How Ontario can amp up affordable housing development Image

How Ontario can amp up affordable housing development

By Sam Reiss on May 01, 2019

I’ve already written about Toronto’s challenge of building more affordable housing numerous times this year. Just last week I commented on Montreal’s controversial 20-20-20 proposal and Ontario’s Inclusionary Zoning regulation. Now it’s come to my attention that the provincial government could be doing more to speed up the development of affordable housing.    

The Centre for Urban Research and Land Development released a report titled, “Governments in Ontario Making Headway in Using Surplus Lands for Housing,” which was financially supported by the Ontario Real Estate Association and the Ontario Home Builders’ Association.

The report was about how the province and municipalities in Ontario have been actually doing a decent job identifying surplus land for development, but CUR found a few areas where the province specifically could be doing much more. 

According to the 2016 Census, more than 27% of Ontario households spend more than 30% of their income on housing, which is technically the benchmark for what is deemed “affordable.” As of 2018, Toronto had 98,000 households on a subsidized housing waitlist. Ottawa had a list 10,000 long and Hamilton had nearly 7,000 on the waitlist. Clearly, more affordable housing is needed. 

The key to building more affordable housing lies in the availability of public surplus lands, which is government owned land that is “vacant or underutilized, that is no longer needed to deliver government goods and services (Infrastructure Ontario). Underutilized land includes land which is in use, but that has the potential for more productive uses, such as built out sites where the building is not fully occupied, or sites with a relatively large footprint with low density structures built on it,” according to CUR’s report. 

There are three ways to make surplus land available for development: Sell it at market value, sell it below market value, or lease it to a developer or non-profit. The second two allow for provisions to be made on the amount of affordable housing units to be developed. This is where the province of Ontario seems to have slipped up. 

At the end of 2018, Ontario identified 243 surplus sites to be sold over the course of four years, specifically for the development of housing and long-term care facilities. The problem is that these sites are being sold at market value. This means the province can’t stipulate how many housing units must be designated affordable.

CUR says that these sites equal 14,600 acres of land, and even if it was all low-rise housing, there’s room for 300,000 units. Imagine if just half of this land was sold for high-density development and designated affordable housing. 

That said, the province did just announce the sale of a property in downtown Toronto, which will create 200 affordable housing units, retail space, and a daycare.  

CUR highlights a few other opportunities for developing surplus land. It seems that taking a look at land owned by school boards would be worthwhile. For example, York Region School Board has underused sites in Aurora and Newmarket, and these are in convenient, established locations, so they’re basically infill sites. 

Targeting surface parking lots also needs to be done more. The Toronto Region Board of Trade conducted a study on 180 surface parking lots and found that the City could make 10 times the property taxes if the sites were developed for commercial use. CUR believes the same argument could be made for residential development on the parking lots. This makes total sense to me because you can still have underground public parking if a high-rise was built. 

One of the best ideas in CUR’s report is to target LCBO sites. This is a thought I have almost every time I walk into an LCBO. They’re typically single- or two-storey buildings in dense urban areas, conveniently located so everyone can easily get their alcohol. Why not build a larger podium, house the LCBO, and have some affordable housing above?  

One location that comes to mind immediately (and CUR highlights it, too) is the King and Spadina LCBO. That building is surrounded by residential and commercial towers, but it’s just a two-storey building at one of the busiest intersections in Toronto. Another one that comes to mind is the LCBO at Front and Market St. in the St. Lawrence area.

I’m really hoping that the province takes a few of these suggestions and runs with them! 

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