CBC Docs POV·Interview

Housing for all in Toronto is possible, say urban planning experts

As the city gentrifies, we need to consider the needs of all who live there.

As the city gentrifies, we need to consider the needs of all who live there.

Couple walk on boardwalk with Toronto harbour and skyline in the background.
Couple walk on boardwalk with Toronto harbour and skyline in the background. (Getty Images)

The cost of buying a home in Toronto continues to rise, even during the pandemic, to record highs; while the average rent of a one-bedroom apartment sits around $2,000/month. We continue to live through a housing crisis in this city and finding affordable housing has become difficult for many, not only the lowest-income earners. In the CBC Docs POV documentary, There's No Place Like This Place, Anyplace, filmmaker Lulu Wei looks at the iconic Honest Ed's block in downtown Toronto after it is sold and asks if the new development taking its place will provide new affordable housing options. 

To find out what we can do to create a more inclusive city, Wei talked to an affordable housing expert and an urban planner about why we're in this situation, how we can fix it, and what is happening at the Honest Ed's site now.

Cheryll Case (L), David Hulchanski (R)
Cheryll Case (L), David Hulchanski (R) (There's No Place Like This Place, Anyplace)

David Hulchanski is a professor of housing and urban development at the University of Toronto and Cheryll Case is the founder and Principal Urban Planner of CP Planning. 

Note: this interview has been edited for length and clarity. 

Wei: As the city continues to grow and we see older buildings get redeveloped, what are we losing?

Case: I think it's really important that cities include a diversity of uses. Honest Ed's was a mall in a sense, but really what attracted people was this wondrous experience of going through the different levels and seeing something different every time. Sneaky Dee's [a Toronto bar and music venue which was recently slated for redevelopment] is a cultural hub for the community and the redevelopment doesn't provide the same square footage of music venue space, so you're losing [more] space in a city that's already losing massive amounts of cultural spaces. 

Another community that's experiencing great loss is Little Jamaica [which] had the most reggae record stores outside of Kingston, Jamaica itself at some point, which is a phenomenal thing. 

Who are we planning for? One of my goals is to help industry pivot to planning from a human rights framework. We need to become comfortable with taking a pause on a lot of these processes that are continuing the harmful systems of capital colonialism and develop relationships with people who are actually impacted and develop policy that reflects their interests. 

Wei: How did the housing crisis in Toronto become so dire? 

Hulchanski: Housing has always been unaffordable for low-income people throughout history. But what happened in the 1980s and 90s is income inequality began to increase and we had fewer and fewer middle-income people. 

My parents were middle income, they had six kids and they bought a suburban house with my father's civil service job. That world doesn't exist any longer because we don't have that big middle class where the housing market is geared to the majority. We now have a majority near the bottom — and that's called income polarization. 

Not having a social housing supply program since the mid-1990s has hurt a lot of people very seriously.

The term that applies to a lot of people now is "housing insecure," which not only includes not being able to pay your rent or your mortgage, but also includes quality of education, access to transit, etc. A majority of Torontonians are housing insecure to some degree, and we know what to do about that, but we're not doing it. 

Not having a social housing supply program since the mid-1990s has hurt a lot of people very seriously. A number of western European and northern European countries and cities are doing better, in part because the gap between rich and poor is much smaller and they have higher taxes than we do. 

Case: We've been cutting taxes for as long as I've known. There are nonprofits that are looking to build affordable housing, but they're not getting the money to build it in the supplies that are needed. The only way for them to have the finances to do that is for us to raise our taxes and to say that this is a collective good and this is for the health of our city and frankly, the health of our democracy to provide affordable housing to all.

Wei: Can you explain what is happening at the Honest Ed's development in terms of providing affordable housing units? 

Hulchanski: Westbank bought the site in 2013. In 2017 they got their official plan and their rezoning approved. Within five or six weeks of approval, the city jumped in to give Westbank the first of three layers of subsidies and that was for 60 units [of affordable housing]. And then they do that again half a year later, part 2 subsidies they called it, up to 85 units. 

In January 2020, the federal government announced $200 million in loans. That's not a cash subsidy but the federal government can borrow money at the cheapest rate and they can pass that on, and that's worth quite a bit of money. 

