Former city planner, developer team up on proposal to build affordable housing in Toronto, Vancouver

Former city planner Jennifer Keesmaat and developer Westbank are creating a new group focused on building affordable housing in Canada's most expensive cities.

Ottawa confirms it is reviewing a proposal, says national housing strategy funds to flow soon

Toronto's former chief planner is turning her attention to building affordable housing. (Cole Burston/The Canadian Press)

Toronto's former top planner is teaming up with a major developer on a plan to build affordable housing in Canada's most expensive cities.

Jennifer Keesmaat says she's working with Westbank — headquartered in Vancouver — on a comprehensive approach to building more affordable housing units. That plan will seek government funding as well.

In Toronto and Vancouver, there's a major disconnect between incomes and the price of housing, something that's becoming a "critical issue," Keesmaat said in an email. Many Vancouver residents say it's a nightmare trying to find housing, while in Toronto vacancy rates are now the lowest they've been in 16 years.

"This is an issue that will require all three levels of government and the private sector working together, to make a meaningful impact."

Keesmaat declined to provide specifics about the work, but says more information will be released in the coming months. CBC Toronto has reached out to Westbank, but hasn't received a response yet.

Ottawa reviewing proposal

Parts of Toronto, like south Etobicoke, continue to experience condo booms. But there's far less purpose-built rental units going up. (Ed Middleton/CBC)

Adam Vaughan, the federal parliamentary secretary for housing and urban affairs, says he's aware of an affordable housing proposal from Westbank that's being reviewed, and suggested there may be more companies interested in working on similar projects.

He says federal funding would come from the $40 billion national housing strategy, which aims to build 100,000 new affordable housing units and repair some 300,000 more across the country over the next decade.

"Those dollars start in April," Vaughan said. "There will be announcements."

Vaughan says cities like Toronto need more purpose-built rental housing as well as truly affordable units.

A recent City of Toronto survey of some 4,895 publicly-available rentals found the average monthly rent was $1,829 per month, far higher than the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation's estimate of $1,240 per month.

It's unclear what role Queen's Park and the Liberal government's fair housing plan will play.

"We have not seen a proposal for this particular project yet but would welcome any new affordable housing," a spokesperson for provincial housing minister Peter Milczyn said in an email.

At city hall, multiple sources say they've heard about Keesmaat's new organization, however, they're waiting for details.

Developer already working in Toronto, Vancouver

Toronto's former chief planner Jennifer Keesmaat's new focus: building affordable housing. (Lauren Pelley/CBC News)

Toronto is working to build affordable housing, although some critics say it's not moving fast enough.

Westbank, meanwhile, is currently redeveloping the Honest Ed's site. Its plans include building some 1,000 rental units.

In Vancouver, the company has worked on several massive developments, and also has an offshoot called Creative Energy, which aims to reduce the city's carbon emissions.

Keesmaat had hinted at the announcement, tweeting that people can expect "something exciting" on the affordable housing front soon. Following a discussion about real estate last week, she tweeted: "Vancouver and Toronto need affordable rental housing — and lots of it quickly — to provide housing for all."

About the Author

John Rieti

John Rieti covers city hall and city issues for CBC Toronto. Born and raised in Newfoundland, John has worked in CBC newsrooms across the country in search of great stories. Outside of work, catch him running or cycling around, often armed with a camera, always in search of excellent coffee.

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