Tuesday, December 21, 2010

City searches for affordable-housing solution

Mayor Rob Ford does not hide his contempt for the state of the city’s public housing complexes.

As a councillor representing Rexdale, with pockets of impoverished, often maligned, addresses, he has seen first-hand the shocking conditions — leaking roofs, broken windows, vermin-infested buildings — of some of the 58,500 units owned by the Toronto Community Housing Corporation. It is the second-largest subsidized housing provider in North America.

If Mr. Ford had his way, the city wouldn’t build any more affordable housing units until it fixes what it already has.

He opposes a plan to raze North York’s Lawrence Heights housing projects and build it anew in the image of the mixed-income redevelopment underway in downtown’s Regent Park.

“We have a long waiting list [for community housing] right now. Why not bring those people off the waiting list and subsidize their rent,” Mayor Ford told the National Post during a recent interview.

“Because the vacancies, you drive by almost any apartment and, I’m not exaggerating, it says bachelor, or one-bedroom, or two-bedroom: For Rent. Retail plazas, above the stores, there are apartments for rent. Basement apartments: For Rent,” he said. “My job as Mayor is to get people housed. Whatever way that is, we will do it, but building more affordable housing when we have the units empty just doesn’t make sense to me. Just use that money to subsidize the rent and move them in.”
His impulse speaks to the root of a larger question: how can Toronto, an increasingly expensive place to live in, best meet the housing needs of its residents?

Across North America, municipalities are grappling with the same issue, bulldozing the bricks and mortar that have segregated communities and become synonymous with gangs in the hopes of sowing social cohesion. The United States has been systematically relieving itself of “severely distressed” subsidized housing units, replacing some with new units and others with rent vouchers.

Toronto faces a “terrible shortage of affordable homes,” according to Michael Shapcott, of the Wellesley Institute. In 2009, construction started on 11,919 new ownership and rental homes, 674 of which were affordable enough for low and moderate-income households. Meanwhile, the Toronto Community Housing Corporation, an amalgamation of housing providers that inherited dilapidated provincial housing stock, but not the congruent funding to maintain it, faces an enormous backlog of repairs in the hundreds of millions of dollars.

“This is a rare instance that, as an economist, I can say there is a way to do this stuff that is a lot better than what we’re doing,” said William Strange, a professor of real estate and urban economics at the University of Toronto.

Building more housing, or even replacing crumbling housing with “kinda nice, kinda middle-class” developments is not necessarily the best way to house more people, he argues.

“If you took the households that were in Regent Park, I think giving them resources to spend on the private sector is a better deal than ‘here, we’re going to give you a better unit and we’re going to tell you where to live’,” said Prof. Strange. “Figuring out where to live is something the vast majority of people can do.”

But the voucher model isn’t perfect, cautions Jason Hackworth, a geography and urban planning professor at the University of Toronto. While marketed as giving tenants more choice, some American jurisdictions have seen a limited number of landlords accept vouchers, in effect relegating those who rely on them to neighbourhoods as poor or as segregated as the projects from whence they came.

“Public housing is among the more vilified forms of housing. It’s an easy canard to beat up on,” said Prof. Hackworth. If Mayor Ford’s goal is to reduce costs, he said, “he’s absolutely right, it is expensive to maintain physical stock. But I don’t know of a study that shows it’s less expensive in a market like this one to provide rent subsidies. You have to make up the difference.”

Toronto already provides portable rent allowances. Mr. Shapcott, director of affordable housing and social innovation at the Wellesley Institute, estimates it’s about one-tenth of what the city spends on housing-related initiatives.

One of the early experiments rose out of the controversial dismantling of “tent city” along the waterfront; the municipality handed out $700 allowances and hooked people up with vacant rental apartments.

“It wasn’t particularly elegant, but it worked,” said Mr. Shapcott. The trouble is that the demand for affordable housing far outweighs the private housing stock, he said.

The Canada Mortgage Housing Corporation says there are about 9,000 vacant rental units in Toronto. Meanwhile, 66,000 to 71,000 households are on the waiting list for affordable housing. So, while “there is no question that we should be using every available resource that we can, [portable subsidies] are not going to solve the overall housing and homeless problem that Mayor Ford is facing,” said Mr. Shapcott.

He credits the Toronto Community Housing Corporation, for creatively addressing the long-standing needs of Regent Park and Lawrence Heights.

In the absence of funding, it is selling off parcels of land to developers who will build condos and townhomes in order to pay for the cost of replacing dilapidated buildings. In the case of Lawrence Heights, a project that was approved in principle by the last city council, the density is expected to increase five-fold.

Toronto Community Housing says its vision for revitalization “goes beyond replacing housing in a poor state of repair. We are transforming communities to build great neighbourhoods for everyone.” Toronto Community Housing CEO Keiko Nakamura was unavailable for an interview. Jeffrey Ferrier, a spokesman, wrote in an email that TCH “looks forward to working with Mayor Ford and the new city council on a variety of housing issues over the next four years in a manner that respects the taxpayer and for the benefit of the 164,000 Torontonians whose home is in our community.” He noted that the board of directors is preparing to welcome four new city councillors, chosen by the Mayor and council.

“We believe it’s important that the board have an opportunity to come together and jointly establish future directions.”

National Post

Read more: http://news.nationalpost.com/2010/12/18/city-searches-for-affordable-housing-solution/#ixzz18lBW6Fj5

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