With that, 100 units (11 per cent of the site) are going to have slightly below-market rents for 25 years, and then another couple hundred units will have something called an "affordable rent" based on the median income of a two-person household in downtown Toronto.

This is for the health of our city and frankly, the health of our democracy to provide affordable housing to all.

At the end of the day, it's a private sector investment, it's not permanently affordable housing or social housing. I think that it's a serious missed opportunity in a very central, important site. 

Wei: What would you have liked to have seen happen at this site? 

Case: I think it would have been great to have the housing be permanently affordable for that amount of investment. If some programming was provided to keep the area's character as a place that attracted and supported new migrants that would have been fantastic. 

Hulchanski: Why aren't 20 per cent or one-third of the units some form of social housing, non-profit or co-op? There would be a permanent impact in that neighbourhood which is not happening, and the answer why that didn't happen is because there's no federal or provincial program to support non-profit housing. 

When there was a program, from the 1960s to the 1990s, we were building about 20,000 social housing units per year. If we had the same policies now, part of this site would be social housing as was the case with the St. Lawrence neighbourhood in the 1970s and early 80s [where] 50 per cent of that neighbourhood was social housing. 

Compared to the rest of the city, the St. Lawrence neighbourhood is relatively low-income and has a very good ethnic mix. About 15 per cent of the people in that neighbourhood are Black in a city that's 9 per cent Black.

So we know how to do it, we once did it, we're not doing it now. It's simply a missed opportunity to achieve something more inclusive for everyone. 

Wei: How can our cities be developed in a way that better serves all the people who live here? 

Case: Innovation is something the planning world loves to talk about, but I think the greatest innovation we can implement is to develop networks of vertical collaboration. Connect with people who directly serve those who are under-housed, with community members, social service providers and the homeless.

Now, we pile on COVID-19 on top and that's a big unknown.

There's definitely a great need to develop a sector that is ready and eager to provide affordable housing. Investing in those organizations and calling on these major institutions that have the power to influence and saying, "what can you do? How can you help us?" Having these conversations is key to being able to get to where we need to go. How do we get those developers in the conversation and then get their help to make that change? 

Wei: As members of the general public, what can we do to help make a difference when it comes to housing insecurity? 

Case: I think what you can do is organize. There's a lot of organizing going on in Parkdale like the Tenant Network that's very actively pushing against evictions. Black Urbanism Toronto is a group that's active in the Little Jamaica neighbourhood and is protecting commercial spaces by preventing evictions of Black businesses. All these different groups have done a fabulous job of developing those vertical relationships. It's allowing your message to be spread and develop that narrative that yes, "this is a problem and we should be doing something about it." 

Wei: What do you see for the future of Toronto? 

Hulchanski: What has changed in 20 years in Toronto? Most things are not better when you're talking about income and cost of housing and job quality and pay. [We need to] become serious about discrimination in housing, labour markets and education. Things are still getting worse instead of better. 

Now, we pile on COVID-19 on top and that's a big unknown. The massive unemployment; so many jobs are being lost and maybe for a long time. Owners can't pay their mortgages, tenants can't pay their rents. Now, we're in a potential financial crisis on top of everything else. 

Case: Change has happened over the last number of years. Planners have actually started to listen a little bit more to the community. 

Planning is a complicated process and before they would just do things without having to do massive consultation. We're starting to consult with marginalized community members. Unfortunately, that skill set of engaging marginalized community members in a meaningful way isn't quite where it needs to be, but it's definitely a skill set that the industry is developing. 

That's something that I'm very heavily invested in ensuring, that our industry is able to meet that goal of engaging with marginalized people and having their needs really used to develop planning policies that will result in affordable housing and other types of systems change that will make this city a lot more habitable and pleasant.

Watch There's No Place Like This Place, Anyplace.

Cheryll Case practices a human rights approach to community planning. As founder and Principal Urban Planner of CP Planning, Cheryll coordinates with charities, private sector industries, and communities to resource the systems necessary to secure dignified living for all peoples. This includes an acute focus on housing as a human right, supporting urban agriculture, and improving the ability for marginalized residents to access arts and culture opportunities.

David Hulchanski joined the University of Toronto's Factor-Inwentash Faculty of Social Work in 1991 as a professor of housing and community development and since 1997 holds the Dr. Chow Yei Ching Chair in Housing. His PhD is in urban planning.

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