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Toronto Mayor John Tory arrives for a meeting with Ontario Premier Doug Ford at Queen's Park in Toronto on Dec. 6, 2018. Mr. Tory's plan, which passed 22-4, also calls for at least 10 per cent of the plan’s affordable units to be offered at 40 per cent of market rent.

Cole Burston/The Canadian Press

Toronto city council approved on Wednesday Mayor John Tory’s plan to turn 11 city-owned surplus property sites into affordable housing projects, despite criticism the proposal will not help many of the city’s poorest people.

The plan, called Housing Now, will offer developers or non-profit housing providers long-term leases, tax breaks and other incentives, provided at least one-third of the new units built on the lands are classified as affordable.

Out of 10,000 expected units, about 3,600 must be defined as affordable, meaning they will be offered for 80 per cent of the city’s average rent, or less. The rest will either be market-rate rentals or condominiums – allowing for those profits to subsidize the affordable housing.

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Responding to critics who say the plan will not produce enough units that are actually affordable for low-income families or people on social assistance, Mr. Tory put forward amendments during Wednesday’s council debate. His changes ask city bureaucrats to “provide greater consideration” to projects that provide even more affordable units, make promises about rent control and are operated by non-profits.

But Mr. Tory, along with the head of the city’s affordable housing office, Sean Gadon, warned that actually prescribing that developers produce much higher percentages of affordable housing up-front could scare off potential bidders for the lands.

The plan, which passed 22-4, also calls for at least 10 per cent of the plan’s affordable units to be offered at 40 per cent of market rent. Mr. Tory and city officials say they hope that bidders will come forward with ways to produce even more affordable units at even lower rents.

Councillor Mike Layton, who called for at least half of all the new units to be made affordable, said the housing crisis needs bolder action, and urged the city to borrow the money to build affordable housing on its own: “By relying too heavily on the profit-driven private sector, we are abdicating our responsibility … to actually take action.”

Deputy Mayor Ana Bailao, who chairs the city’s planning and housing committee and has championed the Housing Now plan, said the city cannot afford to borrow the billions of dollars required to build this amount of new affordable housing itself.

“I think it is an important first step,” she said of Housing Now. “No one program is going to solve the housing problem.”

Later in the day, council voted against declaring a state of emergency over homelessness at the advice of city staff and the mayor. They said the legislation that provides for declarations of emergency was created for acute incidents such as a natural disaster that requires immediate action before council can meet.

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Advocates and several city councillors have repeatedly asked the city to make the declaration, arguing it would allow for swifter action from governments.

With a file from Mira Miller

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