Our housing-affordability situation is hopeless

OPINION: Politicians and advocates have spent entire careers working hard on this issue — and it’s the worst it’s ever been
By Matt Gurney - Published on Aug 12, 2021
Laneway homes are generally built at the rear of an existing residential property. (Flickr/Spacing Magazine)

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I was out walking my canine master the other day and cut through a laneway in Leaside, a mostly low-rise residential neighbourhood in midtown Toronto. You’ve probably all heard the joke that there are only two seasons in Canada: winter and construction. With watermain work tearing up a lot of the roads, moving through laneways has made for a more peaceful, simpler route for man and dog alike. I came across an interesting sight. Where a garage had once stood, construction workers were putting up a laneway home. It’s the first one I’ve seen in the wild.

Laneway homes are small homes, typically built at the rear of an existing residential property. Or, to quote the City of Toronto, “A Laneway Suite is a self-contained residential unit located on the same lot as a detached house, semi-detached house, townhouse, or other low-rise dwelling. A Laneway Suite is typically located in the rear yard next to a public laneway and is generally smaller in scale and completely detached from the main house on the lot.” They’re indeed small and are often well-suited for an older parent who desires or needs to be closer to their adult children.

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But whatever the specific use case, what they are is simply another form of housing, modest but presumably relatively affordable, in a city that is desperately starved for housing of all kinds, particularly affordable. Laneway houses that meet certain conditions were legalized in Toronto two years ago. Still, as I said, this was the first time I’d actually seen one going up.

I was glad to see it. That’s easy for me to say, of course — I don’t live on the laneway, and my own property isn’t involved in any way. It’s easy to avoid a NIMBY reflex when it’s literally not in my backyard. But I’d like to think that I’d be as welcoming even if I were directly involved somehow — if it were my nextdoor neighbour putting up the new home and not someone a brisk walk down the road. I’m generally supportive of development, and I’ve drawn weird looks from neighbours when I’ve declined to sign petitions and calls to action and whatnot stopping someone from ... you know, like, adding a new bedroom over their garage or something. That’s a hypothetical example, I grant, but one depressingly rooted in real life. It’s safe to say the only reason the little home is being built is that the law was written in a way that made it completely and obviously clear it was permitted.

If you’re expecting an entire column on laneway housing, I fear you will be disappointed. This isn’t about laneway housing in particular, but housing in Toronto (and Ontario and Canada more broadly), in general. That little home, when constructed, will add a small but desperately needed piece of inventory to the local supply. And it’s not going to be nearly enough. We are, as a society, relentlessly hostile to building more housing and resolutely pretend that this immovable object isn’t directly in the path of the unstoppable force of population growth and readily available low-rate financing. We are causing the very housing crisis we lament, and we’ll still find a way to act shocked when it goes badly for all of us. 

(How our refusal to stop making problems worse, let alone actually try to solve them, is gonna play out when faced with the even more pressing challenges that are also currently in the news is just too depressing to think about.)

The housing issue is a particularly interesting one because my little canine-related excursion occurred right as a few other headlines were rattling around in the echoing cavern of my skull. Adam Vaughan, Liberal MP and, previously, Toronto city councillor, has announced he’s leaving politics. Vaughan had been outspoken on the need for more housing; the various colleagues and other worthies who offered words of praise and thanks for his years in public life were all quick to note his dedication to that particular cause. 

Meanwhile, over in the Toronto Star, you can find a report stating that waits for affordable housing in Toronto are so bad that, in some areas, to qualify for a room today, you’d have to have applied in ... 1985, when Brian Mulroney was prime minister and Ronald Reagan president. When David Peterson became Ontario’s premier. And when your intrepid columnist, now a grown father with advanced education and impeccable pop-cultural tastes, was spending most of his time watching Sesame Street.

I disagree with Adam Vaughan about a lot of things, but on the occasions we’ve crossed paths over the years, it’s always been amicable and pleasant. I wish him all the best in whatever comes next (that’s sincere, dammit!) and I don’t want my next comment to sound in any way like an attack on him personally.

But if you ever want a little demonstration of just how hopelessly broken the housing-affordability situation is in this country, read the people thanking Vaughan for his years of work on the file and then read the article talking about the multi-decade wait for a unit in Canada’s largest city. Maybe read them a few times, alternating between one and the other. It melts your brain. We have entire people who’ve spent their entire careers working hard on this issue, who are thanked and hailed for their work on this issue, and the issue is an absolute disaster, the worst it’s ever been.

So, at a time when we would need to build homes quite literally by the millions just to catch up to where we should be today, I actually stopped mid-walk, slack-jawed with shock and awe, because one tiny little laneway home is going up in my neighbourhood — and, even then, only because it was basically impossible to stop it.

Given all the above, who can fault Vaughan for wanting out?

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