toronto’s social housing: too much height and too much density. The Toronto Strong Neighbourhoods Strategy 2020 is an initiative of the City of Toronto administered via the Department of Social Development, Finance and Administration’s Social Policy Analysis Research Unit has taken an unparalleled look at Toronto’s neighbourhoods, and – by way of a sophisticated combination of indicators – illustrated an undeniable pattern across the city: low-income neighbourhoods have ranked the lowest based on a ‘Neighbourhood Equity Score’.

The reason this score is important as it looks at factors including walkability and access to transit, as well as other factors to determine which neighbourhoods enjoy the best access to services and amenities necessary to a healthy and inclusive living experience. Not surprisingly, it was found that areas like Scarborough and most of the north and west of the city – areas with large pockets of not only city-owned housing, but also high-density, low-end market rental buildings – scored lowest in categories ranging from employment, to transit access, to instances of diabetes and heart disease, to access to fresh and healthful food, to prevalence of crime.

They also contained the highest proportion’s of the city’s minority and immigrant populations, an alarming statistic considering how frequently Toronto boasts about multiculturalism. In fact, Toronto’s unmistakably delineated pattern of inequality is nothing new, first formally identified in a report by the United Way of Toronto titled ‘Poverty by Postal Code’ in 2004 where researchers found that low-income Torontonians were highly clustered.

With the Syrian refugees being the most hotly contested post-election issue, and plans for Canada to host as many as 50,000 refugees – many eventually settling in and around the City of Toronto – the most prominent argument against has been the oft-confusing sentiment “Help Canadians first”, as if somehow agencies facilitating this resettlement like Immigration Canada were suddenly neglecting their mandates to assist born Canadians. While just about every variation of this argument seems to smack of ulterior motives and biases, there is one pearl of genuine value: we owe low-income Canadians better.

During the tenure of previous federal government, affordable housing saw very large and unnecessary cuts to federal dollar-matching funds which municipalities could receive funding support on the creation of affordable housing, and this sadly was the rule, not the exception. Under Stephen Harper, investment in affordable housing reached its ‘peak’ shortly after the effects of the 2008 recession began manifesting in the Canadian economy. All things considered, this ‘boost’ to spending translated to a laughable sum of an extra $17 per person, and was trending downwards right up until the polls closed on October 19, 2015.

With Prime Minister Trudeau publicly stating that his government will run a modest deficit to deliver on stimulus spending in the form of infrastructure and transit funding, and Toronto Community Housing’s wait list and maintenance shortfall growing by the day, Toronto must press full steam ahead in 2016, as well as seize every opportunity to collaborate with both higher levels of government in creating affordable housing as well as healthier, better-integrated neighbourhoods.

The Bank of Canada is seeking to cool Toronto’s perpetually overheated housing market, but there is no downward pressure on rental prices, nor many large-scale ambitious rental housing developments amidst the condo frenzy that is downtown Toronto. With a city that is almost half renters, and so much aging rental housing stock, a truly inclusionary housing policy will need to ensure there are suitable rental housing options, and that affordable housing isn’t as unnecessarily clustered as it’s been in the past – for the benefits of all Torontonians, new and established.