Toronto Star Op-Ed: The 7 steps Toronto needs to take to create affordable housing

Posted October 31, 2019

As you read this, City of Toronto staff are busily drafting the new housing plan for Toronto. It’s a critical issue for our city. But many in the housing sector are worried, and with good reason. The last housing plan was, by pretty much universal agreement, a failure.
The last housing plan started well. It clearly named the depth of the problem, and the urgent need for action. It called on the city to “be bold, be innovative, and above all else, be a leader” and to build 1,000 new affordable homes each year.
Needless to say, it didn’t meet any of those marks.
The only year the city achieved its housing target was when other levels of government showed the leadership and funded the new homes for us. In some years we actually lost more affordable housing than was built. After 10 years, the city hit only 40 per cent of its goal, the housing waiting list grew by 34 per cent, and now 47 per cent of renters can’t afford their current housing.
City Council needs to do better this time.
And it can.
That’s why more than 30 housing providers, advocates, and service organizations have written to council endorsing seven clear targets the city has to meet to make sure this housing plan actually works.
City Hall can reassure Torontonians that the new housing plan is a real strategy for change when it writes a plan that hits the following, widely endorsed, benchmarks:
  • Recognize housing is a right. The city is off to a good start, having directed staff to use a “rights-based approach” in designing the new housing plan. Now we just need to adopt and implement this approach.
  • Invest city resources in building new affordable housing. The failure of the last plan was, more than anything else, a failure to invest in its success. That’s why investing city resources in housing was among the most frequent requests in the recent housing plan consultations. A city that can spend an extra billion dollars to put the Gardiner up on stilts has the capacity to use its land and resources to build more affordable homes.
  • Use resources efficiently. Right now, most of the affordable housing created by the city comes through subsidies to private developers and landlords to provide short-term rental housing. This approach is quick and easy, but it’s very expensive. Each year, we’re paying the private sector twice what it would cost to get a comparable unit of permanently affordable housing from the non-profit sector. Let’s invest where we get the largest amount of the deeply affordable housing for the longest time.
  • Use the city’s regulatory and planning powers to make more housing affordable. Cities like Vancouver and San Francisco use tools like vacancy taxes and antispeculation bylaws to keep housing more affordable. We can too. We can also leverage the housing boom better. Toronto tends to get about 10 per cent of revenue created when it permits a new 40-storey highrise, far less than the 70 per cent Vancouver gets. Let’s stop selling Toronto short.
  • Keep the housing we have. The cheapest unit of housing is one you don’t have to build. But we have lost hundreds of public housing units by underfunding maintenance, and lost thousands of units in rooming houses and affordable apartments to conversions and renovictions. Smart strategies are being pioneered by cities like Montreal and non-profits in Parkdale that can reduce these losses. Let’s use them.
  • Tackle homelessness. The deepest crisis in our city is chronic homelessness. The death toll from it rivals Toronto’s murder rate, and still homelessness grows every year. Housing homeless people needs to be central to the plan.
  • Ensure council is accountable for actually delivering. It’s not hard. Report progress every year and present options for making up ground where we have fallen short.
It’s time for the city to genuinely take on our housing crisis, with a plan that can actually deliver, using the strategies, resources, and tools we have at our disposal.
Over 30 leaders in the housing sector all agree. If the city is serious about addressing the housing crisis, it needs to take these seven steps. In just a few weeks, we will see if council is ready to take them.
By Alejandra Ruiz-Vargas, Sean Meagher, and Brian Davis for the Toronto Star



Sign up for ACORN's newsletter