The City is failing to fund measures that could improve housing quality and stability.
While one-quarter of children and one-fifth of adults living in poverty in Toronto (the number jumps to nearly half for recent immigrants), the City came up with an optimistically titled initiative in 2015: “TO Prosperity: Toronto Poverty Reduction Strategy.” It proclaims the goal of making Toronto into a “city with opportunities for all” by 2035, and focuses on six key tenets that must be addressed. The first one listed is housing stability.
As the City notes in its report on the strategy, “Individuals and families with low income cannot afford safe, secure, and adequate housing without sacrificing basic needs such as food, clothing, and transportation. Aging rental units are often in a poor state of repair, which negatively impacts people’s health and quality of life.”
Yet despite the City’s ostensible dedication to improving conditions for Toronto’s least well-off, Mayor John Tory insisted every City department slash 2.6 per cent from its budget, while failing to fund measures that could improve housing quality and stability. Tory has remained committed to his campaign promise not to raise property taxes above the rate of inflation, and has instead asked the Province to grant him the ability to toll drivers on two highways—a request that was recently denied.
City Councillor Gord Perks (Ward 14, Parkdale-High Park), a frequent critic of the administration, called this year’s budget “a step backwards in terms of the City’s commitment to affordable housing,” and said the City’s refusal to hike property taxes is a huge part of the problem. Toronto’s property taxes are among the lowest in Ontario and are about 25 per cent below the GTA average.
Deputy Mayor Pam McConnell (Ward 28, Toronto Centre-Rosedale) concedes that she thinks the City should have higher taxes, but added that of the Province’s change of mind on tolls, “it’s outrageous that the revenue tools that were given to us were clearly given to us with handcuffs on them.”
McConnell, who oversees Toronto’s poverty file, said the City has made significant strides since its inception. She pointed to the work plan for this year being fully funded, and to the closure of Toronto Community Housing’s (TCH) operating deficit. She also noted progress on changing the way the City tracks affordable housing units as they’re being built, saying the process has been improved significantly and that “measuring it properly, and accounting for it properly, and setting in proper goals is very important, so I think that’s what we’re trying to do over the next year.”
Yet for all that progress, Toronto will need a significant investment from either the Province or Ottawa if it’s going to keep TCH from shuttering hundreds of units in 2018. The city’s Affordable Housing Office operating budget lists a significant shortfall in the affordable units built over the last several years—from 2010 to 2020, the City’s goal is to build 10,000 rental units and 2,000 for ownership. By the end of 2015, the department calculates, just 2,872 and 797, respectively, had been built. And many affordable units are priced within 80 to 100 per cent of market rents, meaning they’re out of reach for a large portion of Torontonians.
Perks would like to see that changed.
“My own view is we should be building primarily in the category of deep affordability and supportive housing, because those are the populations that are most vulnerable,” Perks said.
Affordable housing isn’t the only aspect of housing that’s suffering, either. Shelter occupancy rates remain between 90 and 100 per cent, effectively meaning they’re all full. With no room, people are left to sleep on the streets, which can be life-threatening. Yet the Shelter, Support and Housing Administration was also tasked with dropping 2.6 per cent off its budget, and Perks said he was disappointed to see a loss of several frontline shelter workers as a direct result of the budget.
“One of the things that isn’t talked about enough is that as the boom in Toronto spreads out from the downtown and the growth areas,” he said. “More and more low-rent housing in the private market is facing redevelopment or people are being pushed out with illegal evictions.”
The essential contradiction between the Tory administration’s goal of ending poverty in Toronto and its refusal to increase taxes is clear. Without serious investment in poverty reduction, there’s no hope of actually reducing poverty. And without more money, there’s no way to increase investment. Speaking specifically about affordable housing, Perks put it succinctly.
“The crisis is worsening—not getting better—as the result of this, the mayor’s third budget.”