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January 04, 2019

Is there a ‘policy’ elephant in Toronto’s affordable housing strategy?

Is there a ‘policy’ elephant in Toronto’s affordable housing strategy?
Row houses in Toronto.
 “Cities are like elephants,” says Geoffrey West in an Urban Scaling study by the Santa Fe Institute. “The larger they grow, the more efficient they become.”

Like a larger elephant – cities can spend their energy in more efficient ways such as serving a greater number of people with fewer and more effective services. Statistics Canada estimates that Toronto’s population will grow by 40.8%, reaching 9.7 million people by 2041. When thinking about the future of housing in Toronto, we should borrow from this analogy and think about how we use land and introduce new built form in increasingly efficient ways. Particularly as the City of Toronto plans to achieve its ambitious target of adding 40,000 new housing units by the next decade as one of many interventions being deployed to provide more affordable housing options for Torontonians who are struggling to find a suitable home.

So far, the City is struggling to find efficiencies as it grows. Closer to home, the Better Housing Policy Playbook by the Toronto Board of Trade gives Toronto a failing grade when it comes to its efforts to add to its meagre stock of affordable housing. Since 2015, the City of Toronto sold just six of its 8,400 properties to developers, notes the report.

Meanwhile, there are prohibitive planning policies that makes it challenging, if not impossible, to add in gentle density and midrise housing in Toronto’s established neighbourhoods, near transit lines and economic zones.

What are some solutions?

As our city prepares for unprecedented growth, we are going to have to get better at being more efficient in how we use our land for new housing and introduce gentle density, or missing middle housing, through the addition of laneway housing, secondary suites, townhomes and beyond.  So how do we get there? And how fast is the process?

One way to increase missing middle housing in already established neighbourhoods is to amend current zoning regulations. Evergreen and the Canadian Urban Institute offer additional recommendations in their joint report What is the Missing Middle? A Toronto housing challenge demystified how zoning can be amended to allow for more missing middle housing. The report defines the missing middle as a range of housing types between single-detached houses and apartment buildings January20192.jpgthat have gone ‘missing’ from many of our cities in the last 60 to 70 years.  The City of Toronto is establishing a new standing committee in early 2019 that will look at current zoning regulations and may consider these recommendations.

Another solution is to repurpose publicly-owned lands in locations already served by transit to build new affordable housing. The Ryerson Centre for Urban Growth and Renewal has compiled a map of all government-owned lands in the Greater Golden Horseshoe . If the map is any indication, it appears, we do not have a land shortage. The map has spurred conversation on how publicly-owned lands can be used for the public good in perpetuity.  We are seeing this happen already. The City of Toronto recently introduced 11 sites across the City that will be used to develop new affordable housing.

The Ontario Affordable Housing Calculator: A promising tool to support new affordable housing

In addition to changing the way that we regulate and build on publicly-owned lands, there are also new resources emerging to assist city planners, city councillors, community groups and developers to work together. There’s a promising new tool called the Ontario Affordable Housing Calculator which was designed to support those grappling with issues such as affordability, feasibility and other criteria needed to build new affordable housing.

Evergreen’s Ontario Affordable Housing Calculator—developed in partnership with Economic & Planning Systems Inc. and Grounded Solutions, with support from the Government of Ontario was designed to support both housing developers and policymakers alike.

The easy-to-use tool visualizes the incentives that would be needed to build mixed-income, mixed-use communities. The calculator can show the feasibility of affordable housing projects in rental and ownership buildings.

There are several great examples of how the calculator has helped city builders.

For instance, the mayor of Atlanta wanted a housing policy that would require affordable units in all new market-rate housing projects. Using a calculator (similar to that of Evergreen’s) he and others were able to choose and test from various options for the percentage of affordable units required in different prototypes of housing developments most common in the city.

Evergreen’s Ontario Affordable Housing Calculator is a nifty way to visualize how the intersection of public policies and financial realities coincide when building housing in Ontario.

As our city grows and becomes bigger and bigger, we need to continue to strive to find efficiencies and implement housing solutions that serve as many people as possible. Just like elephants, we must find that sweet spot where we are able to become more productive in how we use our available resources to meet our needs.

The views expressed in this blog post are those of the author(s), and may not reflect the position of the Ontario Professional Planners Institute.

Post by Michelle German

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