Today’s Market: Meet Affordable Housing

2015 has been a rollercoaster year for affordable housing advocates in Toronto, to say the least.

The first year of Mayor John Tory’s administration saw a ‘will he/won’t he?’ approach to affordable housing, which saw gains in regards to public housing. Often lost amidst the chaos of the 2014 Municipal Election, affordable housing was largely shadowed by transit and plans for the Gardiner Expressway. He had issued criticisms during the election, and had promised action, but the lead up to the Pan Am games occupied Toronto’s attention for much of the year. The athlete’s residences were slated to be converted into affordable housing, a bright spot for affordable housing advocates around the city. Ultimately, the waitlist for the former athelete’s village reached four times the building’s capacity.

Last month’s Federal Election, however, marked new reason for optimism. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s city-friendly agenda slated billions of dollars in infrastructure spending, as well as transit investment, much of which will be focused on Canada’s largest city.

This message appears to be what was needed to light a fire under Mayor Tory. With Trudeau’s election, it marks a new era of potential progress for Toronto, where the city has a forward-thinking Mayor who has a Premier with whom he could have a productive relationship, while at the same time, the Premier could have a productive relationship with the Prime Minister.

The stars appear to be aligning for Toronto’s affordable housing advocates, with progressives now in charge at all three levels of government.

Last week, Mayor Tory announced his ‘Open Doors Initiative’ (ODI) to spark creation of affordable housing by private developers – a practice which has been gaining popularity over the last few years. While various models have been used to create dedicated, integrated affordable housing in market developments, there has been no official template for the practice. This announcement comes just weeks after the province announced an initiative to end homelessness in Ontario by 2026.

The main points of the ODI are related to ‘red tape’ surrounding creation of affordable housing, including development and application fees. While falling short of offering a framework for inclusionary zoning, there is reason for hope as Toronto has already seen   a number of innovative affordable housing solutions, including using Section 37 contributions towards securing affordable units, and purchasing of blocks to be earmarked as affordable housing.

While there is reason for optimism, what is more important is making a realistic and honest assessment of the current state of Toronto’s public housing model. In assessing ‘Neighbourhood Equity’, the Toronto Strong Neighbourhoods Strategy 2020, it was found that there were very clear patterns which emerged when looking into the distribution of housing across Toronto, which further confirmed trends observed in United Way Toronto’s report ‘Poverty by Postal Code’. Not surprisingly, Toronto’s poverty is concentrated most intensely in neighbourhoods with public housing.

Moving forward, affordable and public housing options can no longer take an ‘out of sight, out of mind’ approach to development. New housing consider public amenities like transit, a central location, and integrated into established neighbourhoods in lower density areas. A number of sites have already been identified for development on city-owned lands, and with them an opportunity for a fresh start.

Quality of life investments can be present in the form of access to food which agrees with the ‘5 A’s of Food Security’ – Accessibility, Availability, Adequacy, Acceptability and Agency , as well as community amenities at the same level as recent public housing revitalizations such as Regent Park. Making a youth friendly environment with lots of social capital becomes especially important as we learn the risks associated with socially isolated low-income youth.