The Starter Home, Revisited

On the heels of a recent survey that found more than 50% of young professionals would like to purchase a home in Toronto, the Toronto Region Board of Trade (TRBOT) convened a panel discussion on housing affordability in the region. The Star’s Tess Kalinowski provided an overview of the event’s discussion.

I was asked to provide opening remarks and it gave me an opportunity to reflect on the issues challenging affordability in the region, and the implications for our planning policy.

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Low Vacancy Rates in Downtown Shouldn’t Come as a Surprise

According to a new report by CBRE, less than 5% of commercial space in downtown Toronto is vacant – a rate that is tied with booming San Francisco as the lowest in North America. Incredibly, this has occurred at the same time that Toronto has added an additional 4,400,000 ft2 (408,800 m2) of new office space over the past three years, enough room to accommodate 20,000+ employees. The City Planning Division’s 2015 Toronto Employment Survey counted half a million downtown workers, by far the highest level in Toronto’s history.

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My OPPI Keynote: Planner as Expert

A couple of weeks ago I spoke at the Ontario Professional Planners Institute annual conference. I spoke about the relationships between planners and elected officials, and the importance of being true to our role as experts within the planning process. Below is the text of an article that appeared in NRU on October 9, summarizing my address. It is posted with permission of the publisher of NRU Publishing Inc. The original article first appeared in Novae Res Urbis – Toronto Edition, Vol. 19 No. 40, Friday, October 9, 2015.   continue reading

Section 37: Securing Affordable Housing

The City of Toronto’s Official Plan articulates a vision in which housing choices are available for all people in their communities, and at all stages of their lives. Toronto’s quality of life, economic competitiveness, and social cohesion depend upon affordable and appropriate housing options. And yet, like so many desirable, rapidly growing cities, housing affordability is increasingly out of reach for many Torontonians. The reality is, there is no “quick fix” to address this challenge. Cities around the world struggle to provide affordable housing. I am increasingly convinced that a myriad of solutions are needed, using a variety of planning tools. I blogged about inclusionary zoning a few weeks ago, and before that I blogged about the Federal and Provincial role. The best examples of providing affordable housing in Toronto, such as the revitalized Regent Park and the St. Lawrence Neighbourhood, have involved all three levels of government playing a clear role.

Section 37 of the Planning Act also has a role to play, and is a tool specific to Ontario municipalities. It can be used by planners to negotiate the integration of affordable housing into a new development. While the affordable housing units secured using Section 37 may seem small, this is reflection of the value of a typical Section 37 agreement. It’s important to note that this is different from a Development Charge, which is a fee collected from developers at the time a building permit is issued to pay for the cost of infrastructure required to provide municipal services (such as roads, transit, water and sewer infrastructure, community centres and fire and police facilities).

Following are some examples wherein Section 37 was used to secure affordable housing units – an approach being applied more and more in instances where it is deemed desirable to do so.

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Section 37: Supporting Toronto’s Growing Families

With our population growing and more parents choosing to raise their families in Toronto, access to daycare is a critical component of how we plan and grow our city. Section 37 of the Planning Act enables the City to secure contributions for development applications that exceed a site’s zoned height and density. At the Village Green Square development in Scarborough (near the intersection of Kennedy Road and Highway 401), Section 37 was used to require the developer to provide a non-profit child care facility for local residents. As part of the next phase of development, a second non-profit daycare facility is planned to be opened.

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Section 37: Affordable Housing at Wychwood Barns

Wychwood Barns is truly a special place in Toronto. Located in a former streetcar maintenance facility near St. Clair and Bathurst, an engaged group of individuals helped transform the site into an innovative community cultural hub. Managed by the non-profit group Artscape, the complex includes heritage buildings, public green space, a greenhouse, farmers’ market, a beach volleyball court, offices for local community groups, and event space that accommodates cultural events.

Photo by Mario Giambattista

Photo by Mario Giambattista

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What is Inclusionary Housing, and why does it matter?

The challenge of providing affordable housing in rapidly growing urban centers is not new, nor is it easily solved. Around the world, major cities struggle to provide quality and affordable housing options. London and New York, for example, have had long-standing, well-documented crises of affordability that have only accelerated as these cities have become more and more desirable, resulting in considerable growth. As Toronto also grows, we will increasingly be no exception. As I write this, our market is reaching a feverish pitch – with small, semi-detached homes in walkable areas now tipping out over the $800,000 mark. In addition, there are currently 78,000 households on the waiting list for social housing in this city. We already need to be doing more to keep Toronto affordable and inclusive for all.

One of the ways some cities have managed their affordability challenge is to introduce inclusionary housing policies (sometimes known as inclusionary zoning) which make planning approvals conditional on new housing developments containing a specific proportion of affordable units. Simply put, laws are enabled that require new private, market housing developments to also include affordable units. Unlike many U.S. cities, however, Toronto does not have the legislative authority to implement inclusionary housing.

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Getting Density Right

Density is often touted – by myself included – as key to unlocking a more sustainable, liveable, cost efficient future.  Getting density right is central to creating communities where it is possible to do a variety of everyday activities within walking distance from home – like visiting a health clinic, buying groceries, or getting your haircut.  Walking has implications for our health, our sense of place, our connectedness to our communities, and our need to reduce our environmental footprint.

So all density is good, right?  Not so fast.   continue reading