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Toronto Mayor Olivia Chow arrives to West Block of Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Sept. 27.Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press

Toronto Mayor Olivia Chow has big plans for affordable housing. This week a staff report outlined Toronto’s new approach to deliver 65,000 rental homes. As Ms. Chow promised in her mayoral campaign, the plan would get the city – all by itself – into the business of building new rental housing, much of it subsidized.

It’s ambitious, bold and welcome. It also presents a risk for the city: getting stuck in small-scale changes while the bigger situation gets worse.

In an interview shortly after the report was released, Ms. Chow sent a clear message. I asked: Is the government set on transforming Toronto into a city with more social housing? “Well, read the title of the report,” she said animatedly, and then tapped her finger on a page as she recited the first six words: “Generational Transformation of Toronto’s Housing System.”

So the answer is yes. But why? “In the past 30 years, there’s been a thinking that the government would play no role in building affordable housing, and housing in general,” she said. “And what has happened is a worsening housing crisis.”

The city’s response, made public Tuesday, sets the outlines of the new policy. It has three components. First: a pledge to build rental apartments, some of them rent-controlled (to prevent huge hikes) and some subsidized to be affordable on working-class and middle-class incomes. This would be done in collaboration with various non-government organizations.

Second: It outlines a group of specific sites ready to go. Third: It makes modest changes to planning rules, so new buildings are easier to approve, and reorganizes the city bureaucracy so that all housing and real estate agencies “are rowing in the same direction,” she said.

The report also comes with a serious wish list: a billion dollars a year in grants from the province and the federal government. This is a sizeable ask, and it’s coming as a co-ordinated campaign with the Big City Mayors’ Caucus of the Federation of Canadian Municipalities.

Will any of this happen? “We are very optimistic,” Ms. Chow said, before making an animated case for support: More housing reduces the load on social services, improves economic productivity, is good for the health of elders. She herself long lived with her mother and various friends and family in her Chinatown house. “All sorts of people are passing through my home. I’m not a stranger to intergenerational living.”

So far, so good. Ms. Chow’s arguments for an expanding public housing sector are sensible, meticulous and delivered with a smile. She is adamant that federal money, if it comes, should come quickly and with no strings. She is ready to avoid the procedural traps that left predecessor John Tory’s housing plan mired in the muck.

This tracks with her work so far as mayor. She has been a pragmatist who gets stuff done. And maybe she will succeed at this big task. Already she’s done some of the obligatory bridge-building with the federal government and, across ideological lines, with Doug Ford’s provincial government as well.

But housing – in a big, expensive, fast-growing city like Toronto – is a tricky file. About 95 per cent of people live in privately owned housing. Ms. Chow’s policy changes, so far, do nothing much for them.

Even Ms. Chow’s own staff report implies a similar challenge. While the city aims to build 65,000 rental homes within seven years, it also commits to hitting a provincial target of 285,000 homes total over 10 years. That means that private builders will need to build 220,000 homes – about 30 per cent more than their recent pace of construction.

This will be a difficult hurdle to clear. And it may be that Ms. Chow and her staff don’t understand how hard.

The most important change the city can make in this respect is to alter its planning system. On this, Ms. Chow speaks the language of progressive planning reformers. “The single-family doctrine doesn’t make sense,” she said, referring to zoning that mandates only single-family houses. (Toronto’s planning did this, in many areas, until very recently.)

She supports zoning for new high-rise buildings, if builders can be forced to add some affordable housing through “inclusionary zoning.”

She is moving in the right direction. But for now, apartment buildings are illegal on roughly 95 per cent of Toronto land; the other 5 per cent already has things on it, such as existing apartment buildings that are in danger of being demolished and replaced.

This is a serious problem that limits the amount of housing that gets built and drives up the cost of housing. It’s completely the result of city policy.

And it’s in this murky territory that Ms. Chow and her team will need to work. Once they have revived the not-for-profit housing sector, they will need to deal with the larger housing market. Or else their big ambitions will be swamped by much bigger forces.

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