This week we tackled TORONTO HOUSING. We had four incredible speakers from a wide range of disciplines who offered their expertise and insights on the housing crisis in Toronto. Adrienne Pacini of SHS Consulting, Cheryll Case, an urban planner, Joy Connelly who has worked in social housing for 30+ years, and Evan Sidall the President and CEO of CMHC: Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation. What did we learn? Read our summary below to find out.
TORONTO HOUSING 101
What does Affordable housing mean?
Historically, this term has been used as a ‘catch all’ for units available to people who are paying for 30% or less of their income before tax on housing. Half the people renting in Toronto are now paying more than 30% of their income on housing. Each jurisdiction has a slightly different definition, and is responsible for creating zoning bylaws, administering local community housing and creating a municipal housing plan. Adrienne offered the chart below, outlining a recent study done in the Peel Region. This is very similar to what is happening in Toronto currently.
If you’d like to read more about Toronto’s current Housing Strategy it can be found HERE. This is Toronto’s plan for addressing the City’s housing and homelessness issue – it’s currently under review and a new plan is to be released in the fall of 2019.
Generally speaking, Toronto has many tools to provide affordable housing in this city. What is lacking is the political will. There is lack of acknowledgment that housing is a human right. To understand this, one needs to trace decisions to the top and look at who is in the room when the decisions for our underserved populations are made. Often, these are privileged people in positions of power. As a society, we need to look at the systematic discrimination that leads to the displacement of groups who have been historically oppressed. Cheryll pointed out that 2/3 of the city of Toronto is zoned for detached housing (a zoning law is a set of properties and their intentions). The way Toronto is zoned is based on our societal standards of home ownership, which are unrealistic for the majority of the population. If you’d like to find out more about Toronto’s zoning laws you can dive in HERE.
Evan Sidall gave us a summary of what CHMC does, including regulating insurance, to provide housing and to promote housing affordability in Canada. The political economy can make these goals challenging. Their new plan, which has been in the works for 4 years, involves a 40 billion dollar 10 year commitment to address housing issues in Canada. This number sounds significant but the reality is that it will barely move the needle.
The factors that impact Toronto’s demand include our growth in both economy and population. The supply response simply has not been quick enough. Paired with rising rates, there is an imbalance that needs to be corrected.
The two other most prominent problems Toronto faces are the wealth effect – the fact that the housing market is making rich people richer, and the poor poorer, and the financialization of housing – the fact that housing has become an asset which is driving our demand even higher, which in turn drives prices as well.
The incredible Joy Connelly broke down for us in a few simple steps some specific actions that Toronto can take to ease the housing crisis.
- Inclusionary zoning. There are cranes all over this city; we know that new units are constantly being built. Each of these should have affordable housing within them. Our former provincial government set this in motion (learn more here and here) and we could use it!
- Protecting the affordable rental housing we already have. Toronto has 600,000 privately owned purpose built rental houses. This is a wonderful thing! Though they are old (by 2020 ⅔ of them will be 50 years old and ¼ will be over 70 years old) and need investment.
- Fair property taxes. Right now the tax rates on a rental unit are 2.47 times the rate of a privately owned home. This means it’s paid through tenant rights. This is an unjust system where tenants who are in the lowest income bracket are the ones subsidizing home owners . The city should equalize the rates or pass this into a pool.
- Give tenants the right of first refusal when selling. Washington DC has this policy – why can’t we? If more than half the tenants have low income and want to turn it into a co-op, the government legally has to help them out with cash paid for through the land transfer tax.
- Toronto community housing – built around the same time as the rest of our housing and people tend to assume it is hopeless, the fact is it’s there and we need to use it. The city is the sole owner of it, and needs to pay for improvements.
Joy’s takeaway was that Toronto (and all of Canada) needs to go ALL IN on housing. If you look to cities and governments that have made significant strides in making their housing truly affordable it comes down to the fact that they went all in. They made housing a top priority (which it needs to be in a crisis) and took action. We need a city manager and mayor who are determined to make it happen.
Do we currently have more or less power as tenants than we used to?
Cheryll pointed out that our laws have not changed, and that people have become less trusting. Even to apply to become a tenant, landlords ask for more data than ever before because landlords have become more careful about their investment (financialization of housing). Re-zoning some of our categorization of land uses, and include all of our boroughs is one step we could take in the right direction.
