Scarce and precarious. Toronto’s rental situation constitutes a state of emergency for frontline housing workers. But policy researcher Jeremy Withers says he is more angry than discouraged.
A housing policy researcher, who is working on his PhD, Withers said other cities are doing a better job of creating affordable homes using policies like inclusionary zoning and non-profit ownership of buildings that would otherwise be bought up by predatory landlords.
He helped organize a conference Saturday by the University of Toronto School of Cities designed to set the stage around the city’s next-decade housing policy called HousingTO 2020-2030, an action plan being formulated this year.
The event was also about mobilizing activism, he said. It’s “an important moment” at the beginning of a new term of city council, for housing activists to grab the attention of new councillors and others, who may not be on board with some potentially beneficial policies.
The conference called “Affordable Housing Lessons for a New Decade of Housing Policy in Toronto” drew about 200 housing workers, activists, policy-makers and academics. Based on a show of hands, more than half of the participants were struggling to afford housing or worried about eviction themselves.
“Because so many people are locked out of home ownership there’s a huge influx of affluent renters and yet there’s no new stock of rental being built,” Withers said. “We’re hearing the term ‘housing crisis’ a lot right now because these issues are suddenly affecting middle income renters — middle income people who felt entitled to home ownership.”
But the housing crisis isn’t new for many people being squeezed hardest now, he said.
“People on the low-income spectrum, racialized communities, Indigenous communities, they have been experiencing this crisis for many decades, centuries. When we target so much of our resources and discussion towards the middle income . . . we’re leaving so many people, who have experienced the real brunt of this crisis, behind” he said.
U of T adjunct professor Philippa Campsie called for a culture change around renting. “Other countries seem to take rental as normal. This second-class citizenship — we need to address this. Tenants vote. We treat them as expendable,” she said.
It is also time to make room for rooming houses on the shelter spectrum, she said. Campsie has studied the history of Toronto rooming houses, including the 1989 Rupert Hotel fire that killed 10 men downtown and a Scarborough rooming house fire last year that killed an 18-year-old female student and injured another tenant.
Since amalgamation, Toronto has failed to develop a cohesive rooming house policy that allows for licensed rooming houses across the city, said Campsie. Rooming houses are places where tenants may rent a room with a bathroom or kitchen but never both and they pay their rent individually rather than as a group. But the failure to harmonize the rules means there are huge tracts of the city where they are not allowed — places like Scarborough and North York, she said.
That drives the rooming houses underground where they are invisible and beyond the jurisdiction of fire and public health inspectors.
“There is an urgent need for people to rent just as much housing as they need and they need it in all parts of the city,” said Campsie.
Inclusionary zoning, a policy that forces developers to devote a percentage of their projects to affordable housing, comes up for city consultations this summer but the final policy targets will likely be delayed due to changes recently announced by the province in its sweeping housing Bill 108, said Toronto’s inclusionary zoning project manager Deanna Chorney.
It limits the zoning policy to areas of about 500 metres to 800 metres around major transit stations. The province is committed to identifying those transit zones in its Growth Plan by 2022, she said.
Richard Drdla, a policy consultant and housing advocate, called the provincial bill “a disaster” that will limit how much affordable housing the city can build.
The idea of inclusionary zoning, which started in U.S. cities, is to embed affordable housing in all areas of the city, he said.
Councillor Mike Layton (Ward 11 University-Rosedale), the only politician to speak at the conference, said it will take two years to put inclusionary zoning in place.
“If Bill 108 is any indication, developers are whispering in the ears of government in Ontario and telling them what to write,” he said.
He added that the city “can’t get out of the business of building affordable housing. We can’t get out of the business of regulating tenants and landlords.”
Because 76 per cent of Canadian rentals are at least 36 years old, it’s critical those buildings be retrofitted into healthy places, said Graeme Stewart, director of the Centre for Urban Growth and Renewal and a principal with ERA Architects.
He cited the federal Liberal government’s $1.3 billion commitment over 10 years to Toronto Community Housing Corp., as a bright spot with much of that money likely to be invested in renewing existing affordable rentals.
It cost $100,000 to retrofit a rental unit, compared to $250,000 to build a new one, he said.
Tess Kalinowski is a Toronto-based reporter covering real estate. Follow her on Twitter: @tesskalinowski