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Kathleen, a staff member at The Sanctuary Drop-In Centre in Toronto, opens the doors to a visitor, on March 26, 2020.Chris Young/The Canadian Press

For years, homelessness in Toronto has been a crisis. Now that COVID-19 is forcing the city’s government to confront that issue, there’s the promise of real change. But is city hall ready to go far enough?

In an interview Monday, Mayor John Tory said that the city is aggressively pursuing new modular-housing projects, using prefabricated units to quickly build supportive housing on city land for people who are currently underhoused. And he opened the door to a much larger program of affordable housing built through partnerships with both non-profit and for-profit developers.

“I’m anxious to show that we can do these modular housing projects quickly,” he said, “and show that we can provide supportive housing in a timely way. There may be lessons there for us that we can apply on a larger scale."

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Mr. Tory said the city’s real estate agency, CreateTO, has identified a list of city-owned sites where it would be possible to quickly build supportive housing projects with factory-built components.

The City of Vancouver has used this technique to build 600 units on 10 sites since 2017. Mr. Tory said he is pushing for one or two such projects to be built as quickly as possible. While he wouldn’t commit to a specific timeline, he suggested this would be less than 18 months, and pledged an “accelerated” process to buy materials and services. He said the city is hoping for capital support from the federal government and the province. “We need to move at wartime speed on this,” he said.

So far, the City of Toronto has been moving people who are now homeless out of shelters and respite centres, where crowded and unsanitary conditions make it difficult to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. As of Monday, the city had leased 1,200 hotel rooms for this purpose, according to Councillor Joe Cressy, who is leading this file for the city. “Our mandate is: one person, one bed, one room,” he said.

This effort started late, and it’s received criticism from advocates for the homeless. “The response has been sluggish, and a lot of it has been done without consultation,” said street nurse Cathy Crowe. But Ms. Crowe also argued that it will be necessary to provide longer-term housing.

A vaccine for the coronavirus is at least 18 months away. The current state of Toronto homeless shelters and respite centres – Ms. Crowe described the latter as “hellholes” – doesn’t allow for maintaining health or physical distancing among people who are homeless.

Mr. Cressy agrees. “The last thing we should do is rapidly rehouse people only to send them back into the streets,” he said. This is where hotel rooms come in. The councillor said the city is working on long-term leases or purchase agreements for several facilities.

The city has to do this, whatever it costs. It’s a bare requirement to maintain public health. Some conservative politicians have been willing to tolerate a great amount of suffering among homeless and underhoused people. In a pandemic, that callousness can’t continue.

But as the politics of housing are up in the air, what else could change? Mr. Cressy is advocating for large-scale construction, paralleling the bungalow boom that followed the Second World War. “The COVID-19 crisis is an opportunity to end homelessness,” he said. “But as part of a recovery, we could upzone all the transitways” – major roads served by transit – "and use that to spur development and serve the middle at the same time.” To translate: Zoning changes that would allow immediate construction of housing, some of it affordable for middle-income earners, on specific streets.

Mr. Tory is on board with this concept. He described it as an extension of the Housing Now program, in which the city provides land to developers in exchange for some affordable housing. “We need to scale up these sorts of efforts, on our way to a goal of 40,000 units over 10 years,” he said.

This is a good idea. It’s a progressive attempt to harness the city’s power to change planning rules – to allow more building, which is effectively a licence to print money.

But it’s not bold enough. Remaking a few streets won’t make much impact. But Toronto is a big city, with vast areas of house neighbourhoods that could be “upzoned.” Replace detached houses with townhouses or apartment buildings, and you would create huge value that could be channelled into affordable housing.

Now’s the time to begin that change, with a large-scale program of social housing in the neighbourhoods.

This sounds radical. But in a crisis, many things become possible.

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