As we (mercifully) enter the last month of 2020, it’s difficult to make any kind of firm predictions about what 2021 will look like. Will Canada get early access to some of the vaccines the federal government has committed to purchasing, or will we be “at the back of the line,” as federal Conservatives have alleged in recent weeks? (The CEO of Moderna, one of the companies closest to vaccine production, says Canada will not be last.) Will the economy recover quickly as the pandemic wanes, or will businesses and consumers continue to struggle for years afterwards? And what will cities look like after the pandemic — will high-income workers decamp for more rural areas, or will the province’s biggest cities retain their allure for firms and workers?
It’s folly to try to answer these questions definitively while COVID-19 still rages, but even if the future is unknowable, that doesn’t mean we can’t put some reasonable limits on what it will look like — and suggest which problems will continue to vex Ontario after the pandemic. Housing, for example: whatever the future holds for remote work, humans will still need shelter, and humans in 2021 and after are likely to have homes not wildly different from the ones available today.
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And unless remote work and the pandemic do a real number on both Toronto’s current population and its future growth, Ontario’s biggest city will be unaffordable to a broad swath of the population that its economy depends on. So it would be a good idea for the city to at least plan for ways to address unaffordable housing. (What’s the worst that could happen? Rents get too cheap?)
On that note, a new report from the Toronto Region Board of Trade (that notorious den of Marxist-Leninists) and WoodGreen Community Services argues that the city will need to take much more aggressive action just to meet its own target of 40,000 new rental homes by 2030. In theory, the target should be doable: the city has a decade and is looking to use city-owned land, avoiding the high costs of acquiring land on the private market.
But if it were easy, it would have been done already. Instead, the city faces numerous political pressures that are working against meeting its target. Perhaps the most daunting one of all: everyone supports more affordable housing until the very instant someone proposes to build it in a real location somewhere, when all the usual political opposition to intensification materializes.
So the board of trade says that the city needs to focus on some pretty basic measures to ensure that it delivers not just raw totals of units built, but also meaningfully affordable homes. Using city-owned land is one; maximizing the density of units is another — and doing both is going to be difficult. According to the advocacy group HousingNowTO, the city has about 10,000 units on the drawing board right now — leaving 30,000 units to go. The city will need either to find new sites or to increase the density on sites already identified.
But this isn’t just about meeting the numerical targets (though pretending our targets matter would be nice): we also need to ensure that the economics are in place to ensure long-term affordability. HousingNowTO estimates that, to ensure 99-year affordability guarantees, a development needs 200 to 250 units per acre, given the cost of construction in 2020.
Or Toronto could fail. But that would mean human and economic costs for the city and the broader region. The board of trade estimates that 330,000 workers in the city are in what we could call the housing affordability “valley of death” — making between $40,000 and $60,000 a year and not poor enough to qualify for such things as Toronto Community Housing support, but paying an ever-increasing share of their income in rent. These people are often the kinds of essential workers who haven’t had the privilege of working from home this year. And, to reiterate the point about what little we can know about the future, Toronto is likely to need the labour of such people as grocery-store workers so long as people need to eat food.
So we should get serious about finding a way for them to afford a home here.