A handful of recent legislative victories give affordable housing advocates the sense of hard-won momentum, but progress shouldn't stop now.
No, our local apartment woes have not come to an end.
There has been an abundance of recent legislative victories won by people who think renting an apartment shouldn’t come at the cost of, say, food. With news that the City has approved new regulations for landlords and the provincial government last week passed a bill allowing for (among other things) inclusionary zoning, it might be tempting to feel confident about what the state of housing will be in a few years.
Let’s not get ahead of ourselves.
The actual bylaw regarding landlord regulation has yet to be crafted, let alone put into action; that doesn’t need to happen for a few more months. One of the moves local advocacy organizers ACORN Toronto was most interested in seeing, a DineSafe-esque grading system that would allow tenants to see at a glance if a building is in compliance with city bylaws, wasn’t approved (though it could be at a later date). And the province’s movement on housing has been, at least so far, merely symbolic.
The Promoting Affordable Housing Act allows municipalities across the province to enact inclusionary zoning bylaws (for a full description of inclusionary zoning, see our explainer from earlier this year). It does not mandate inclusionary zoning, and it does not, at present, explain much of what it means by the phrase.
In short, inclusionary zoning is when the City asks developers to make a certain number of units in a given development affordable. It can be mandatory, as is the case in New York, but not in the province’s bill; typical inclusionary zoning measures usually land on somewhere between 10 and 30 per cent of a development; and “inclusionary” could refer to charging anything from market-rate rent to, hypothetically, nothing.
In the absence of inclusionary zoning, the City has relied on measures such as the Open Door program to sweeten the deal for developers, encouraging them to create affordable housing in exchange for handsome tax breaks. None of the affordable units created through the program are required to be permanently affordable, either; after 20 or 25 years they can go back on the market for whatever ungodly sums Toronto living spaces command, meaning future Toronto could well lose all the affordable housing gains it makes through the Open Door program.
We don’t yet know what inclusionary zoning will look like in Ontario because the province still has to develop the regulations that will cover such measures. City Councillor and housing advocate Ana Bailão (Ward 18, Davenport) says that’s why, despite the fact that the City has been clamouring for the ability to institute inclusionary zoning and has known it was on the province’s docket for months, there are no measures in the works at the city.
“We don’t know what the regulations are going to be, we don’t know how prescriptive they’re going to be,” Bailão said. “We really need to see what the regulations are.”
Ultimately, Bailão said, no single practice or tool will solve the crisis of housing that exists on every level in Toronto: would-be homeowners are pushed back into the rental market by exorbitant real estate rates; there aren’t enough living spaces for rent to meet people’s needs, leading to too-high rents and allowing negligent or even malevolent landlords to prosper; there’s a criminally long wait for public housing, and even more so for the most affordable units, available to those in the direst economic need; and thousands of people spend time homeless in the city each year, a function of failures in our approach to both housing and poverty but, more immediately, a failure to provide enough shelter space.
Inclusionary zoning, while an important step, represents a market-focused approach that will never accommodate the city’s poorest residents. Clearly, given the strain on every portion of the rental and real estate markets, creating more housing for those who can afford to pay normal market rent or just above and below is significant. But the political will to improve the situation for others doesn’t seem to be at the same level—austerity budgeting means even the massive backlog of repairs for public housing is unlikely to take precedence, let alone the robust creation of new government-owned and -operated housing that would help ease the stress on the 10-year-long waiting list for social housing.
In New York, concerns have arisen that “affordable” housing, when defined in relation to market-rate rent, is rarely affordable to regular New Yorkers, and using that metric obscures that important fact. The same is true in Toronto, meaning that if the inclusionary zoning regulations call for renting units at 100 per cent or even 80 per cent of market rate—typical guidelines for affordable housing programs—it won’t make a difference to many Torontonians and could end up allowing developers to continue renting and selling at above-market prices with the veneer of being socially responsible.
There is much more work to be done.