Ontario's Proposed Housing Legislation is an Unusual Show of Responsibility to Affordable Housing
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Provincial Housing Strategy an Unusual Show of Responsibility

Provincial and federal governments have neglected affordable housing responsibilities for decades, but that could be changing.

In 1999, Michael Shapcott met with a federal minister to propose the government reinstate a national housing strategy. It didn’t go quite the way he hoped.

It had been a decade and a half since the feds started gradually cutting spending on social housing and three years since they stopped funding it altogether. Homelessness across Canada was spiking—since the mid 80s, new social housing infrastructure plummeted 95 per cent, and in Toronto, shelter admissions quadrupled. “I brought these issues to the minister,” says Shapcott. “He told me to fuck off—that they were out of the housing business.”

In various forms, that attitude permeated government at the federal and provincial levels for another 15 years. “The notion was that homelessness is something in the pathology of individuals,” says Shapcott, director of the Canadian Alliance to End Homelessness. “They’d say it’s unfortunate, but it’s not a government issue.”

Now, after more than 35 years of pressuring governments to take responsibility for housing, Shapcott and fellow social housing advocates finally feel like they’re being heard.

Last week the Ontario government announced updates to its long-term affordable housing strategy. While most of the report was regurgitated from the provincial budget released last month, there’s one new item, inclusionary zoning, that may actually help alleviate housing insecurity.

This municipal regulation would require all new housing developments of a certain size to include some percentage of affordable units. However, the recommendations still need to be made into legislation by the Province before the Council, along with developers, housing advocates and the public, can sort out the details.

Inclusionary zoning is one way to help cities maintain sufficiently affordable and diverse housing stock. Since 2010, fewer than 3,700 new affordable units have been built in Toronto, while about 94,000 individuals and families are waiting for subsidized housing. Of the affordable units that do exist, 400 are currently uninhabitable and another 7,500 are on pace to be boarded up in the next decade. “Toronto has not forgotten how to build housing—the problem is that the stuff we’re building is not affordable to low and middle income households,” says Shapcott, adding that governments, not developers, should ensure citizens have access to safe, affordable housing.

Council has asked the Province to legislate inclusionary zoning—14 times in the last 16 years, in fact—and there are currently two private members bills pushing the legislation with the Province. NDP MPP Cheri DiNovo (Parkdale-High Park) has introduced five private members bills on the regulation since 2009.

But pushback from developers has always been a barrier, and the industry, unsurprisingly, was quick to criticize the proposed legislation announced last week. “We all know that nothing comes for free,” Joe Vaccaro, CEO of the Ontario Home Builders’ Association, said in a statement [PDF], suggesting that building more affordable units would jack up condo prices for market renters. “Requiring free housing units as part of a new community approval is just another way to have new neighbours cover the bill as the cost of their new home goes up to pay for these new units,” he continued.

Inclusionary zoning has been implemented in 400 communities across the United States since it was first introduced in the 1970s. But as Vaccaro points out, developers in those jurisdictions enjoy financial incentives from state and federal funding programs to build affordable housing—something Ontario municipalities currently lack, and a hole in the proposed legislation that stakeholders are looking to the feds to fill.

Aside from the proposed zoning amendment, the updated strategy highlights the $178 million (previously announced in the Provincial budget) in subsidies and benefits spread over the next three years. Of that funding, $100 million will go towards helping 4,000 people secure supportive housing, $17 million will help launch a portable housing benefit aimed at reaching 3,000 survivors of domestic violence, and $2.5 million is earmarked for research and “capacity building initiatives” around housing security.

While the updates, particularly inclusionary zoning, may help low income residents in the long-run, the issue of repairing Toronto’s existing social housing stock remains. The City has made repeated appeals to the provincial and federal governments to each cover a third of the TCHC’s 10-year $2.6 billion repair backlog to match the City’s contribution. Despite Mayor Tory and his TCHC task force’s apparent confidence that the Province would come to the rescue, Ontario’s affordable housing strategy does not mention TCHC. “There’s not a lot in this announcement that meets with what they asked for,” said DiNovo who called the report “a wash” aside from the inclusionary zoning proposal. “Are we just going to let TCHC properties fall into dust?”

While Councillor Bailao, who’s a member of the TCHC board and chairs the City’s affordable housing committee, said “I wish there was a little more money” in the plan, she praised the broad, structural changes. “If it gave us a check of $800 million like we’ve been asking for, and we did all the repairs, the issue is, we would be in a similar position probably about ten years from now,” says Bailao. “What we have now is a lot of these legislative powers that will allow us to create a corporation that will make [social housing] sustainable.”

For Shapcott, the encouraging part of the plan isn’t any one proposal or fund, but that the Province and feds are no longer telling him to fuck off. “Up until recently, for housing experts and housing advocates, when we would sit across the table from ministers, it was basically to argue ‘you guys have a role to play,’ and they would say ‘what role is that?’” says Shapcott. “They’re now signing on to this idea that yes, not only is it possible to do this, but there’s a critical role, a leadership role, for government.”

The new federal government pledged during the election campaign to build new, and repair old, social housing infrastructure across Canada. Tomorrow, when they announce the annual budget, affordable housing stakeholders will be watching to ensure they back that commitment with adequate funds, and that the Province takes note. “If they, as we all expect they will, put some money on the table, then you can bet that 10 minutes after the budget is tabled in Ottawa, we’re going to be speaking with the provincial government and say, ‘where’s your matching funding?’” says Shapcott. “We don’t need more delays and more commissions and more studies,” he adds, “we need funding and we need to get going on this stuff.”

CORRECTION: 10:42 PM This article previously stated that a particular percentage will be put aside for affordable housing. No target has yet been set.