With Toronto's low vacancy rate, we need more rental housing built now

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With Toronto’s low vacancy rate, we need more rental housing built now

There are proposals for new buildings, but the NIMBY crowd doesn't want them in their neighbourhoods.

The city needs new rental units or renters will be prices out. Photo by Russell Sutherland in the Torontoist Flickr pool.

It might feel to those looking for a new apartment in Toronto that there just aren’t that many available. And there aren’t. According to the CMHC, Toronto has a 1.1 per cent rental vacancy rate, well below the 3–4 per cent considered ideal for a healthy housing market.

A low vacancy rate means, of course, that for every unit that becomes available, there is a long line of prospective tenants looking to lock it down. It’s no wonder that rents have increased by dramatically over the past year, as bargaining power continues to shift in ever-greater favour of a relatively small pool of landlords.

As of this year, a bachelor apartment averages upward of $1,600 per month. For a one bedroom, that’s $2,000 per month, and $2,700 per month for a two bedroom.

If you’re looking for a new apartment in Toronto, none of the above comes as much of a surprise.

If, however, you’re a long-time homeowner, well past the age at which you’ve had to pay rent to a landlord, you might not be aware of how acute this problem has become—of how stressful it could be to those less established and less secure.

This situation can often make for impossible choices. How can you get a job or an education if you can’t afford to live within a reasonable distance of the office or school? How can you raise a family if you can’t afford an apartment that lets you juggle rents with child-care costs with commutes and daycare drop offs? And how can you earn the stability of becoming a homeowner yourself if you can’t save for a down payment, especially if your mom and dad aren’t there to help?

Those who already own homes may not be aware of these challenges and tradeoffs. That difference in experiences sets the stage for a battle brewing over the development of a purpose-built rental building at 18 Brownlow in midtown.

Originally proposed in 2015 as a 463-unit project, it was scaled down in 2016 to 369 units, and again in 2017 to 176 units, largely in response to pushback by members of the local South Eglinton Residents’ Association (SERRA).

SERRA, however, is still not content with the proposal, and they are demanding that it be further reduced, citing concerns over the building’s height. This project is also of concern to SERRA because it will set a precedent for other potential buildings.

This showdown is a microcosm of what can neatly be summed up as a clash of classes, if not of generations. On one hand, established homeowners shouting “Not In My Backyard” in a neighbourhood specifically targeted by the province for growth. On the other, a generation drowning in the high cost of housing, working ever-harder to fend off the prospect of a required move to the suburbs or and exurbs.

It bears repeating: a 1.1 per cent rental vacancy rate is very low.

If the situation is to improve, we’re necessarily going to need to build a lot of new housing units. Especially including purpose-built rental units, with professional management and long-term security for renters.

In short, we’re going to need to build dozens of 18 Brownlows, over and over again, throughout the city.

SERRA doesn’t quite see it this way, noting that, “this development is likely for ‘luxury’ apartments for empty nesters,” implying that it wouldn’t do much to address the shortage of affordable housing in Toronto. But let’s think that through.

First, it is very likely that the new units proposed at 18 Brownlow will be priced at somewhat of a premium, given that people generally like new things, including apartments. Those people however, then exit that line of prospective tenants mentioned above and, therefore, stop competing with every other apartment-hunter.

Second, rental units for empty nesters are exactly what we should be building if we’re to see them, in fact, empty their nests. There is no benefit to keeping a widower stuck in a large detached house for lack of better options, especially when that house could be used by a young and growing family or, as is often the case, subdivided into several new rental units.

Finally, luxury units become affordable over time, just as luxury cars become affordable over time. Our 1.1 per cent rental vacancy rate and expensive rents are consequences of the fact that we did not build enough luxury units 20, 30, or 40 years ago. We need more housing of all types and all price levels.

The current state of affairs is pretty bleak, and there isn’t much on the horizon to signal that it should improve any time soon. And that’s largely because our housing policy is more deferential to the height concerns of homeowners than the basic living concerns of the precariously housed.

However, there is a way to reduce the stress of rising rents and achieve more balanced vacancy rates.

If we want more people to have rental housing in Toronto, we’re going to need to build more rental housing. 18 Brownlow is a proposal for more rental housing.

On Wednesday, January 17t at 6:30 p.m., at the Best Western Hotel at 808 Mt. Pleasant Rd., the City is hosting a public meeting to solicit community input as it assesses the proposal at 18 Brownlow.

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