Metro's Matt Elliott, formerly of Ford For Toronto, keeps the light shining on Mayor John Tory's city hall.
Matt Elliott: The not-so-magical answer to Toronto's housing crisis
If this city wants more affordable housing, our leaders will have to build it — and history has some very valuable lessons to teach us.
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A little over a decade ago, in the midst of a frustrating hunt for a decent Toronto apartment, my girlfriend and I went to see a two-bedroom place up for rent in the Annex. The $1,600-a-month rent would stretch our budget, but we thought we could swing it.
But getting the place wasn’t so easy. When we booked a time to see it with the landlord, we didn’t expect to arrive to a crowd of other prospective renters, all furiously filling out applications. It wasn’t an apartment showing — it was a desperate competition.
We didn’t win. It worked out OK. We moved our sights eastwards and found a nice place for about the same rent near Regent Park. But I remember thinking at the time how nuts Toronto’s rental market was.
It’s worse now.
Numbers presented to Toronto City Hall’s Tenant Issues committee earlier this month tell the story. In 2017, rents in apartment buildings increased faster than they have in 15 years, while vacancy rates reached their lowest point in 16 years.
A survey of rental listings found landlords are asking an average of $1,614 for a one-bedroom apartment. A two bedroom will run you $2,252.
It’s no wonder people are going to great and creative lengths to find affordable places to live.
This state of affairs is even more frustrating because governments have been taking steps over the last year to support tenants. Rent control laws have been strengthened. Regulations have been implemented to cool the housing market, which should theoretically lead to lower rents in the condos that make up a large part of active listings.
But the key numbers — average rents and vacancy rates — aren’t getting better.
Which leads to the inevitable question: What next? What’s the next thing governments can do to keep Toronto from becoming what Coun. Josh Matlow, chair of the Tenant Issues Committee, called a “playground for the rich”?
The best answer could be found in the past. When housing was scarce in the 1950s and 1960s, governments built housing. In Toronto, they built whole neighbourhoods like Regent Park, St. James Town and St. Lawrence, with thousands of homes designed and marketed not as luxury condos or investment properties but as affordable places to live.
There are serious lessons to be learned about how some of these housing projects were designed and maintained, but the notion behind them remains sound.
Ambitious housing projects are not something governments seem keen to get behind these days. While there has been support for revitalizing old neighbourhoods with affordable housing, there’s little appetite to build new ones. The Canary District neighbourhood, built as part of the Pan Am Games, is probably the best example, but still is predominantly condos.
Meanwhile, there is to be no housing at all planned for the provincially-owned land at Ontario Place. The same's true for the old Unilever site — a vast piece of vacant land adjacent to the downtown core. And don’t get me started on the new subway stations that opened in December. There are no residential buildings attached to any of them. Too many are surrounded by nothing but parking lots and strip malls.
Bolder plans are needed — plans that recognize the severity of the crisis and are willing to invest to meet it.
There’s no magic to it. To fix an affordable housing crisis, you build affordable housing.