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Bridge Beat

Feb 10, 2020

HOUSING T.O. – Toronto’s (pretty) new Housing Plan

Awright Awready, I know its February and this plan came out in November, but what can I tell you, I was busy with a bunch of closings over Christmas and things have carried merrily into 2020 on my desk.

Happily, the new Housing T.O 2020 – 2030 action plan runs ten years, so its not like its really too late to make a few comments. In case you want to read along from the plan itself, here is the link. 

Affordable Housing Everywhere

First, its a very complete summary of housing programs currently operating in the City. Let’s say you’ve read about housing stuff piecemeal – a bit of Inclusionary Zoning here, rental replacement by-laws there, Toronto Community Housing everywhere. This plan will bring it together for you in one place.

Affordable Housing everywhere. While that may seem like a planning projection, its  totally true right now. When I was at TCH I would go to a friends for dinner, I would look I up the nearest housing and it was always nearby. In variably, the subject of my then new job would come up followed by a variation on this old chestnut : « At least, I don't have to worry about that here – social housing would lower my property value ». And then I could say that actually, the nearest community housing is right down the street. I had such fun doing that! Point being - If you live in the City and you think there isn’t any social housing near you, probably not wise to bet on that hunch.

And it seems the city wants to keep it that way. Much of the document is committed to ways in which social and affordable housing will be kept, maintained and/or build it every part of the City. Housing Now sites are spread out and inclusionary zoning is coming soon to a development near you. That follows naturally from a policy that is grounded on the notion that there is a human right to adequate housing and that the public sector is the prime vehicle for ensuring on that right, both through land ownership (think housing now, Waterfront) and regulation (think inclusionary zoning, rental replacement). In general, this is a good thing. The City is a more functional and happier place when there is a variety of income levels around and we are not  banishing people to the outskirts of the City when they can’t afford downtown.

Rent geared to Affordable what?

While a lot of the report is a collection of housing programs that you have probably heard of before, there were a couple of real surprises for me. The first is the direction to have the City establish a new income based definition of affordable housing. It’s surprising for a couple of reasons – or the past I- dunno-twenty-years or something like that there has been Rent Geared to Income (RGI) and affordable housing. And they were different concept. In RGI the tenant pays a given percentage of their income as rent. No surprise there its exactly what it call itself – rent is geared to income. Affordable Housing, meanwhile has rents set as a function of CMHC average market rent. Affordable housing has always been the more confusing of the two because for many people paying average market rent is not affordable and because politicians have a funny habit of saying : We have 100,000 plus households on our social housing wait-list so we kneed more affordable housing. Except the people on the wait list are generally not waiting to pay 80% or 100% of average market rent. (So please stop saying that) 

The Plan is looking for something between the two where affordable rent is also geared to income.  I am having trouble understanding that. As it is mow affordable hosing grants are a capital subsidy. Builders borrow less, preserving their net operating income, which is less then what it would be if they charged what the market would bear. But if that rent is variable, I don't see how that works. So I am looking forward to the new model.

The Land Bank

I know of at least 3 land trusts out there, so my question here is – What does a land bank add - does it serve a different function somehow. So the basic reason for creating a land bank is clear – want to build more housing? You need land to build it on, so the Land Bank will create a pipeline of those lands. But where does this land come from that gives the City more of this land then it already has? Not for profits and co-ops? Why wouldn’t they just develop on that land? Private sector? Maybe, but its so rare to see without profit taking. Soooo… what’s the point of creating a land bank?

There is an underlying point to land banking that is worth underlining though – you cant have sustainable housing where the speculative value of land is part of the equation. So the sooner land is removed from the market, the better.

Good for the City

As always, I and many others will have comments and  thoughts on the plan. But we have a plan and the City deserves some credit setting out its objectives and how it hopes to implement. This is not an easy task, but if there is no guiding document, we’d be in worse shape. As former public servant – I offer a shout out to the drafters. Lots of work there – thank you.  

Good bye Sean Gadon

One of the directing minds behind this document is the recently retired Sean Gadon. It’s hard to not to understate Sean’s contribution to housing over the past decade and a bit leading the Affordable Housing Office. Sean has worked the City’s objective into some awesomely complex projects over his time and had has hands in the creation of literally tens of thousands of units across our City. He has been a constant force in housing and at City Hall though I-don't-know-how-many administrations. Sean, we wish you well in whatever is next and I know that means we’ll see you at the next housing conference.

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