Good PR can help combat a scary housing market Image

Good PR can help combat a scary housing market

By Sam Reiss on Feb 21, 2018

It’s 11 degrees celsius as I write this; although we’re due another temperature plunge by tonight, it still won’t be half as bad as those January deep-freezes. Soon enough, we’ll all be reminded why people love calling Toronto home. Our wonderfully distinct neighbourhoods, amazing restaurant scene, cultural diversity, low crime rate, good healthcare and education — according to a report by the Toronto Region Board of Trade, it’s a good time to spread the word.

In their newly released Housing Policy Playbook, the Toronto Region Board of Trade says young professionals are contemplating fleeing in the face of our lack of both supply and the right mix of homes close to transit. As a result, employers are limited in their ability to attract and retain the employees they want.

The report comes after a year of “policy and advocacy initiatives by the Board to elevate the supply issue affecting housing affordability and impacting the business community’s ability to attract and retain top talent” (according to the BoT’s website) spurred by the group’s survey findings last year revealing that 42% of young professionals would consider leaving the area because of high housing costs.

To build the right type of housing close to transit, the report urges government, especially provincial government, to reduce “costly regulations.” Their five-prong attack includes:

  • Allowing peer review of projects and creating a consistent system of development charges
  • Revising rent controls so they can be raised by 5% rather than this year’s cap of less than 2% (a factor that prevents desirable investors such as pension funds from investing in purpose-built rental properties)
  • “Reducing red tape,” amending planning laws to enable densification and housing choice
  • Enforcing expedited timelines for approvals for municipal infrastructure and transit projects
  • Utilizing public land for new housing, including releasing underused areas for development

I find it hard to argue with any of their recommendations. But if any of them are going to make a difference, it’ll take time. If there’s a new brain drain afoot, we don’t have a lot of that.

Fortunately, affordable housing is just one consideration when a new worker is deciding where to put down roots. While it makes sense to assume that people follow jobs, in a knowledge-based economy like this one, just as often jobs follow people.

The tech migration to the Pacific Northwest is a result of the number of tech companies that opened there, yes, but they began to open there because smart, talented people had already decided to call the area home.


Research has shown, and not surprisingly, that people move to cities with plentiful amenities. They can be anything from pretty mountain scenery to an abundance of coffee shops, to attractive architecture.

One researcher, the University of Chicago’s Terry Nichols Clark, determined what that means to a variety of demographics: he found that college graduates like man-made urban amenities best; the elderly prefer natural amenities, and those engaged in technology, both.

That leads one to believe that connecting the two is ideal, and Toronto is very good at that. We’ve connected our urban landscapes to nature, offer some great new waterfront promenades, and are becoming increasingly bike-friendly just about every day.

Younger workers for whom the built environment is a key decision-maker will be attracted by services and policies that help entrepreneurs. We’re not there on this one yet, but it may be a legislatively more simple (and less politically charged) avenue to pursue as we’re working on our development and rental policies.

Those two prongs — selling our existing excellent amenities and catering to entrepreneurial-minded young workers — will work best in tandem, but good communication will be key.

What are we doing to sell ourselves? I can’t recall the last time Toronto had an effective city-branding campaign. This is a case where municipal workers would do well to bring in some private-sector heavy hitters.

Being terrific doesn’t count for much if it isn’t well communicated. We need new grads in other markets to know that Toronto is worth moving to in spite of the high cost of housing. That they have a chance to forge their own path here, and bring along others like them as employers in the not-too-distant future.

Humour can be a great way to communicate — a good start on effective Toronto PR could be as simple as a video series, a la Chattanooga’s fun mini-musical campaign put out by their Chamber of Commerce last year in which one character called the city “the Tom Hanks of places.”

People are savvy — instead of fighting the image that our housing is expensive, poke fun at it while convincing them that it is, for someone of their caliber, just a temporary concern. Come, build your life, and affordability won’t be a problem for long.

We all know why we love it here. Now we need to let the rest of the country — and beyond — know too.