Shawn Micallef: Can Canada think big on housing again?
There was a time when the country built affordable homes on a massive scale, unlike today when we rely largely on market forces to create housing.
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Two weeks ago the federal government launched their National Housing Strategy and the prime minister said housing is a human right. Long awaited in the GTA and cities across Canada experiencing an acute housing crisis, critics say it doesn’t go far enough and doesn’t build very much new affordable housing. While this new initiative might be a good first step, there was a time in the recent past when Canada boldly created new housing.
Canada: Modern Architectures in History, a recently published book by Rhodri Windsor Liscombe and Michelangelo Sabatino, goes deep into this era of not just home building, but nation building. Tracing the story of Canadian modern architecture beginning with the opening of the transcontinental railway in 1886, the authors found that the “provision of decent and well-built housing to the widest populace” was a national theme that ran well into the 1960s and 1970s.
Creating homes for Canadians really took off in the post-war era when “reconstruction” took hold in Canada: though it suffered no bomb damage, the country had to house all those returning soldiers and the baby boom that followed.
Institutions and public buildings were also part of this, but the need to provide the country with housing was critical. In this spirit, the Central (later named Canada) Mortgage and Housing Corp. (CMHC) was created in 1946. The authors write that the CMHC had many responsibilities including, “the provision of residential mortgages and plans, public housing initiatives, education and training in architectural and planning professions, building research, upgrading of the building industry, international exchanges with architects... as well as the construction of university residences.” The book, rich with pictures, delves into dozens of projects great and small across the country. It was an incredibly busy time.
In short, it was the creation of much of the Canada we see on city streets today. The authors are careful to point out there was a negative side to this: slum clearance and wholesale displacement of existing communities, as well as CMHC schemes for First Nations that so often caused more harm than good.
Lessons were learned and mistakes are still being corrected, but the country did build affordable homes on a massive scale while today we rely largely on market forces to build housing. For the last few decades this meant mostly ownership units, and their worth as investments was central to it all. Purpose built rental is only creeping back into the market, but not near the scale it was a few generations ago, when so many of the mid- and high-rise apartments that are home to hundreds of thousands of people in the GTA and beyond were constructed, a healthy mix of rental, affordable housing, co-operatives and, yes, even some condos.
Though Canadian in scope, the book documents some of the fantastic projects built in Toronto during the modern era, such as “Hydro Block” along Henry St. between Baldwin and Cecil Sts. It got its name because it was built on property bought by Ontario Hydro, which intended to build a substation there in the early 1970s. I recall going on a walking tour led by current steward of the new National Housing Strategy, MP Adam Vaughan, back when he was the area’s city councillor. He admirably pointed to it and said you’d never know it’s public housing because Hydro Block blends into the neighbourhood and looks great today, though it’s nearly 40 years old now.
The book also looks at projects like the wildly successful St. Lawrence neighbourhood, a mixture of market, affordable and co-operative housing, along with schools and community centres. Largely built in the early 1980s, it was a model for the current redevelopment of Regent Park and other projects that attempt to correct the overreach of large modernist projects.
It’s a deeply researched book that tells much more than the housing story and is filled with examples and stories that explain how Toronto and other cities grew up during the last century.
However it left me wondering if we could think and act this boldly and creatively again in the face of the current housing crisis.
Though the number of people on Ontario’s waitlist for affordable housing approaches 200,000 today, we’re not building the way we once did. In the 1990s, the federal and provincial governments also stopped subsidizing co-op construction, truly ending the last robust era of new affordable home building.
The invention and expansion of colonial Canada and later the incredible shock of the Second World War and its aftermath precipitated these earlier building booms, but the housing crisis today is slow to register with people.
This past week Mayor John Tory was angry when he was questioned on CBC Metro Morning on why he wasn’t more aggressive in procuring homeless shelter beds for the coming winter, one that’s supposed to be harsher than usual. If he seems cocooned from the crisis in wealth, so too are so many other people who aren’t touched by it: if you’ve got stable housing you can afford, other peoples’ problems disappear.
The crisis creeps up on people though. I see it when I go back to Windsor and meet people who’ve got a kid who moved to Toronto for school or work. The first thing they bring up is how hard it is for them to live here. Suddenly, these well-housed Boomer-era folk know it isn’t like it used to be.
More and more people will feel this crisis, but if it resonates too slowly with the wider population to generate real political will to take the National Housing Strategy to the next level, this crisis will become a tragedy.
Shawn Micallef writes every Saturday about where and how we live in the GTA. Wander the streets with him on Twitter @shawnmicallef.