Home truths, Part 1: Why affordable housing isn’t just a Toronto issue

In this five-part series, TVO.org will examine how the housing crisis is affecting communities across the province — and what they’re doing to combat it
By David Rockne Corrigan - Published on Aug 06, 2019
Kingston's downtown as seen from the air.
The inventory of homes for sale in Kingston is the smallest it’s been in 30 years. (iStock/Jacob Boomsma)

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This is Part 1 of a five-part TVO.org series looking at how Ontario’s affordable-housing crisis is playing out beyond the GTA. Click here for Part 2; watch for Part 3 on Wednesday.

“Homelessness and the lack of affordable housing are Ontario-wide problems, and not confined to Toronto. The plight of renters, as measured by the twin indicators of affordability and availability, is getting worse. The private rental market is not addressing these problems.”

You’d be forgiven for assuming that these words were written in 2019, given that the issue of affordable housing has been making headlines on a near-daily basis. But David Hulchanski, a professor of housing and community development at the University of Toronto, published them 17 years ago. “Actually,” Hulchanski says, “I started writing like that in the late ’70s and early ’80s.”

Hulchanski has been studying Canada’s housing market for 40 years and says that today’s crisis has been growing for most of that time. The market — through which 95 per cent of Canadians obtain their housing — has not picked up the slack since the federal government froze funding for new public-housing projects in 1994.

“What should a housing system be?” Hulchanski asks. “It should supply enough housing. It should provide choice. And it should help those who have trouble affording it. But our housing system is not doing that.”

So municipalities across the province are hoping to change it. Leilani Farha, the United Nations special rapporteur on adequate housing, says that “the affordability of housing is the biggest issue facing cities. I think as they become more impacted by the crunch, they are more willing to identify it as a social problem.”

Over the course of the next week, TVO.org will look at the causes and effects of Ontario’s housing crisis beyond the Greater Toronto Area — and at the work governments and activists across the province are doing to combat it.

We’ll look at Prince Edward County, where the median house price rose from $205,000 in 2008 to $395,000 in 2018. The housing squeeze there, caused in part by the area’s popularity with vacationers and retirees, has led to new regulations on short-term accommodations and the biggest push for affordable housing in the county’s history.

We’ll also consider Kenora, where a combination of low rental vacancy, increasing property values, and an aging housing stock has forced the city to take action. In July, council passed an affordable-housing bylaw; an injection of cash from the province in March will allow the municipality to offer conditional grants and tax exemptions to developers who commit to building affordable housing.

Part 3 will focus on Kingston and its red-hot real-estate market. The inventory of homes for sale is the smallest it’s been in 30 years. The city’s rental-vacancy rate is the lowest in the province, at 0.6 per cent. In response, the mayor has convened a task force to find solutions to the area’s affordable-housing challenges.

Finally, we’ll turn to Peterborough, where the closure of a homeless shelter and subsequent spread of a “tent city” in a local park have dominated the housing conversation and sent politicians scrambling for solutions.

“Look at Peterborough,” says Farha. “You have people asking, ‘Is it fair that only rich people can afford housing in our city?’ And, of course, the answer is no — it’s not fair. We need to be asking ourselves, how is it that a place like Peterborough is suffering in this way?”

The definition of affordability is itself contentious. According to the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation, affordable housing is that which requires less than 30 per cent of a household’s before-tax income. Some affordable-housing programs, though, including in Toronto and in the province’s Affordable Housing Program, work with a market-based definition, using 80 per cent of average market rent as a benchmark. This means, that as the free market pushes average prices higher, renters are forced to keep up, regardless of whether their incomes keep pace.

But Farha, who lives in Ottawa, thinks the answer is straightforward. “For me, it’s super simple,” she says. “Affordability is based on what a household can sustain. It’s about household income.”

“When I hear this ‘80 per cent of market rent’ being thrown around, I wonder who determined that that was affordable. Someone just made it up,” Farha says. 

In 2018, the federal government unveiled its 10-year, $55 billion National Housing Strategy, which is intended to reduce homelessness and remove more than 500,000 Canadians from unaffordable or inadequate housing by investing in new housing units and repairing existing affordable housing. But perhaps most important, Farha says, is that in it, the government affirms that housing should be a human right. 

“This kind of approach turns the housing equation on its head,” she says.

Ottawa’s “right to housing” stance has been welcomed by Farha and other activists, but it can’t change the fact that everyday decisions about rents, evictions, and new construction are made, not by the federal government, but by cities and provinces. A tenant who thinks they’ve been unfairly evicted can appeal to a provincial tribunal — but federal policies won’t help them there. And Ontario has made some choices that would seem to work against the idea of housing as a human right; in last year’s fall economic statement, for example, it ended rent control for newly built apartments. All of this gets back to a fundamental question in housing policy: Should governments help by providing housing directly, or should they let the free market fill the gap?

Farha says that all levels of government in Canada could learn a thing or two from jurisdictions around the world: Berlin made international headlines recently when it bought 674 apartment units to prevent a takeover by a mega-landlord. In June, Barcelona expropriated a bank-owned home that had been left vacant for more than two years; the city will add it to its social-housing stock.

According to Hulchanski, Ontario’s housing market is designed to make money for developers and landlords. For private developers, he says, the prospect of building affordable housing at less-than-market rental prices is uninviting at best. He notes that between the 1960s and the early 1990s — a period during which the federal government was investing in social housing — about 20,000 public-housing units were built in Canada each year. In fact, a 2017 audit of Ontario’s social- and affordable-housing programs found that 93 per cent of the province’s below-market rental supply was built during that period.

“[Twenty thousand] is not a big number, but today that would be a huge number,” says Hulchanski. “Imagine a few thousand units coming online every year in Ontario. Our waiting lists for public housing would stop growing so quickly. We could put a huge dent in it.”

This is one in a series of stories about issues affecting eastern Ontario. It's brought to you with the assistance of Queen’s University.

Ontario Hubs are made possible by the Barry and Laurie Green Family Charitable Trust & Goldie Feldman.​​​​​​​

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