Why Toronto’s former chief planner wants Canadians to rediscover renting

OPINION: Jennifer Keesmaat wants the country to get back to building rentals, and she’s got a plan to do it. But, asks John Michael McGrath, is she underestimating the resistance she’ll face?
By John Michael McGrath - Published on April 6, 2018
jennifer keesmaat wearing a black blazer in toronto city hall
Jennifer Keesmaat, formerly Toronto’s chief planner, now serves as CEO of the Creative Housing Society. (Fernando Morales/The Globe and Mail)

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“Make no small plans” is good advice for anyone looking to tackle large problems, and the sorry state of affordable housing in Toronto and Vancouver is certainly a daunting enough problem that small plans are insufficient. Toronto’s former chief planner, Jennifer Keesmaat, is thinking bigger with her new position as CEO of the Creative Housing Society.

“It’s dedicated to building affordable, purpose-built rental housing at a scale that’s really never been done before in the Canadian context,” Keesmaat told TVO.org earlier this week.

“I don’t think it’s a secret that there’s an imbalance, and a bias really, towards home ownership as the preferred approach to housing … But we know that many very livable cities have stable rental housing, and we know that this can be a great choice for families if it’s provided in the market,” she added.

Keesmaat, like many other other housing advocates, sees purpose-built rental housing — as opposed to condominiums that are purchased by investors and rented out on the secondary market — as potentially offering people a lifelong housing option if it’s done right.

But the scale she’s talking about is massive: in Canada, peak construction of rental housing came in 1972, when more than 150,000 “multiple” units (mostly, but not exclusively, apartments) were built nationwide. Canada, though, built just 120,000 multiples in 2016, when the country had 10 million more people to house than it did in 1972 — and the large majority of those units were condos, not rentals: in Toronto, only 1,000 or so units of the more than 15,000 completed in 2016 were purpose-built rentals.

So to truly build rental on a scale the country hasn’t seen before, and to do so affordably, is a pretty tall order. And Keesmaat wants the first project to break ground next year, which assumes a blistering pace for municipal approvals.

“It’s ambitious, but we are ambitious. We wouldn’t be doing it otherwise. I have to tell you, if I get invited to another panel about affordable housing, I don’t know what I’m going to do,” she said with a laugh. “All these panels on affordable housing, and I’m like, ‘You know what? We just need to get out and do this.’”

It’s still early days yet — Keesmaat says 2018 will be spent putting the rest of the organization’s board and structure together and starting to build partnerships with municipalities, focusing specifically on Toronto and Vancouver, the country’s two most expensive housing markets. But in broad strokes, the Creative Housing proposal involves matching money from large pensions and other investors with land that’s already owned by municipalities and then delivering rental housing that middle-income earners can afford .

“Our biggest challenge is going to be accessing land, because our model doesn’t work if we have to pay market prices for land,” Keesmaat said. “The role for the government here is to use an asset they’ve already purchased, because there’s a public interest in affordable rental housing.”


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On paper, at least, both Ontario and Toronto have programs that make publicly owned properties available for affordable housing projects. And municipalities, including Toronto, are generally large landowners. So, in principle, this shouldn’t be a huge hurdle. But governments haven’t been enthusiastic about giving up their properties. Land can be sold or given only once, and historically, Toronto has been primarily concerned with ensuring that it sells land for the highest price to ensure a fair return for taxpayers. Making land available for affordable housing has been an afterthought.

But at least for now, there are governments at the municipal, provincial, and federal levels that say they want to see a stronger federal role in building affordable housing and have policies designed to encourage rental housing. (There are elections in Toronto, Vancouver, and Ontario this year, so this may not be the case for long.)

Even if Creative Housing can find cities that are willing to part with publicly owned land on the scale needed to build in the volume its plan will require, it will need to clear a political hurdle. After all, Canada’s 1970s rental boom didn’t simply run out of steam on its own: after the election of more community-focused councillors, city councils like Toronto’s became markedly more hostile to rental development. Voters didn’t just demand municipal action, either: they demanded, and got, provincial and federal action to slow down or stop rental building. Rental housing construction never really recovered to the levels seen in the early 1970s.

Keesmaat and Creative Housing are, in effect, betting that the counter-reaction against rental housing that happened five decades ago won’t happen again — in part because of the lessons planners and builders have learned since.

“I don’t think it’s a bad thing that boom came to an end. The built form was all wrong,” Keesmaat said. “It’s bad that the building of rental housing came to an end — that’s the problem. It’s not like just because it’s affordable, anything goes.”

She emphasized that no part of her proposal relies on the kind of cheap, “slab tower” construction of the ’70s. Indeed, she hopes that much of the new construction can take the form of transit-accessible mid-rise construction under 10 storeys.

“We want really high-quality housing that can be for young people, for families, for seniors, for people over their entire lifetime … I think that will create some social licence,” she added.

A cynic could point out that even mid-rise proposals in Toronto have become lightning rods for opposition in neighbourhoods protective of the status quo. The merely skeptical may wonder whether cities will be willing to part with enough transit-accessible, publicly owned land. (Will Toronto and other municipalities ever love middle-income housing as much as they love the easy money that comes from city-owned parking lots?) And the plan could simply be sunk by politics, as the right argues that we should let the market sort out housing unimpeded by the government, and the left argues that we should be wary of the kind of public-private partnerships (P3s) Creative Housing is proposing.

But in the face of underwhelming provincial and federal housing plans, it’s welcome to see Keesmaat start by acknowledging the scale of the problem and trying to build a real plan to deal with it. Almost by definition, people making big plans need to underestimate the obstacles in their path. Sometimes the big thinkers are right, and the cynics are wrong.

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