Toronto ‘living on borrowed time’ with its large, aging residential towers

Toronto ‘living on borrowed time’ with its large, aging residential towers

Even as residents of 650 Parliament St., displaced for 18 months after a fire, prepared to return home beginning Monday, a panel of experts at the University of Toronto warned that similar calamities are waiting to happen in a city with a large and aging stock of residential towers.

“650 Parliament is the tip of the iceberg. We feel like you’ve been living on borrowed time with these towers — the time to act was 10 years ago,” said Jim Heid, a sustainable development adviser and one of the experts on a panel, convened Friday at the Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy, University of Toronto.

The panel capped a weeklong visit from Urban Land Institute experts, sponsored by the City of Toronto.

There are an estimated 1,200 residential rental towers in Toronto, said Graeme Stewart, a principal at ERA Architects, director of the Centre for Urban Growth and Renewal, and one of the speakers at the panel.

The residential tower boom of the 1960s and 70s, built to house a rapidly growing population in Toronto, created a pool of affordable rental units that exists to this day. Sixty years later, the towers need major investments to continue providing that housing.

Recent funding from the provincial and federal governments — including from the National Housing Strategy — have helped take care of a significant portion of the public housing towers, according to Stewart.

But the privately held residential towers also need updating, which they are unlikely to get unless private owners are motivated to do so.

“Most of our work in the last three or four years has been focused on the non-profit and social (housing) stock,” said Stewart. “The next chapter is, there’s thousands of buildings in private ownership that are constrained and really need some support.”

Private owners are facing retrofits that could cost $10-$15 million. There were tax incentives and a streamlined planning process to encourage the building of the towers. Now private owners need tax incentives and a streamlined planning process to encourage them to retrofit, Stewart said.

“That one building put so much pressure on the housing system and cost the city significant dollars,” Stewart said of 650 Parliament.

“What happens if two buildings go offline or 10 buildings go offline? The housing situation is so precarious it can’t handle that. We’re at the point where this is a public-interest issue.”

Panelist Purnima Kapur, the former executive director of the New York City Department of City Planning, said Toronto’s one per cent vacancy rate is a signal that the situation is dire.

She agreed the city needs to examine its approval process and also look at ways to encourage developers to build rental housing, by reviewing HST requirements and making borrowing capital less expensive for them.

City manager Chris Murray, who attended the session, said the city needs to take action on the issue.

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“650 Parliament was a very important lesson for us,” he said, adding that inexpensive rental units are integral to Toronto’s growth.

“When your growth is being basically driven by — and we’re incredibly proud of it — by immigration, making sure that people when they come to this city, or to this region for that matter, have that safe, entry level housing that they can afford in order to begin their lives here, that is not just an ethically important thing to do, it’s an economically important thing to do.”

Francine Kopun

Francine Kopun is a Toronto-based reporter covering city hall and municipal politics. Follow her on Twitter: @KopunF

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