It only took a deadly pandemic for Toronto to take its housing crisis seriously

OPINION: Council members used to assert that it was impossible to approve new construction in the city in less than six months. COVID-19 proves that “impossible” can be accomplished
By John Michael McGrath - Published on May 01, 2020
Toronto city council held its first-ever virtual meeting on Thursday. (YouTube)



Canada’s largest city held its first remote council meeting of the COVID-19 era on Thursday, and, between all the audio issues and calls for IT help, Toronto city council accomplished some notable things. It extended Mayor John Tory’s emergency powers for the duration of the pandemic, took a briefing from emergency officials on the city’s outbreak to date (and its financial aftershocks), and even approved some important public-works plans.

But the decision that may have the most substantial long-term effects came late in the evening, as the unassembled councillors debated an emergency measure aimed at helping the city deal with its homelessness crisis: they approved a number of sites for the rapid construction of new supportive housing using modular-construction techniques. According to the staff report presented to council, the city expects that 110 units will be ready for occupancy by the fall (or, in the language of city staff, 16 to 20 weeks from yesterday’s vote).

The need is dire: the city is already desperately trying to find alternatives to its overcrowded shelter system in an attempt to contain the spread of COVID-19; shelters, like long-term-care homes, retirement homes, and hospitals, are “congregate care” settings, places where COVID-19 has the potential to spread like wildfire. The city has rented vacant hotels and is going so far as to stop buildings from being demolished, so that they can be repurposed as temporary shelters.

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So it’s good news that the city is embracing a new form of housing production that could help deal with the emergency. There’s a lot of potential in modular production, which sees units built largely off-site, where conditions are more controlled and productivity is higher.

But the efficiency of modular housing is less important than something else — something even more radical — that was affirmed by Toronto city council yesterday: the idea that homes are necessary and good and that the city can approve them quickly when it wants to.

If the city had relied on its usual approvals processes to get these housing units built, I would’ve put my money on a COVID-19 vaccine being a likelier outcome by fall. Indeed, for many years, council members asserted that it was impossible to approve new construction in the city in less than six months — an important political issue, as municipal inaction is one of the things that can trigger an appeal to the Local Planning Appeals Tribunal (formerly the Ontario Municipal Board).

What a difference a plague makes: city staff now hope to have the planning applications back before city council for its approval within 12 weeks. And councillors, recognizing the urgency of the matter, even voted down an attempt by Etobicoke’s Stephen Holyday to force a series of public meetings in the neighbourhoods where the supportive housing may eventually be built (the city still hasn’t formally selected sites). Holyday’s move was obviously dilatory, and the mayor and council deserve praise for recognizing it as such and voting to reject it with prejudice. 

Even if nothing else had happened last night, that alone would have been nearly unprecedented: Approving new shelter space without giving incumbent homeowners a public forum in which to expound upon all its possible evils? Amazing.

But Toronto’s housing emergency didn’t begin with COVID-19, and it won’t end when the pandemic does. The city has seen a decade or more of rapidly inflating home prices, and, for the entirety of that decade, Toronto’s response has been to try all the same failing policies (and then try them more ), all while shouting down any suggestion that the city’s own part in regulating home production — the lethargic approvals, the narrow permissions, the absolute imperative to protect single-family homes at all costs — might have anything to do with the housing crisis.

That was a plausible political strategy when most of these arguments were happening in the shadows (most people, despite my best efforts, still don’t care about urban-planning policies). COVID-19 may not permanently change councillors’ politics, but it has turned the lights on, and we can now clearly see how unserious about housing policy they’ve been.

We’ve spent a decade shouting about a housing crisis in this city while the people in charge have largely insisted that nothing about it required them to change any of their priors. Now an emergency is here that’s immune to their usual games of delay and denial, and it turns out that all the minutiae they’ve obsessed over were always optional.

It's to council’s credit that it has finally, partially, relented and called off its ideological games in the face of mass death in this city. It’s a shame it couldn’t have done so earlier, when the crisis “merely” involved spiralling rates of poverty and homelessness. As with so much in this pandemic, we can only hope that some people are learning.

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