Evan offered some hope by acknowledging that the current government believes in the dignity of housing in that it allows for people to participate in society and engage in it. He then offered a few suggestions that could make real change: vacancy taxes, GST cuts that would stimulate housing, and capping the amount of money you can make on your residence. All of these require a strong political will to enact.
Joy pointed out the ways in which our society has changed the definitions of what affordable means. In 1969 the average Canadian spent 17% of their income on housing. The CMHC guideline at the time was that individuals should pay more than 20%. Things have shifted and as the market has gotten worse our norms and expectations have slid too.
The funding in Toronto that is being used to find creative solutions to affordable housing, is often coming in at just the average market rent, or a little below it at something like 80% of the cost. This is not accurate, as it reflects the market rather than the needs of the population. We need to be pricing our new affordable housing based on what people can afford. There are ways to do this – segmenting affordable housing to make sure there is some affordable housing available to people of a specific income.
Vienna has 60% of its population living in social housing -would our government be open to radical ideas like this, or will we stick to our capitalistic methodology?
Evan noted that for this, we would need a different government. Joy followed with the position that our solution needs permanent affordability. The solutions are out there -Toronto has the land. All of our non-profits, co-op spaces and churches were bought when land was cheap and that land is now out of the marketplace. We need to put this land into the right hands.
Cheryll referenced a situation where transitional housing was built in Kensington market – and this was accepted specifically because of its location. Often, projects like this are faced with NIMBYism and discriminatory ideals. When you hear ‘we want to respect the character of our neighbourhood’ – it means they do not want your affordable housing to exist there. There also need to be city councillors in these wards who are responsive. If they don’t want rooming housing, your councillor can stop these projects from moving forward.
Adrienne discussed our societal obsession with this ‘Canadian dream’ that includes home ownership. This ideal works directly against housing as a basic need as it drives the market higher. In other places in the world the housing is owned by the public, whereas here there is stigma to government housing. The Open Door Affordable Housing Program is the city of Toronto’s program to give money to groups who are trying to build affordable housing. They help fund construction.
What’s happening with ‘renevictions’ and what can be done in terms of enforcement?
The system we have in place is reactive. Once an infringement happens, there are processes you can look to for support. Cheryll spoke to the fact that we need INCENTIVES. What about placing a fine on a landlord if a fine is processed with them? Joy pointed out that when rallying together, tenants have been making real change.
If you look at the average rent increase, it is double the rate of what is legally set in place by the Ontario government. Landlords are turning over at high rates and they are applying for above byline rent increases. The lack of enforcement is a huge problem on a large scale.
Question: We’re in the middle of the election – what should we be listening for in our candidates’ platforms – What are the earworms we should be calling bullshit on or saying oh they get it?
Adrienne: What orthodoxies or commonly held wisdom are people perpetuating in the system? Are all of the solutions they’re offering bandaids that will replicate the same outcomes?
Why are tenure times the way they are? Why are the concepts of renting or owning so binary? Can we make this more fluid? Look to the candidates who are offering unique solutions. There is currently a fight between landlords and renters – how do we change that dynamic? We need a system of transparency and trust.
Cheryll – pay attention to the words. If they use the word taxpayer more than they use the word resident, this is a red flag. We’re all taxpayers, but if you pay less it’s because you make less. This does not mean you matter less. Do they talk about access to housing?
Key point echoed by all speakers: nothing starts or ends with the vote – talk to people in your community, build a block that they can’t ignore.
Evan – Do you hear the words vulnerable, underserved, are they talking about particular population groups that are not looked after in the system? Food for thought – if they are talking about wanting to give a higher down payment, they are taking care of wealthy people. Are they helping demand for people or supply?
Joy – Question when you hear big numbers – where are they going? ew units – what do they mean by affordable? -Affordable to whom? – ask is it permanently affordable and how – is it just those kinds of big numbers or are people talking about zoning solutions? – those are tough for city councillors who don’t hear those types of solutions.
That’s all for housing! We were also lucky enough to have Yvonne Su from Samara Centre for Democracy start the night with a quick overview on what happened in the past week in Toronto politics. Follow them and learn more here. Be sure to stop by next week when we have Gavin Crawford from CBC hosting a mayoral roast with the candidates themselves!