How Toronto’s housing crisis is radiating to Hamilton — and beyond

OPINION: A new report shows that the lack of affordable housing in Toronto has pushed people out of Hamilton and is driving sprawl and long commutes across southern Ontario
By John Michael McGrath - Published on Jun 25, 2021
When it’s possible for the newest homebuyer to commute 20 minutes longer to save $50,000-$100,000 on their mortgage, they do exactly that. (iStock/benedek)

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There was something Mike Schreiner, leader of the Green Party of Ontario, said about his party’s recent housing strategy that didn’t find its way into our recent article. As luck would have it, it’s worth revisiting only two days later.

“I would say the biggest driver of climate emissions right now is sprawl, just because of the way it increases transportation emissions — which is the largest source of climate pollution in the province,” Schreiner told me earlier this week.

The Green leader is correct: Ontario’s greenhouse-gas emissions are lower in 2021 than they were in 2005 or 1990, but that’s mostly thanks to the phasing out of coal-fired electricity generation. That shift also changed the composition of our GHG emissions overall: transportation is now the biggest single slice of our emissions pie. The biggest chunk of that is simply passenger vehicles — which is to say, people’s daily commute by car. While jobs have become more and more concentrated in the cores of big cities, homes have continued to sprawl outwards, leading to longer commutes with profoundly inefficient cars (less efficient, even, than those of our American neighbours).

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This is all a slow-rolling climate disaster. It’s also, in theory, totally contrary to policies — including the Greenbelt and the Growth Plan for the Greater Golden Horseshoe — that the Liberal government under Dalton McGuinty started adopting early in its first mandate. A new report on the dearth of affordable housing in Hamilton explains what went wrong: the short answer is that, when people have to choose between affordability and their commutes, they pick affordability every time.

The report, written by staff at the Smart Prosperity Institute and funded by the West End Home Builders Association (which has an obvious vested interest) lays out the core problem: starting in the middle of the past decade, Ontario saw a dramatic influx of people from other countries — most of them skilled workers or international students — who were able to compete for homes in the GTA housing market. But homebuilding didn’t keep up with demand in Toronto, so workers were pushed to places farther away from the core of the region, including Hamilton. The homebuilding in Hamilton, in turn, didn’t keep up with demand, so workers in Hamilton were pushed further afield to places like St. Catharines and Brant.

To put it another way, the lack of affordable housing — and, crucially, affordable housing, in sufficient volumes, near jobs in Toronto — is causing home prices to inflate throughout the region and, increasingly, all over southern Ontario. But when it’s possible for the newest homebuyer to commute 20 minutes longer to save $50,000-$100,000 on their mortgage, they do exactly that.

Previous generations also discovered that it was cheaper and easier to commute a bit longer to have both a decent job and a decent home. In that sense, this isn’t news. The problem is that this dynamic was exactly the thing that more than a decade of provincial policy was supposed to change. What is new is that we’re imposing a totally different burden on young families: in previous generations, both families and jobs moved out to the suburbs, letting workers maintain reasonable commutes; in the early 21st century, jobs are moving into city cores where the workers can’t buy homes. Toronto exceeded its 2012-2020 forecasted jobs growth by 130,000

The Smart Prosperity report is focused on Hamilton, but the same principles hold true in basically any compass direction outward from Toronto city hall, from where these shockwaves emanate (or close enough). Our land-use planning policies went to war with the cold economics facing tens of thousands of households, and the economics won.

Schreiner and the Green party have their answer, expressed in their housing strategy: freezing urban-development boundaries and making infill development much, much easier while investing billions in affordable housing and supportive housing for people whom the market can’t serve. The other political parties looking to form government in 2022 will undoubtedly have different answers to offer voters. What isn’t changing is the problem that needs to be solved.

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