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Where are the affordable houses in Toronto? Nowhere to be found?

Now and then, I stumble upon stories about tenants saying their rents in Toronto are increasing too much and they cannot afford it. Some even stop paying it as a protest and unite with other tenants. As a newcomer in Toronto, I was curious to understand the issue. So how did rent become so high in Toronto? And what can be done to change it?

"The reality for a lot of people is that, as their rent is going up and the cost of living is going up, their wage stays the same", explains Jamilla Mohamud, a registered professional planner who works in the private sector and is interested in affordable housing issues. In January 2023, Ontario’s rent increase guideline — the highest a landlord can increase most tenants' rents without the approval of the Landlord and Tenant Board — was raised to 2.5 per cent. As a result, a lot of people complained about rents being too high, specifically in a context of inflation. The provincial government justify the increase in a press release stating that "based on the Ontario Consumer Price Index, inflation would result in a guideline of 5.3 per cent. However, the province has capped that amount to help protect tenants from significant rent increases."

Apart from the fact that it is written in the Residential Tenancies Act, why do rents keep increasing each year?

According to Jamilla Mohamud, "rents keep increasing throughout the years because housing is part of the private market in Canada. People often refer to it as a commodity. It’s financialized; people invest in it to support their income or they are landlords or they use it for their long term benefit financially." Although the housing crisis is a global phenomenon, for Canada, the issue is rooted in history. "Canada didn’t have a strong social housing policy for a long time. It’s something that came about between 1960 and 1980. The idea that an individual was responsible for his or her own house was normal. And because of this mindset, in the 1940, there was a lot of people living in poor conditions in terms of public health. So a lot of the reforms about housing came through public health lenses by creating units with more space, light and overall more hygienic conditions for people" describes the urban planner.

As a result, there has been decades of lack of government investment in more social housing, rent freezes, vacancy control or other programs that can support people to stay living in their neighbourhoods. "I don’t think rents need to be as high as they are right now. Sometimes I look at certain units and think about the neighbourhoods people are living in, the size of the units and the amenities around it. It doesn’t match the rent nor justifies the price" she states.

To get a better understanding at how much rents have gone up: let’s use the example of someone who pays 1000 dollars a month for their apartment. With a 2.5 per cent increase, this person will pay 25 dollars more each month or 300 dollars more for the year. On top of that, the prices of food, clothing and transportation increased too. All of a sudden, the person may have to choose between feeding their family and paying the rent. Or maybe, the person has to find a cheaper place to move in (usually further away from their work) or even can end up homeless. Of course, homelessness is multifactorial and is not only affected by the prices of houses going up, but recent numbers have shown an increase in homelessness in Canada.

So what can be done to change this problem?

"There is a couple ways we can change the situation. There is the planning policies which are the frameworks that govern how planners work. So for instance, ensuring that there are requirements for private sector developers to actually reach affordable housing requirements that can meet the demand we have. It’s not necessarily that they need to build more homes but rather ensuring that there are affordable units in existing buildings" Jamilla Mohamud explains. She thinks that governments can do more too because "they haven’t been investing in developing new affordable housing for a very long time, particularly the provincial and federal levels." As a planner, she also believes it is important to question how homes are designed to make sure they are good quality and that they are long-lasting in terms of the sizes and unit numbers.

Social housing, an umbrella term that envelops co-operative housing, non-for-profit housing and public housing, is one of the solution. For instance, the co-operative model is a collective ownership for a housing complex. "The idea is for people with higher-income to subsidise people who have lower-income. It’s a way to keep the rent low but also to create social cohesion and community. Chores such as cooking together, taking care of community gardens, cleaning or taking the garbage out are done by the community instead of being done by other people. It’s really a communal way of living. Everyone has its own unit but everyone works together and has collective ownership of the place" explains the planner.

Non-for-profit housing, on the other hand, is a model where a non-profit organisation is managing the housing. "Usually, they can provide services inside the building and subsidise rates as well. Typically, when the house was built, the organisation would have gotten the land and the infrastructure capital from the province at a discounted rate. Right now, we don’t have many non-profit housing because we don’t have many federal funds going towards it" she adds.

Credits: Anand Maharaj

Land trusts are another solution for the housing crisis. If this model came from the south of the United-States with black farmers organising themselves to own their farms and support each other, it is more and more common in Canada. "In Toronto and across Canada, there is a strong and growing network of community land trusts. The biggest land trust in Toronto is the Parkdale neighbourhood land trust. They were invaluable to us when we started because they provided a lot of expertise when we were buying our first building. And there is more land trust corporations being created, they are our colleagues and we keep helping each other. Across the country, the Canadian national coalition community land trust is very helpful because a lot of information gets shared there" explains Kevin Barrett, a musician and the co-chair of the Kensington Market Community Land Trust in Toronto.

Land trusts are mandated to acquire and preserve land, to take it out of the private real estate market for the benefit of the community. They insure affordable housing and commercial retail spaces. For instance, Kensington Market is a mix-used, diverse and heterogeneous neighbourhood in Toronto. It has a lot of typical small scale buildings with usually a retail on the ground level and housing upstairs. But the face of the neighbourhood almost changed in 2013 when the construction of a Walmart on the west side of the neighbourhood was planned. "A group called Friends of Kensington Market coalesced to keep the Walmart from being built and in their ongoing discussion about trying to preserve the character of the neighbourhood, they realised that a community land trust was needed to do so. They sat up a working group that eventually became the Kensington Market Community land trust. In 2017, the group was incorporated as a non-profit corporation in Ontario" says the musician.

In the first few years of the corporation, a lot of their work involved putting organisational structure in place and developing a vision to re-develop a large city-owned parking lot in the neighbourhood. "We would like to see the parking as affordable housing instead. But it’s a lot of work to convince the city to make that land available" adds Kevin Barrett. The Kensington Market community land trust also acquired a few buildings throughout the years. They keep raising money to acquire more buildings and to maintain and upgrade their systems too. In parallel, they are putting in place a community investment campaign to sale community bonds so people can invest in their work. In other words, these bonds will be use to acquire properties and maintain them. For the investors, the bonds will be a donation without returns because the money stays in the community.

Recently, the corporation acquired two new buildings that were for sale because "there was a threat that they would be bought to create a much larger building" analyses Kevin Barrett. With newer buildings also comes the threat of gentrification.

"Gentrification happens when people in certain neighbourhoods are pushed out because higher rents are coming in for newer units or luxury condominiums. It creates a process in the community where certain amenities in the neighbourhood are catered for people with higher-incomes and, so, those with lower-incomes cannot afford their property anymore to stay in their home as home owners or pay their rents because the prices have gone up. Overall, the neighbourhood changes in terms of economic and social characteristics. This phenomenon is definitely happening in many parts of Toronto and it’s been happening across many cities in Canada" describes Jamilla Mohamud.

For Kevin Barrett, it is necessary to support this model because "there has been many attempts to build affordable housing by various governments over the years. Many of those take the forms of subsidise to developers to build housing that is affordable when it first comes to the market. But once it’s on the market, it’s not affordable anymore because everyone is trying to make a profit out of it. Whereas with community land trusts the rents stay affordable. It can sometimes be more expensive at first but, in the long run, it’s a more affordable solution for governments and a much better solution for communities" he concludes. As for Jamilla Mohamud, she thinks it is essential to look at housing differently. "It shouldn’t be a commodity or something that is on the market. Housing should be offered and available to everybody at cost" she says. She sees housing as a key for people to keep stable in terms of health and mental health but also education.


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