Toronto Community Housing and the inhabitants of its vast and aging portfolio waited close to two decades for the return of badly needed federal support.
Much of their anxiety was lifted in spring when the Liberal government, through the National Housing Strategy, pledged $1.34 billion for improved accessibility and repairs at TCH. Mayor John Tory, standing with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau outside a TCH building in Scarborough in April, praised the Liberals as a true “partner” and one the city had long lacked.
“The previous (Harper) government did not have a national strategy and did not really have any sort of predictable sustainable housing funds,” Tory told the Star’s David Rider during a phone call from Copenhagen, where Tory is attending a mayors summit, last week. “And so there’s really no comparison available there.”
On Monday, the current municipal-federal partnership will be at stake and with it the management of the Liberal’s entire national housing strategy that, despite all parties pledging to make it easier for Canadians to access housing in one form or another, has been largely absent from public debate.
Janet Mason with the Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy at the University of Toronto said any long-term program comes with the risk of fractured relationships and the redirection of funds. While there is a “sense of partnership” between Tory and Trudeau, it should still be considered “early days” because there hasn’t been a lot to show for it on the ground, she said.
“You would want to continue to build it,” said Mason, about that partnership. “It would be very hard to start again when you think about what you want to achieve and who you are serving.”
Tory’s push for federal and provincial governments to each chip in a third share for a repair bill predicted to hit $3.2 billion by 2028, based on the 2019 capital budget, has spanned several years. The province has not committed to covering the final third of the bill.
The mayor said under the current Liberal plan, financial support “particularly for affordable housing is back-end loaded,” meaning much of the money supporting housing programs was already in place, will wind down and replacement funds will need to be approved. But the Liberals have given “every indication” they will honour their promises, Tory said. “On housing, that’s the report card.”
Tory said he had pressed Conservative party Leader Andrew Scheer on whether he would disrupt the allocation of promised funds and came away from that “good conversation” with the sense that Liberal pledges would be kept in place.
“The part that makes me a little worried is if you look at the sheet from the city manager’s office, keeping track of what all the parties have said so that we can prepare for the impact of any particular outcome of the election, there’s very little said about housing from the Conservative side.”
If the Conservatives win the federal election, Mason said “a big question mark” would be how Scheer’s policies and approach to housing aligns with those of Ontario Premier Doug Ford. For government partnerships to succeed, Mason said, they need to be based on shared priorities.
While the Conservative plan focuses on getting first-time buyers into homes and eliminating financial corruption, it is unlikely that a Conservative government would derail the existing strategy, housing experts told the Star, because there isn’t a lone expensive program to cut. What has been promised to TCH, as one example, is not a lump sum of cash but a split of grants and loans to be spent over many years.
“There isn’t a big cash spending program to cut in half. The big cash comes from loans and loans get reimbursed,” said David Hulchanski, a housing and community development expert at the University of Toronto, speaking about that pledge and the strategy overall.
The National Housing Strategy was launched in November 2017 and was always meant to span 10 years. The Liberals now value the plan at $55 billion and have said it will result in 125,000 new affordable housing units, allow for repairs to more than 300,000 units, cut chronic homeless in half and lift 530,000 families into safe and clean housing they can afford.
Hulchanski said the actual number is closer to $16 billion, broken out over 10 years, once current spending, loans and cost-matching with municipalities and provinces is factored in. Cash-based programs with money already flowing, such as the $140 million the federal government has provided annually to municipalities for homeless supports on an inflation adjusted basis since 2001 and which the Liberals increased to $200 million annually, is so small, relative to the federal budget, he said, it would be an unlikely target. “It is a tiny amount of money so why pick a fight. Why take that hit.”
The Star’s Ed Tubb asked opposition parties if they would honour Liberal promises on homelessness and housing. The NDP said they would maintain the TCH funding but fold it into their own replacement for the current strategy, which the party has criticized as falling short of actual need. The NDP has also said they will build 500,000 units of “quality affordable housing” over 10 years, the first half in just five years, and intends to “spur” that new development by waiving the federal portion of tax on construction costs, their online platform states.
The Green Party, on top of maintaining that TCH funding, would invest $750 million in new builds and drop $750 million into Canada’s housing benefit, which the Liberals said will be launched in April.
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The Conservative party directed the Star to its online platform, which states that Scheer would “maintain all projects” committed to by the Liberals while also adhering to a “reasonable and responsible infrastructure timeline” as part of a plan to balance the budget in five years.
Greg Suttor, a senior researcher at the Wellesley Institute, said there is always the chance a new government could slow funding or cancel spending if the numbers don’t align with future budgets.
“Governments don’t do that lightly,” Suttor said. “I would be less concerned about the winding back and more about not doing enough,” particularly when it comes to the need for more new rental housing.