How school boards can help fight Toronto’s affordable-housing crisis

OPINION: Plenty of schools have underused parking lots. John Lorinc asks, what if we could turn them into housing?
By John Lorinc - Published on February 27, 2019
a school building
David and Mary Thomson Collegiate, in Scarborough, is one of a handful of TDSB sites to have been redeveloped partly through land-sale funds. (facebook.com/thomsoncollegiate)

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Later this year, if the construction gods are smiling, the rebuilt David and Mary Thomson Collegiate will open its doors in Scarborough, making it one of a handful of Toronto District School Board sites to have undergone a wholesale re-development financed in part by a land sale.

The project’s origins meander back to the beginning of the decade, when the TDSB set in motion a process to underwrite the construction of a single new school building on a sprawling 15-hectare parcel that once held two, sitting back to back.

The board aimed to sell off a three-hectare portion of the site, which houses one of the existing schools, for the development of 140 freehold townhouses and a park. The approvals process took several years: the sale of school-board lands always prompts a lot of hand-wringing. The plan got the green light only after the TDSB appealed to the Ontario Municipal Board. The result will be a very modest increase in the residential density of the surrounding Bendale neighbourhood, which is, in many ways, a typical low-rise, postwar community with some slab apartments.

While the population of the Bendale grew 7.5 per cent between 2011 and 2016, enrolment at David and Mary Thomson remains well below the school’s capacity, which means that there was a case for intensifying the use of this capacious piece of real estate. But did the board and the city end up with the right kind of intensification?

It doesn’t take much effort — a bit of Google-mapping, really — to see that many of Toronto’s suburban schools and several in older areas sit on spacious parcels of property featuring at least one, but often two, generously portioned parking lots. A few weeks ago, the Globe and Mail’s architecture critic, Alex Bozikovic, asked in a column whether the school board really needed all that excess blacktop. The TDSB “needs a lesson on the high cost of free parking,” he wrote, in reference to the Yale University economist Donald Shoup’s classic treatise.

Bozikovic noted the cognitive dissonance between the board’s efforts to persuade kids and parents to walk or ride to school, and the abundance of generally underused surface parking for staff, a perk not even demanded by the teachers’ unions.

So here’s a question: Why not look at finding a higher purpose for even just some of those underused lots — one that leverages scarce urban land to satisfy multiple city-building objectives?

My proposal: the board and the city should work together to develop a strategy to build modestly scaled, affordable rental housing on portions of those lots. Unlike condos or townhouses, these “missing middle” residential dwellings, situated in low-rise neighbourhoods, would add to the inventory of needed affordable rental stock and create some new community hub spaces for such amenities as daycare.

Toronto’s housing-affordability crisis generates grim new revelations each day, it seems. City council has set in motion one response: Mayor John Tory’s so-called Housing Now strategy will add 10,000 new units of affordable housing over the next 12 years. Under the first phase of the plan, the city has anted up 11 municipally owned properties and introduced a slew of incentives for both private and non-profit developers, who will be expected to build 3,700 rental homes for families with less than $52,000 in household income. The first ones are expected to be completed within the next three to five years.

The city typically auctions off surplus real estate to private builders to generate profit, but the Housing Now strategy represents a recognition that, with land prices rising rapidly, governments should be making more strategic use of publicly owned real estate.

Queen’s Park and the feds must be involved here, but it seems to me that Toronto school boards, with their vast real-estate holdings, should also have to pull their weight: after all, these agencies know all too well the symptoms of Toronto’s housing crisis.

Both the TDSB and the Toronto Catholic District School Board could begin by identifying schools with obvious excess parking — I easily found several that have multiple lots, many of which were largely vacant — and make these parcels available for the city’s Housing Now plan. The board has, in the past, entered into financial deals with developers and used the proceeds to help underwrite school capital projects (e.g., reconstructing North Toronto Collegiate Institute).

These proposed infill projects would work very differently.

When it comes to excess lots, the board shouldn’t sell the land; it should instead negotiate long-term leases with rental-apartment builders or such non-profits as Options for Homes, with the requirement that the projects be designated affordable. They should be modest in scale (four or five storeys); supported by targeted policy incentives, such as relaxed or waived development charges and parking requirements; and fast-tracked in terms of approvals (the city set up a dedicated planning team for the Housing Now projects, and a similar group could be assigned to these ventures).

This kind of infill project could also support efforts to transform school sites into community hubs. The projects, for example, might include ground-floor spaces that could be rented to non-profits, social enterprises, or public agencies with mandates that are linked in some way to the sorts of services school communities require.

In this way, school properties would evolve from strictly single-purpose institutional uses to mixed-use, round-the-clock destinations that bring together such overlapping social goods as education, affordable housing, services, and recreational amenities.

To get there, however, the school boards — and their overlords in the Ministry of Education — will have to change their thinking about what it means to leverage publicly owned land in urban contexts. This critical reconceptualization of the value of municipal assets has clearly informed the first phase of Tory’s Housing Now strategy. The shift provides a reminder and an acknowledgment that, when governments turn their attention to something as precious as surplus real estate in a city with a housing crunch and soaring land costs, there are far more progressive ways to maximize return on investment than merely selling to the highest bidder.

John Lorinc is an urban affairs journalist and senior editor at Spacing magazine.

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