Campaign Fact Check: Did Jack Layton and Olivia Chow Live in Subsidized Housing?
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Campaign Fact Check: Did Jack Layton and Olivia Chow Live in Subsidized Housing?

The answer is yes—but it's complicated.

Photo by Tania Liu, from the Torontoist Flickr pool

Photo by Tania Liu, from the Torontoist Flickr pool.

After much deliberation, Trinity-Spadina MP Olivia Chow has resigned from her federal seat and is launching her campaign to become mayor of Toronto. However, mere moments after she declared her intentions, old accusations surfaced that she and her late partner, Jack Layton, had lived together in “subsidized housing” earlier in their public careers.

Karl Baldauf raised it first on CP24, and later tweeted: “Day 1 of Olivia Chow’s campaign key message take-away: there’s a difference bw subsidized housing and a taxpayer subsidized co-op” and “Hazelburn Coop built under a fedprogram to provide affordable housing for low-to moderate-income families. Olivias family made $120k”. He also referred to Chow as a “double-dipper.”

So—did Chow and Layton live in subsidized housing? The answer is yes—but it’s complicated.

From 1985 to 1990, Layton and Chow lived in an $800-per-month “market value” three-bedroom apartment in Hazelburn Co-operative Homes, a federally funded non-profit housing co-op that receives financial assistance from the Government of Canada under the National Housing Act. Unlike private apartments or public housing, co-ops are non-profits owned and managed by their members, with elected boards, audited financial statements, and extensive reporting on the state of their buildings and their financial activities.

The co-op housing sector is complex, with some co-ops receiving federal funding, others receiving provincial funding, and still others receiving funding and assistance under multiple programs. The federal programs have changed over the years, but the general principles remain the same: the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation (CMHC) provides funding for fixed-rate mortgages for co-op properties and rent subsidies for low-income residents. This enables co-ops to offer a mix of both market value and geared-to-income housing—in Hazelburn’s case, 30 per cent low-income units to 70 per cent market value. While some co-ops have limits or caps designed to exclude residents with higher incomes, Hazelburn and other Section 95 co-ops do not—and so are not mandated to provide “affordable housing for low- to moderate-income families.”

This immediately puts to rest several myths and misunderstandings about Layton and Chow’s time at Hazelburn: they did not occupy a low-income unit at Hazelburn; their occupancy of a market-value unit did not have any effect on the availability of low-income units in their building or elsewhere in the co-op sector; and they were not inappropriately housed as, theoretically, one could be as rich as John Tory or Rob Ford and still be eligible to live in a market-value unit in a Section 95 co-op. Strictly speaking, though, every unit in most federally funded co-ops is to some extent subsidized by taxpayer money, whether the unit is designated as geared-to-income or market value.

(Other things subsidized by CMHC that may have benefited Toronto politicians: incentives for first-time homebuyers; condominium construction; mortgage insurance.)

This in itself is not a bad thing—many co-ops have struggled at different times over the years to fill their market-value spaces, and have suffered vacancy losses as a result. Market-value residents are essential to fulfill the needs of each co-op’s funding formula and CMHC requirements. Also, a key benefit of co-op living comes from the diversity of households in the co-op community. The various levels of government should be doing more, not less, to provide non-profit tenant-run housing, mixed communities, and affordable homes for all income levels, rather than privately run housing that is “low-income” in name only, and poorly maintained and managed “social housing.”

So what happened with Layton and Chow? Three months before the Toronto Star story broke in June 1990, they started paying an additional $325 per month to bring their rent more closely in line with those charged in the private sector. Even that was not enough to mollify the media, their fellow councillors, and many annoyed Torontonians, some of whom protested outside of Hazelburn’s front door; just two weeks after the first Star article, Jack Layton announced that he and Chow would be moving into a house that could accommodate the two of them and Chow’s mother, stating that he had been searching for a suitable home for seven months with little luck.

“We were hoping it wouldn’t take this long,” he said. “But the downtown ward is the most expensive area of Metro, and it doesn’t have many homes.”