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The moon rises behind the CN Tower, and the skyline in Toronto November 24, 2015. (MARK BLINCH/REUTERS)
The moon rises behind the CN Tower, and the skyline in Toronto November 24, 2015. (MARK BLINCH/REUTERS)

Mitchell Cohen

The stars align for affordable housing in Toronto Add to ...

Mitchell Cohen is president of The Daniels Corp., the City of Toronto’s partner on the Regent Park revitalization.

The stars are in perfect alignment for comprehensive action on affordable housing. Prior to the recent federal election, both the City of Toronto and the province of Ontario were poised to embrace affordable housing as a fundamental building block of a healthy society. At the time, the only missing star in the galaxy was at the federal level.

Today, with all three levels of government singing from the same song sheet, it is truly time for action.

Mayor John Tory has done exactly what he said he would during his election campaign. He and his colleagues at Toronto City Council are introducing a range of tools to help create affordable homes in every new community in the city. The city will defer or waive taxes, levies and development charges and, perhaps as importantly, fast track approvals for development applications that incorporate a significant percentage of affordable rental or ownership housing.

Although the province has yet to make specific pledges to piggyback on municipal efforts, it has made significant strides in the policy arena, providing a solid framework within which affordable housing strategies can be implemented.

For example, their review of the Greenbelt Act has not only reinforced the importance of agriculture to long-term economic health, but also the importance of creating transit nodes as highly intensified places to grow, with affordable housing at their hearts.

The province has also recognized the importance of community hubs, and is ready to implement principles that have already been road tested with tremendous success in Toronto’s Regent Park revitalization.

Regent Park is a “community hub” writ large, on 28 hectares. But the building blocks to create such a hub are the same no matter how large or small the parcel of land. The key is to intentionally leverage a public asset, such as land, to create mixed-income communities that include a “hub” of health and social agencies delivering services at far less cost than those of existing delivery models. All levels of government, either directly or through school boards, own surplus land that can be transformed into such hubs, with affordable housing as one of the primary organizing principles.

The city and the province are ready and willing, and the next few months will demonstrate whether the feds are serious about affordable housing as an essential infrastructure investment. An early commitment to fund their share of Toronto Community Housing’s repair backlog would be a hugely important signal.

In the meantime, Canadians are opening both their hearts and wallets to support Ottawa’s commitment to resettle 25,000 Syrian refugees in coming months. The need to find immediate housing solutions is enormous, and both the feds and sponsor groups are working creatively to ensure a warm welcome and a decent short-term place for these refugees to call home.

Most importantly, however, the refugee crisis provides a lens through which a national housing strategy can be conceived and implemented. There is no doubt that a fair bit of scrambling will be required to find short-term housing. However, a long-term, comprehensive plan simply must be created to ensure availability of affordable housing for all Canadians, including the 25,000 refugee families joining our larger Canadian “family.”

A national affordable housing strategy, with infrastructure funding to support it, is long overdue. In fact, one hasn’t existed since the federal Liberals lost power in 1984. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and his colleagues have the wherewithal to reintroduce one.

Such a strategy is needed to address a full spectrum of need, from transitional housing for people with addiction and other physical and mental-health challenges to the creation of affordable housing in proximity to the workplace for nurses, teachers, service-industry employees and other key workers.

A national housing strategy must also address the challenge of homelessness. Despite a weak Canadian dollar and low oil prices, Canada remains an affluent developed country, with both the knowledge and resources to address the problem. In this regard, a strong movement led by the Canadian Alliance to End Homelessness is already mobilizing across the country. At last count, 29 municipalities have formally signed on to the 20,000 Homes Campaign to permanently house Canada’s most vulnerable homeless people by July 1, 2018.

Other non-profit groups across the country are also poised to support a national affordable housing strategy. Co-ops, private non-profits, church groups, service associations and a host of grassroots organizations are ready and willing to both wave the national flag on affordable housing and do the heavy lifting at the local level.

Another potential star coming into alignment is in the form of a new generation of private-sector developers. The older generation knew one thing only – tract subdivision housing at an average of four units per acre. Today’s generation has embraced intensification, and with it a broader sense of corporate social responsibility – an understanding that the development business can become a platform for progressive social change, and that healthy, mixed-use, mixed-income communities will also be healthy for their bottom line.

The tools are in our hands, and together we’re on the brink of a transformational breakthrough. It’s time to seize the moment.

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