Working Together to Make Housing More Affordable in Canada: A Call To Action

Earlier this year, I joined Benjamin Gianni, Professor and former Director of Carleton’s Azrieli School of Architecture & Urbanism, in a panel discussion organized by Carleton University in Ottawa on the role of the Federal Government in securing affordable housing for Canadians. For more details on this event, click here. The following text is adapted from the presentation I gave at that event. The recommendations were pulled together with input from the City of Toronto Affordable Housing Office

February 3, 2014

Toronto has been a partner with the Provincial and Federal government for over 60 years in operating and maintaining over 90,000 social housing units.  Our city is better for it, but the need remains great.  As of December 2013, 167,472 people are on the affordable housing wait list, and Toronto Community Housing’s portfolio requires $2.6 billion in repairs over the next 10 years.

But why should the Federal government care? Isn’t the provision of affordable housing a provincial, and, as downloaded during the Harris era, a municipal, issue?

Housing and Immigration

Doug Saunders, in his award winning book, Arrival City, chronicles the last wave of human migration: we are in the midst of a final human shift, on a global scale, from being rural to fundamentally urban. He argues that this migration is both the most important development of the 21st Century, and in turn, results in “arrival cities” – neighbourhoods or slums that are linked to a larger urban centre – and that the fate of our country is in fact inextricably linked to how well these “arrival cities” fare.

Our success as a country has been tied to our ability to integrate newcomers, within one generation, into the middle class. My grandparents, on both sides of my family, arrived from war-torn Holland in the 1950’s to start a new life.  Their story is the same old story: although promised jobs did not materialize, and credentials, unexpectedly, were not recognized – as a result of tenacity and hard work, my family was able, like so many other newcomer families, to gain a foot fold in Canada and build a life here.

The story of arrival is often one of finding shelter.  Shelter comes first.

As Lester B. Pearson declared in 1965, “It is only a very rare soul that can expand in a hovel.  The objective of decent housing simply has to be achieved in our democratic society” (as cited in the forward of the Affordable Housing Action Plan, City of Toronto).

Does the Federal government have an interest in ensuring newcomers successfully transition into Canadian life? Municipalities assist the Federal government by serving as the “intake” centres for federal immigration and should be supported, not abandoned, in providing decent housing for new arrivals.  Doing so is critical to ensuring newcomers become thriving, contributing members of Canadian society.

Evolving Housing Preferences

But the need for affordable home ownership extends beyond new immigrants.  Echo Boomers, the fastest growing demographic in our country, and the largest demographic in Toronto, are moving into the core of the city in astonishing numbers – driving our condo boom and making Toronto one of the fastest-growing large cities in North America.  This cohort is choosing to walk to work, to take transit or to cycle.  It costs on average approximately $8,000 a year to own a car – this cohort is choosing to spend more on housing and less on commuting.

But this precious demographic – precious because they are highly mobile, and at the same time will be the lifeblood of our future economy as boomers begin to retire – are on the cusp of hitting a wall: young people, as they start families, want to stay in the core.

And keeping them in the core serves a variety of key public policy objectives by contributing to reduced congestion and lowering our overall environmental footprint and green house gas emissions, and results in a lower per capita cost on key, expensive infrastructure, like transit.  It should also be noted that this cohort is driving our office sector building boom – a full quarter of all office buildings being built in Canada are under construction in the downtown core of Toronto.  This is good for Canada.

But increasingly the cost of family-oriented housing is out of reach for young households seeking to raise children and stay in Toronto.  In 1987 the average house cost was 10 times the average annual household income; by 2011, that figure had risen to 15 times average annual income.  While housing costs have increased by 67% over the past decade, real income has only increased by 13%.

At the same time, we know that building new homes makes a powerful, positive contribution to the economy – construction contributed over $8 billion to Toronto’s economy in 2011 – and application fees to process the approval of new housing for December 2013 reached a new high (signaling that we are not on the cusp of a slow down).

Housing and Health

But ensuring access to decent housing also matters to a better environment, to healthier communities, and to healthier people. Access to good housing is a precursor to health. When residents have the option to live close to where they work, transportation costs decrease significantly.  In the GTA, we spend an average of a day a week behind the wheel, getting to and from work.  We see this as a transportation problem  – and it is.

