Toronto Star Opinion: Toronto’s affordable housing plan a good start but falls short

Posted September 16, 2020

When we ask our members or constituents to name the single biggest issue they face, their most common answer is how hard it is to find affordable housing.
 
This is the case throughout our city. Not a week goes by when we don’t hear about a major condo or luxury rental development displacing an institution like Sneaky Dees or Rol San, changing the face of our neighbourhoods, and generally driving up prices.
 
With the power that the current provincial government gives to developers, the community benefits that can be achieved through private developments are extremely limited. But now is the moment to change that.
 
This week, city staff released a report on inclusionary zoning (IZ) that could transform the state of affordable housing in Toronto. The proposed policies put forward a framework outlining how this tool — which would require that developers include a certain amount of affordable housing in new residential buildings — might be employed.
 
Toronto is pretty late to IZ. After years of advocacy, the province only granted us the legal ability to start developing IZ policies in 2018. Hundreds of U.S. jurisdictions already use it, with some having started as early as the 1970s, and cities like New York, Boston and San Francisco now require that anywhere from 10 to 35 per cent of new developments be dedicated to affordably priced units.
 
Montreal has used IZ since 2005. When a developer applies to the city for rezoning to build a highrise, 30 per cent of the new units they are permitted to build must be affordable — rising to 40 per cent next year. Half of those units must be transferred to social housing providers and rented to low-income residents. The other half must be rented or sold at prices affordable to those with moderate incomes.
 
Short of significant intergovernmental investment in affordable housing — the likes of which our city has not seen in decades — IZ is Toronto’s best chance to finally build the units desperately needed by our low- and moderate-income residents.
 
Implementing the strongest possible IZ framework is especially important now. As a city councillor and an organizer for ACORN, we are seeing countless examples of how the pandemic is threatening Torontonians’ housing stability. Many who have lost their jobs or had their hours reduced have been unable to make rent, and the provincial government is now allowing landlords to evict them.
 
Finding affordable alternatives will be next to impossible for most. We personally know families where four or more individuals have been forced to share a one-bedroom apartment, and this type of situation — always unacceptable, but especially dangerous during a pandemic — will only become more common.
 
There’s a lot that city staff have gotten right in this report. The affordability period for units created through IZ would be 99 years, which means this housing stock would be protected for future generations. IZ housing would also comprise a mix of sizes, ensuring that affordable family-sized units are built.
 
More good news is that staff’s definition of “affordable housing” would take into consideration tenants’ incomes, and not just average market rates. As of July, the average monthly rent for a 751-square-foot Toronto condo (approximately the size of a one bedroom) was $2,420. With the suggested IZ formula, a one bedroom would cost $491 for a one-person household in the 30th percentile of incomes, and $806 for one in the 60th.
 
But when it comes to the proposed set aside rate — how much of a building is required to be affordable — the report falls short. Toronto City staff are proposing that only 5 to 10 per cent of a condo’s residential floor area be dedicated to affordable units, and 2.5 to 5 per cent in purpose-built rental buildings. They are worried that higher rates will discourage development. But the reality is that Toronto could set much more ambitious IZ requirements, and developers would still be able to make their buildings — and their profit — happen.
 
Additionally, city staff have suggested that developments be exempted from the policies if they have less than 100 units in some locations, and 140 in others. Last year, the Ford government hindered Toronto’s ability to employ IZ outside of major transit areas. The city should be aiming to maximize IZ’s outcomes where it is permitted, rather than impeding them further.
 
In the coming weeks, as Toronto starts consulting on these proposed policies, residents must let the city know that it’s imperative that we create as many units, in as many buildings as possible. Now is our moment to shift the power from developers to people, and to begin to turn the tide of the housing crisis.
 
Mike Layton is a Toronto city councillor for Ward 11. Alejandra Ruiz Vargas is the chair of East York ACORN.

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Source: Toronto Star

 

 

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