On Rail Deck Park and Downtown Housing Affordability

Earlier today this article appeared in Metro News about the impact of projects like Rail Deck Park on housing affordability. I think this is a really important topic, so here I provide a bit more detail about my position.

There is no doubt about it: creating balance in a thriving, growing city is tricky, to say the least. Cities the world over that are attractive places to live struggle with affordability. This is, in part, the reason why strong public policy is required to ensure that the city remains both accessible and affordable for all, as both private and public investments are made.

In the absence of policy interventions – like Inclusionary Zoning – large segments of the population are priced out of high growth cities. Ironically, this has been the case for a long time. This is not a new phenomena in North American cities, where housing is primarily built by the private sector. St Lawrence neighbourhood, for example, was developed in the ’70’s in response to affordability challenges. And it was possible as a result of strong Federal policy that enabled cooperatives.

In light of the Rail Deck Park proposal, it is important to acknowledge that it *is* well established that parks and investments in public infrastructure (like transit) drive up property values. Desirability and liveability enhances demand. If fact, on our waterfront, investing in the public realm has been an intentional, strategic planning approach embraced precisely to attract private sector investment and to trigger revitalization. Sugar Beach, Sherbourne Common, and Corktown Commons are all examples of this approach. 

On the flip side, a lack of investment can result in stagnation, or decline (areas become less desirable if they do not have parks, schools and transit). With respect to Rail Deck Park, the challenge we see today is an underinvestment in park infrastructure which currently compromises the long term stability and viability of creating strong neighbourhoods in the downtown. Families have told us this. Some families want to raise their kids downtown, foregoing the long commute, and in close proximity to the best cultural life the city has to offer. But currently, despite the fact that the downtown is growing four times faster than the rest of the city, the downtown has a deficiency of park space. So the proposal for this investment is both a response to an existing gap in infrastructure, and a strategic move to ensure anticipated, ‘planned for’ future growth will materialize.

And yet it is difficult to overstate the importance of Inclusionary Zoning in response to continued escalating housing prices. While we have been able to secure affordable ownership and rental in the downtown on an incremental basis over the past several years through the development approvals process, Inclusionary Zoning is the best means to ensure strong growth results in a steady supply of affordable units.  It has been used with success in other high growth cities, including Washington DC, and is now being implemented in New York City.  Inclusionary Zoning can link the development of new, market priced units with the development of affordable units. 

In Toronto, this is essential to creating complete communities that allow a variety of household types and income levels to co-exist in the same neighbourhood. It is also increasingly necessary to help families – who are quickly priced out of the market. It is at the root of creating an inclusive, diverse city.