Why there’s no help on the horizon for Toronto’s housing crisis

OPINION: Families making more than $100,000 a year are struggling to afford homes in Ontario’s capital — and that’s a problem for all of us 
By John Michael McGrath - Published on July 2, 2019
house for sale
The Toronto Region Board of Trade has calculated what portion of after-tax income goes to buying or renting homes in the city. (Fernando Morales/CP)

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Why do families making six figures have a hard time affording homes in Toronto?

That, fundamentally, is the question posed by a pair of articles in the Toronto Star last week (buttressed by data from the Toronto Region Board of Trade). Some will find the very question insulting — who cares about people making $100,000 when there are people living in poverty?

The answer to the latter question, and the reason we should take the former question seriously, is that while our fates are all linked, not everyone’s problems are a mystery. The poor can’t afford housing even in lower-cost markets, because they don’t have enough money. There are a bunch of reasons for that, but the solution is as clear as the problem: give the people who need it more money or build them affordable housing.

(According to a report from the city’s auditor general, because of broken bureaucratic processes, Toronto Community Housing is failing to house more than 1,000 families. That’s appalling, but TCH no more caused the housing crisis than a paramedic causes a gunshot wound.)

The question of why Toronto is failing to deliver middle- and even upper-income affordability is more complicated. People making $90,000 — like the paramedic featured in the Star — don’t need help to afford a home in a normal market. The fact that cases such as his exist suggests that something more fundamental is broken in Toronto’s housing market.

And fixing it isn’t some secondary priority, something we can address after we’ve fixed low-income affordability. Low-income families are struggling because the median rent in this city is galloping away from them faster than their incomes are growing. The only sustainable way to remedy that is to moderate, or even reverse, the run-up in housing prices. That means directly attacking the cause of housing prices — not just treating the symptoms.

Those prescribing treatments for Toronto’s sickness fall into two main camps. The right sees the city as obstructing the private market and preventing developers from delivering middle-income housing to people earning middle incomes. The left, meanwhile, sees the broken housing market as an indictment of the market itself and says that only social housing will address the problem. Either side can make decent arguments depending on the day, but the critical thing to understand about Toronto in 2019 is that, whatever you believe, nobody’s actually doing anything commensurate with the problem.

The Tory government brought in Bill 108, which has an explicit market focus, in an attempt to remove some of the red tape it alleges is preventing developers from building more homes. But much of the text of Bill 108 involves reversing post-2015 Liberal changes — in many cases, the Tories are simply returning us to a regulatory status quo from a time when we were already deep in the housing crisis. One important caveat: the government’s emphasis on Community Planning Permit Systems, a kind of planning instrument that allows cities to pre-clear specific areas for new construction in a more expedited way than Ontario law usually allows, could lead to more building around subway and GO stations. It’s not nothing, but it’s unclear whether it will be enough to address the city’s needs.

For more ambitious approaches to liberalizing housing rules, we can look at the debates happening in the United States: in California, Oregon, and Washington, various groups have been pushing to broadly legalize small-scale apartments (a far cry from Toronto’s timid debates over laneway homes — according to a city report released last week, a grand total of 12 building permits have been issued for them since the rules were modestly liberalized last year). The state of Oregon just last week legalized much of what’s referred to as “missing middle” or “gentle density” housing — which is to say, it’s prohibited large cities from banning it. Notably, on the West Coast, it’s primarily progressive Democrats (and not market-oriented Republicans) pushing for these bills.

Critics of Doug Ford’s government, who may never accept that there could be good reasons for the province to take away some of the tools cities use to obstruct new housing, could propose full-bore social-housing programs of their own. The left is out of power municipally and provincially, yes, but the federal Liberals’ 2015 election message put a new focus on housing, so they should be moving heaven and Earth to demonstrate their seriousness, right?

Spoiler alert: they’re not. “Overall, Canada’s National Housing Strategy largely maintains current funding levels for current activities and slightly reduces targeted funding for households in core housing need,” says the federal parliamentary budget officer. The much-ballyhooed National Housing Strategy may do more work at the margins than the PBO gives it credit for, but it simply can’t do the work that a city like Toronto needs it to. (Some of us found the NHS’ ambitions underwhelming from the beginning.)

Since the only thing everyone can agree on is that Toronto’s housing crisis is somebody else’s fault (and, therefore, somebody else’s problem), we get strong commitments neither to market policies nor to social housing. (But if you want publicly funded parking lots, Toronto has you covered.) As a result, we find ourselves facing the question that this column started with, a question that’s going to become only more urgent as the workforce the city depends on finds it increasingly impossible to both live and work within the 416.

Plenty of people are choosing not to try: according to an analysis of Statistics Canada data by Ryerson University’s Centre for Urban Research & Land Development, Toronto lost 30,000 people per year between 2016 and 2018 to more affordable housing markets. Long commutes, or simply giving up on higher-paying jobs in Toronto, are the price people are paying to afford a roof over their head.

Someday, Toronto might realize what it’s giving up because of this exodus. But not today.

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