A flood of micro-scandals has poured out of City Hall over the past week: robocalls, reference letters, weird mayoral communications to the Toronto Sun, and, of course, Mayor Rob Ford and councillor Giorgio Mammoliti’s rage at a possibly snoozing city worker. All of these are potential talking points in the ramp-up to next year’s election period.
Amid these incidents, one very telling story—also featuring Mammoliti and Ford—almost escaped notice. It seems that a task force on homelessness announced by Ford in 2011 that was to be headed by Mammoliti simply never happened. Which is kind of a perfect illustration of how housing policy is treated in Toronto these days. I only wish that this, too, could be the preamble to a major campaign battle.
The increasing unaffordability of housing in this city is a huge problem, one that threatens the quality of life of virtually every Torontonian, and one that will shape the kind of city we become over the next couple of decades. Yet precious little time is spent figuring out what to do about it.
The discussion is complicated because there are at least three distinct topics that fall under the umbrella term “housing affordability,” each with its own set of challenges and possible solutions. There is homelessness—finding a way to serve those who sleep on the streets or in shelters. There is housing for people living in poverty, who are unlikely to ever afford market rates for a place to live. And then there is the price of housing for average-income people, who are increasingly being squeezed to the fringes of the city and beyond. In all three of these areas, Toronto finds itself in trouble.
The city’s latest street needs assessment, released last month, shows that the number of homeless people (including those using emergency shelters, women’s shelters, and so on) is up slightly to 5,253, and the number sleeping on the street is up 24 per cent since 2009. The overwhelming majority of homeless people surveyed said they wanted housing, and about two-thirds cited affordability issues as the main obstacle.
The plight of the rest of the poor—those not on the street—is equally concerning. According to the most recent Vital Signs report from the Toronto Community Foundation, 10.7 per cent of the population lives in poverty. These people may be candidates for subsidized housing—they are the reason it exists—but Toronto Community Housing currently has a waiting list of more than 70,000 households. As for addressing that gap, the city lists a depressing total of 693 affordable rental units under construction.
This in a city where rents and home prices are moving out of reach, even for average-income people—indeed, even for relatively well-off people. The Vital Signs report notes that rents have risen five per cent over the past two years, and low vacancy rates threaten to push them even higher. The median family income in Toronto, according to Statistics Canada, is $69,740. Meanwhile, the average two-storey home in Toronto requires a “qualifying household income of $130,000.” Where spending 30 per cent or less of one’s income on shelter has long been considered the standard measure of affordability, now, a family would need to spend more than that on even a basic condominium (and more than twice that for a two-storey house).
So, we’re faced with a situation where accomodation is simply unavailable for the poor, and where you have to be among the top 10 per cent of income earners in Canada to afford a typical house. There are lots of tools on the policy workbench that experts suggest we can use to deal with this problem. Frankly, I’m not sure which would be the most effective. But a vigorous debate about those options, followed by determined action, seems to be in order. Instead, we live in the age of imaginary task forces.
It’s not as if this is something people don’t care about. Blogs pointing out ridiculously expensive Toronto real-estate listings go viral, and every water cooler and coffee shop is abuzz with people griping about housing prices. Maybe the only place this isn’t being discussed seriously is where it would make a difference: in the halls of government. Mayoral candidates, get your housing platform ideas in order. This rich city—which is increasingly house poor—is ready to hear them.