News / Toronto

New Ontario affordable housing laws could mean big choices for big cities

Even if the province passes new affordable housing requirements, it will be up to cities like Toronto to mold them to their own needs, experts say.

Scenes like this could soon mean more than just new condos for Toronto. Affordable housing could become a mandatory part of all new buildings if the right legislation makes it through Queen’s Park.

Torstar News Service file

Scenes like this could soon mean more than just new condos for Toronto. Affordable housing could become a mandatory part of all new buildings if the right legislation makes it through Queen’s Park.

The province may be ready for new affordable housing policies, but the heavy lifting needed to turn them into reality will fall to cities like Toronto, advocates say.

Ontario Municipal Affairs Minister Ted McMeekin pledged Monday to introduce legislation that, if passed, would allow cities to make it mandatory for developers to include a certain percentage of affordable housing units in new buildings.

Toronto has been asking for so-called inclusionary zoning powers for a decade and the news was welcomed by housing advocates. But, details of the zoning change will still need to be worked out at the municipal level — and that will mean turning a detailed eye toward the exisiting landscape, said Sean Meagher, director of Social Planning Toronto.

“We need to look at local development patterns and see what will generate the most appropriate amount of housing,” Meagher said.

At stake will be questions like which developments the law applies to, what percentage of units must be affordable housing and who will shoulder the cost.

Toronto’s chief planner, Jennifer Keesmaat, has suggested applying the law to developments 300 units or larger, but some advocates feel that threshold is too conservative.

“By keeping it high, you’re leaving out a lot of projects that in turn won’t be providing any housing,” said Richard Drdla, an affordable housing consultant in Toronto.

Drdla suggested Toronto should borrow some “best practices” from the United States, where inclusionary zoning policies have been in place since the 1970s.

For example, to be effective, any affordable housing requirements must be mandatory, he said.

Toronto’s existing Section 37 policy encourages developers to include affordable units, but Drdla estimates it creates only about 100 new affordable units a year. Inclusionary zoning, in contrast, is expected to add as many as 1,500 units annually.

“It’s a different ball game,” Drdla said.

Inclusionary zoning can also become an issue if it’s brought into effect after developers have bought land, said David Amborski, director of the Centre for Urban Research and Land Development at Ryerson University.

“If developers suddenly have additional costs, it either leads to higher prices or lower profits,” he said.

Drdla said affordable housing requirements could be phased in over time, so as to avoid penalizing developers who are “already in the pipeline.” 

Time is of the essence

Social Planning Toronto director Sean Meagher urged the province to fast track any new legislation affordable housing legislation. Rather than draft new legislation from scratch, he said the Ontario Liberals should simply modify one of the two existing proposals already before the legislature.

“Speed is more important than having an easier bill to work with,” he said. “Every delay means we’ve permanently lost opportunities to build affordable housing in Toronto.”

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