Last week, amid the shouting and crying that marked the dying days of the provincial election campaign, Toronto’s city council did a good thing. It approved 80 units of affordable housing set aside for artists in a new 15-story condo development planned for the East Bayfront community. This decision is in line with the in-development neighbourhood’s zoning plan, which mandates that 20 per cent of new housing should be affordable. The deal—between the city, the private non-profit Artscape, and the condo developers—is the kind we desperately need in Toronto, where housing affordability is a serious crisis for many and the waiting list for subsidized units is approaching 100,000 families.
A number of these deals have been negotiated by city councillors over the past few years. Condo developers agree to include social housing in their projects in exchange for approvals of various other things they want (especially height and density). But right now, Toronto has no way to force developers to do it—no power to implement “inclusionary zoning,” as it’s called—as city authorities do elsewhere.
In Vancouver, for instance, many new developments have been required to include 20 per cent affordable housing, which has resulted in the creation of over 2,500 units during the three decades since their laws were passed. More than 200 U.S. cities have implemented similar regulations and, according to an overview published last year on the CCPA Policy Fix blog, at least one study has shown that in Vancouver and San Francisco, such policies can actually make buildings more valuable for both developers and the surrounding communities. Inclusionary zoning also formed the cornerstone of the massive housing plan New York City mayor Bill De Blasio unveiled last month.
As the new and re-elected MPPs settle into Queen’s Park and we turn our attention back to the municipal election race, it’s time we made inclusionary zoning a priority. Our long list of housing problems includes figuring out how to pay for maintenance and operations at Toronto Community Housing and how to increase the supply of affordable and subsidized units. Not all of these issues are easy to fix. And given the budget challenges on the horizon at Queen’s Park, the hundreds of millions of dollars a year in funding Toronto ought to get from the province to cover TCHC expenses still appears to be a tough sell—though I think it is a necessary one. (No other city in the world pays for a social housing portfolio like ours strictly out of the municipal tax base, as we do here.)
That said, inclusionary zoning offers a fairly simple and effective way to begin addressing at least some of the problems. Developers get what they want (to build for a profit), which increases the supply of units for market-rate homebuyers and renters, while at the same time, we get new units for low-income people integrated into our growing neighbourhoods.
In each of her past two terms, NDP MPP Cheri DiNovo (who was re-elected in her Parkdale–High Park riding last week) brought private member’s bills to the legislature that would have allowed inclusionary zoning. Neither of them got any traction with a minority provincial government unwilling to prioritize this Toronto issue. But given that this new Liberal majority was elected largely on the strength of an overwhelming Toronto vote, it’s time more of our concerns moved to the front of the line, especially a measure that would cost the province nothing and give the city the power to deal with its substantial growing pains. DiNovo can be expected to reintroduce her bill, and in the absence of opposition pressure from the Tories while they reinvent themselves, one hopes the Liberals will embrace it and make it their own.
But our local politicians should do more than hope. Toronto’s mayoral candidates—and council candidates, too—need to begin putting this idea in their platforms, demanding that the province give the city this power, and demonstrating that they will put it to use if it comes to pass.
For such a big issue, housing has been excluded from our political debates too often recently. Now it’s time to bring it to the forefront with an inclusionary zoning policy, a simple but effective way to help ensure we’re building a city of neighbourhoods that people from all points of the income spectrum can afford to live in.