News / Toronto

Politicians finally say they'll prioritize tenants, and it's about time: Matt Elliott

Too often tenants are treated like politically second class citizens. That should change.

A for rent sign outside a Toronto apartment in March 2017.

Eduardo Lima / Metro Order this photo

A for rent sign outside a Toronto apartment in March 2017.

Does anyone really give a damn about Toronto’s renters?

Normally, I’d give you a simple answer: nah. Most of the political conversation about affordable housing in this city is focused on the plight of would-be homeowners. We hear lots about things like foreign buyer taxes or mortgage rules, but those who desire only reasonable rent in apartments without bedbugs are generally ignored.

But recent news out of Queen’s Park has got me feeling a little more optimistic.

Last week, Ontario Housing Minister Chris Ballard told Metro’s May Warren that the province plans to reform the province’s archaic rent control policies. Currently, any buildings constructed after 1991 are not subject to guidelines for rent increases, meaning landlords can jack up rents all they want.

It’s a weird, arbitrary policy. There is no clear reason why tenants are only guaranteed reasonable rents if they live in an unit that predates the release of the Guns & Roses’ Use Your Illusion.

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Ballard stopped short of saying the 1991 policy would be scrapped entirely, but he did say the “1991 exemption is not legislation that’s working today.”

He’s right. And it’s important that more politicians begin to understand the need for rental legislation that works better.

Because any conversation about making Toronto housing more affordable has got to start with creating a more robust, more accessible market for the half of Torontonians who rent.

That means more than just talking about rent controls. It also means encouraging construction of new buildings designed specifically for rental purposes.

Over the last couple of decades, the construction of new rental has been outstripped by the construction of condo buildings. That has finally started to change. Real estate consulting group Urbanation reported last year that nearly half of all high-rise buildings going up in the GTA are planned for rentals.

That’s good news – and any policy shift on the rental market needs to encourage even more of it.

There’s a lot governments can do. Unused publicly-owned land should be rapidly turned over to become affordable rental housing. Governments can offer tax incentives to builders of rental projects, and offer more subsidies to tenants.

A lot of this is simply about learning from the past.

Toronto’s St. Lawrence neighbourhood, constructed in the 1970s, still stands today as a successful example of governments creating a vibrant, mixed-income neighbourhood. There is no reason why that formula of market housing, social housing, rental and co-op buildings can’t be replicated across the city.

No reason, of course, except that it has long seemed like few politicians really care about this segment of the market. But by turning their attention to rent control policies, the provincial government has at last given some indication that they do. That’s step one.

Step two: prove it.

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