Mitzie Hunter was a prominent member of the last Liberal government, serving in numerous cabinet positions, including minister of education. Now she’s one of five contenders for the Liberal leadership. On Friday morning, her campaign released a proposal focused on making affordable-housing options available to millennials. TVO.org spoke with Hunter about why she thinks housing policy needs to be geared toward the needs of a younger generation.
TVO.org: Mitzie, thanks for talking with me. What prompted you to release this housing policy today?
Hunter: The focus here is on the housing market as it relates to how people need and want to live today and in the future. What is evident is that we have housing policy that is designed for how people used to live, and that has to change. We have to give millennials the space they need in the housing market.
TVO.org: One of the ideas you talked about at the OREA debate, and that you cover in this document, is co-living or co-housing. Is that the kind of thing you’re thinking of?
Hunter: It’s the kind of example I’m thinking of, with an underpinning of policies that would support that co-living idea. We know that there’s housing capacity, where perhaps someone is a senior with more house than they need for their living, but there’s a student who needs a space that’s affordable for them. Or maybe there are two seniors who could share a living arrangement. There could be a match that could be made there.
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We need to explore those ideas. I’d like to convene an expert group that would help to flesh that out. Is it a matching app that we create? Do we create incentives in our system so that there can be retrofits done? What can incrementally boost supply while we leave other spaces available for families who need them?
TVO.org: I’m certainly not opposed to co-housing as an idea, but I think one complaint millennials might fairly have is that it’s an admission of failure, right? Our parents were able to afford nice, big, spacious homes, and we want the same thing. Are we just asking a younger generation to make do with less?
Hunter: I don’t think so at all. The younger generation defines what they want and don’t want. Increasingly, many of them are choosing to take transit versus getting a driver’s licence and buying a car. They are going to dictate what their preferences are for living, and, so far, they are demanding a different living situation. They’re saying, “I want a community that is walkable. I want a community that is transit-oriented. I want a community that must have amenities.”
That’s not all going to happen in the downtown. We have to be able to create links in other parts of Ontario that connect all of these things in terms of where people want to live in the future. The nature of work is changing — we know that. Millennials have the brains that our economy is going to rely on in the future. We have to be able to create a housing system that supports how they would like to live.
We have to create affordability in this as well, and that links back to the supply side. My plan also looks at creating incentives for building new rental housing in the system, looking at transit-oriented opportunities where we could have some inclusionary zoning built into it while being thoughtful about it. We can do things in a gradual way and allow the development community to adjust and to price in that housing affordability in a way also allows it to be profitable.
TVO.org: Another candidate in the leadership race has proposed reversing the current government’s changes to rent-control rules in Ontario, reverting to the rules that existed under Kathleen Wynne and the Liberals. It’s not in this document, but is that something you’d support?
Hunter: I’m going to keep the current rule as it is. I want to be clear with the developer community, the renter community, and those looking to purchase. What we need is more supply, and I’m looking to tackle that and get it going. That’s the focus of my policy, on behalf of millennials.
TVO.org: One of the other elements in this plan is really targeting what’s been called the “yellow belt” in Toronto, or restrictions on detached and semi-detached zoning in residential neighbourhoods.
Hunter: I was actually thinking about this idea more from having the courageous conversation: How are we going to make the best use of our land and our investments in communities? So the proposal to explore this idea through an expert panel is to say, okay, how about creating a radius of 500 metres around a subway station that can have this option of developing a different type of housing? Maybe it’s a duplex or a triplex, maybe create some intensity around those stations, because we know that’s where millennials want to live.
We also know that by doing nothing outside the downtown core of Toronto, we are actually doing a disserve to those neighbourhoods, because they are less populated than they were during the time of the boomers, and, therefore, it’s much more difficult to support other services like schools in those communities, because there are very few children and families. It’s a reality we’re facing, and it’s almost like an “OK boomer” moment — we need to look at what the reality is and respond to it. I know it’s a difficult conversation in terms of what is, today, but I’m also looking into the future and where we have to go.
TVO.org: Your plan also calls on the province to reinvest in social housing in a big way. You were at Toronto Community Housing for a time, and I think it’s fair to say that it’s been a troubled agency for a while now. Do you think new social housing should come from an existing agency like TCH, or should other charities and non-profits do that work?
Hunter: For sure, we need a mix. We have population projections showing that Ontario is going to continue to grow, and we’re going to need a spectrum of housing. I think it certainly needs to have a high level of quality and maintenance so people can live in dignity. I want to embrace different models and support our existing social-housing agencies. We need to work hard to preserve the stock we have and incrementally build more of it. I would also like to suggest that housing supplements from the province should cross municipal boundaries so that it takes the pressure off of any one municipality to deliver that supply.
TVO.org: This conversation tends to be focused on the GTHA, but you are running to be leader of a provincial party. How do you see these kinds of policies applying outside Toronto?
Hunter: Co-living is not just for the GTHA. It can work in Timmins! It can work in Kingston! It can work in Napanee! I’ve had housing conversations in those communities. And we’re even focused on using northern Ontario wood for our homebuilding. This is a whole-of-Ontario housing plan for affordability and for the future of how people want to live, work, and play in this province.
This interview has condensed and edited for length and clarity.