As the Oct. 22 municipal election draws near, we take a look at some of the most pressing challenges facing Toronto, what voters think, and how council and mayoral candidates propose to tackle them.
The Issue: Toronto is rapidly becoming a city for some, rather than all, because of rising home prices and a severe lack of affordable rental housing. Social housing is supposed to be a safety net — but just more than half of people who responded to a new poll are not confident they could access those lower-cost units when needed.
In a city with a dearth of affordable housing the state and fate of Toronto’s ailing social housing stock has become a hot-button issue in the build up to the municipal election.
Social housing in particular — which includes co-operative housing, private non-profit housing and Toronto Community Housing (TCH) — is no longer considered by voters as a safe and reliable option for people who cannot afford the rising costs of market rent.
Decades after the provincial and federal governments decided they no longer wanted to be responsible for some 2,100 buildings — $9 billion of publicly owned assets — that make up the TCH portfolio, the mostly vulnerable and low-income tenants face an uncertain future. As that housing stock has aged, the city has been left without the funding or political support to keep the units in good repair, resulting in pieces of some occupied homes literally crumbling to the ground.
While slightly more than two-thirds also said they had general concerns around social housing their reasons were split, with 36 per cent identifying criminal activity as a key concern, 21 per cent placing availability at the top of their list and 15 per cent pointing to the state of repair in existing units.
In Toronto, there are 96,828 households with active applications for social housing, based on information posted by the city and collected from a centralized wait-list That group includes 33,728 active applications for seniors.
Tensions between activists invested in the creation of more social housing and the bureaucrats tasked with making it happen has generated considerable friction in the city. Last week members of the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty protested in front of an abandoned property they want the city to expropriate, to speed up the creation of safe housing for the increasing number of people in dire need.
Mayor John Tory and mayoral contender Jennifer Keesmaat, who are leading the race for mayor, are both considered capable of managing the complicated file, with 35 per cent saying Tory was the most likely to fix social housing and 30 per cent betting on Keesmaat.
Keesmaat received the strongest support in York, East York and the old city of Toronto, or the downtown core. Her strongest backing came from voters aged 25 to 34, with 44 per cent of that group indicating they felt she was the best candidate to address the issue compared with 20 per cent for Tory. Tory had the biggest show of support from residents of Etobicoke, North York and Scarborough. In terms of age, his strongest backing came from people 65 and above, earning 53 per cent support compared with 19 per cent for Keesmaat in that same group.
Tory’s director of communications for the campaign, when asked about concerns about unit availability and repair issues, said the city has invested $1 billion in social housing repair over the last four years and noted that the 2018 repair budget for TCH buildings was at $300 million, up from $124 million in 2014.
“After years of underinvestment in the city’s housing stock by previous governments, the Mayor has been focused on working with other levels of government to clear the backlog of social housing, repair units and make sure units do not close,” said Keerthana Kamalavasan, in an email.
The estimated cost, or the amount still needed, to repair the aging stock is $1.6 billion. There is currently no funding committed to manage that backlog.
Premier Doug Ford’s decision to cancel a cap-and-trade program meant that provincial money pledged for energy retrofits and social housing repair is now also in jeopardy.
“Toronto needs this government to find at least similar money from a similar source and ensure the province is doing its part to keep social housing in good repair,” said Greg Suttor, a senior researcher at the Wellesley Institute. “The city for its part needs to make decisions about capital funding for Toronto Community Housing.”
Suttor noted there has been a recent spike in funding, a mix of federal dollars pledged to preserve social housing as part of the National Housing Strategy and the boost to the city budget, but it is vitally important that sustained funding is secured. “Those are big budgetary decisions that the city needs to make,” he said.
A lack of funding has already forced the closure of units across the city, including a block of townhomes in the Firgrove community, near Jane St. and Finch Ave.
Building an affordable city became an early and defining election issue, with Tory pledging to create 40,000 new affordable rental units in 12 years and Keesmaat pledging 100,000 over 10 years.
Keesmaat said the creation of more affordable rental housing should, if executed properly, release some of the pressure on social housing and must be combined with a commitment to reinvesting in buildings in need of repairs.
“That is our moral obligation as a city and is something we have fallen deeply behind on and as a result we need a strategy that will deliver — ensuring that we have high quality homes for everybody who needs one in this city,” said Keesmaat, speaking with the Star last week.
In Toronto, the term affordable housing has also become a point of contention as it is considered well out of the price range of people who rely on social assistance programs. The Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation releases figures on average rent for occupied units across the city. In Toronto, if a unit becomes empty then landlords can charge whatever they want.
One challenge factored into the future health of social housing is negative perceptions around who lives in those properties and the impact it could have on surrounding neighbourhoods, something reflected in the polling results. While two-thirds of voters said they approved of social housing, just one-third would approve if it was built in their neighbourhood.
Mayoral candidate Saron Gebresellassi grew up in social housing, in a TCH tower near Keele St. and Eglinton Ave. W., and thinks the concept of what is affordable needs to be redefined.
Gebresellassi is pushing to reduce the stigma around social housing and has spoken out against a request Tory made to the provincial government to amend of the Housing Services Act, which would allow TCH to ban tenants evicted for serious criminal activity.
She said she completely understands community concerns about the risk of violence, but barring people will boost recidivism and a multi-level government approach is needed to reduce poverty and crime.
“I really worry about that legislation because it is going to cause people to reoffend, if they can’t find affordable or social housing when they come out” of jail, she said.
Candidate Sarah Climenhaga said city land should be used to develop mixed-income housing and new developments should include at least 25 per cent affordable units, through inclusionary zoning rules.
Unless all levels of government reallocate more money for housing there will continue to be unnecessary pressures on hospitals and the criminal justice system at a significant cost to the public, she said.
“It is a far better use of public funds to house people safely and with dignity in their own homes.”
For its poll, Forum Research surveyed 987 randomly selected Toronto voters by phone, from Oct. 3 to Oct. 5. This research is not necessarily predictive of future outcomes but rather, captures opinion at one point in time. Results based on the total sample are considered accurate plus or minus 3 per cent, 19 times out of 20.
Emily Mathieu is a Toronto-based reporter covering affordable and precarious housing. Follow her on Twitter: @emathieustar