Mayor Chow’s first phone call to kickstart an affordable housing strategy

The key person Olivia Chow should talk to for the provision of affordable housing is Jagmeet Singh.

He might not be the prime minister, but he has a formidable card to play, the same card played by the NDP leader David Lewis in 1972.

Fifty-one years ago, Pierre Elliott Trudeau was caught after the election that year with a minority of seats in the House of Commons. Needing an ally in order to govern, he turned to David Lewis and the NDP. Lewis said he would support the government provided it established a non-profit housing program that would provide mortgages for non-profit and non-profit co-op housing, subsidies to somewhat reduce the interest rates on those mortgages and funding to support non-profit housing organizations. Trudeau agreed with that arrangement. 

That’s the program that funded the St. Lawrence Community and many, many successful non-profit developments throughout the city, all with one-third of the units at rent-geared-to-income for low-income families and a lower-than-market rent for the other two-thirds of the units. We need that program again.

As a strong member of the NDP, Chow is in a good position to ask Singh to negotiate with Justine Trudeau for this program. 

Chow should also talk with former mayor Barbara Hall. In the mid-1990s, Hall worked with Jane Jacobs and others to radically change the land use planning rules for the King-Spadina area. Instead of a complicated and time-consuming planning process, the new rules set firm height limits for buildings and a few other clear criteria about things like setbacks, got rid of most of the other complicated planning rules, then said developers could proceed without needing to get planning approval for any development meeting the new criteria.

It was an “as-of-right” system that saved several years of obtaining planning approval (and saved the city a great deal of money, no longer needing planners to make those tortuous approvals), provided clear guidance to the community about results and allowed developers (and not city planners) to determine what uses would be permitted in each new building. 

Height limits could be set for various streets — six storeys on collectors, eight or 10 storeys on main arterials and so forth. Barbara Hall and imaginative planners, such as Ken Greenberg, can help city hall establish this new regime, and talk with the development community to ensure the proposals make economic sense. They will have to ensure that developers cannot use the Committee of Adjustment to increase height limits, as they did in King-Spadina. And provincial subsidies will be required so one-third of the units are available to low-income households.

The third person Chow should speak to is Alan Broadbent of the Maytree Foundation. Broadbent has argued that the first priority should be to deal with housing the 1,000 people who are now living in tents and in the raw in Toronto. Broadbent has a simple and elegant proposal. Each of the 25 councillors should be tasked with identifying 40 units in their respective ward (25 x 40 = 1,000) where these individuals can be housed. The city should guarantee the rent and support services for each of these units so landlords feel comfortable providing the accommodation.

These three initiatives will require strong representations by Mayor Chow and her Council, but they will also have powerful ripple effects. As the book `The Spirit Level’ documents so well, providing ample affordable housing and treating people more equally results in much less violence, mental illness and drug addiction. Those factors are at the root of the random violence experienced in Toronto, and the best way to address those issues is through more affordable housing. The violence will not disappear overnight, but on the other hand it didn’t appear overnight.

Olivia Chow as mayor signals a very optimistic change for the city. May she be successful.

Originally posted 2023-08-04 14:30:18.