But it is also – maybe even moreso – an affordable housing problem.  In order to understand this, it is important to note that suburban housing development in Canada has been aided by hidden subsidies over the past, wherein we have facilitated suburban growth – 22 million Canadians now live in auto-oriented suburbs – that has resulted in a crippling road and transit state-of-good-repair deficit.  On a per capita basis, our sprawling suburbs are costly, rich infrastructure.

Our housing, commute, and health problems are linked. Dr. Mike Evans, in his viral Youtube video 23 ½ hours, builds a compelling case for the importance of walking, cycling and taking transit to work, given that so many chronic diseases of our time – diabetes, heart disease, arthritis – could be mitigated by a half hour of physical activity a day. It’s time that we ensure our subsidies are linked to much broader public policy objectives.

We also need to avoid an emerging situation where employees of the service industry, education, and healthcare systems among others cannot afford to live in the same municipality as they work.

And because it is clear that investing in housing results in savings in the health, education, criminal justice and social service systems, we need to ensure these investments are creating desirable places to live over the long-term.

New Models, New Roles: Enable People to Build Equity

It is difficult to underestimate the value of new affordable home ownership.  It is a powerful way forward, allowing individuals or families to build equity. While there are some things that we can do on a city-wide scale to incentivize affordable home ownership (such as allowing it to be built as a Section 37 benefit), municipalities across Canada must deliver more value on city-owned land, through revitalization and redevelopment, and we must require the implementation of mixed housing opportunities when lands are transferred to the private sector.  Here, clearly, there is a public policy role for the Federal government to play.

But these opportunities would be significantly easier to realize if Provincial policies existed to allow for inclusionary zoning in redevelopment projects (which is the case on the West Coast). Inclusionary zoning references public policy that requires “a given share of new development to be affordable by people of low to moderate income.”

Affordable housing for the elderly, and the vulnerable should not be forgotten in this discussion.  About 85% of Canadians over 55 years old want to remain in their present home for as long as possible, even as their health changes. In Canada, vast areas of our cities are comprised of low density housing – designed for single families. As baby boomers enter retirement, given that more people are choosing to live on their own, there are some easy wins that municipalities can pursue to increase affordable housing options. These include allowing secondary suites and regulating group homes, such that traditional single family homes can adapt to changing demographics in a way that is regulated and protects existing neighbourhood character.

In summary, municipalities have a clear role to play in:

  1. Prioritizing the delivery of affordable housing on surplus lands, and ensuring these lands are integrated into larger, mixed-use complete communities, supported by transit;
  1. Developing and implementing clear public policy that requires mixed-use housing opportunities. This will ensure a variety of housing types and tenures at densities that support walkable communities;
  1. Allowing secondary suites in homes, where they are currently not allowed today, and similarly, regulating “group homes”;
  1. Requiring affordable housing as part of all “large site” developments (City of Toronto requirement is 20%);
  1. Partnering with agencies that deliver affordable housing, such as Habitat for Humanity, Options for Homes and Artscape, to name a few, to significantly increase their reach;
  1. Providing incentives, where possible, for agencies delivering affordable housing to succeed (expediting approvals, forgiveness on fees, etc).

Both the Provincial and Federal governments have a clear role to play as well:

  1. Contribute 1/3 share to existing capital needs in social housing stock, which is in a critical state of disrepair;
  1. Create a long-term plan to fully fund long-term social housing needs – like other G8 countries;
  1. Develop new market-based incentives for rental housing: a suite of incentives or a kit of tools, for example:
  • provide relief from corporate taxes for agencies/developers when building purpose-built rental;
  • provide a reduction of HST for corporations that reinvest the savings into creating new affordable rental units;
  • create an investment tax credit (refund from Canadian Pension Plan).
  1. The Provincial government should enable “inclusionary zoning” in Ontario, and all other Provinces where it does not currently exist; and
  1. The Federal government urgently needs to address the expiry of existing social housing operating agreements in 2014.

Working together in this way, we can make housing more affordable for all Canadians.

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