In Vancouver, where rents and home prices are among the highest in Canada, the issue of affordability has long been top of mind among politicians.
Among other things, the city has cracked down on speculators by taxing empty properties, and it is allowing duplexes to be built in areas zoned for detached housing only. These measures, and the affordability question in general, will be decisive issues in the Vancouver civic election on Oct. 20.
The British Columbia government has been busy on the file, too. It has also implemented measures to deter speculation, such as a higher foreign-buyers tax, with the result that housing prices started to drop this year. And it promised in April to work with co-ops, non-profits and municipalities to build 14,000 new rental units over the next 10 years.
In Toronto, affordability is not a major factor in the municipal election on Oct. 22, even though the city’s crisis is arguably worse than that of Vancouver.
The leading candidate, incumbent mayor John Tory, has made low property taxes, improvements to transit and his leadership experience his main platform. When the issue of affordability comes up, his lone commitment is to build 40,000 units of affordable rental housing over 12 years.
His only competition in the race, Jennifer Keesmaat, has tried to make the issue more central to the election. She has proposed some eye-catching ideas, such as a rent-to-own program financed by a 0.4-per-cent property surtax on homes valued at more than $4-million. She also says she would build 100,000 units of affordable housing over the next decade.
But in a race defined by Mr. Tory, who has what appears to be an insurmountable lead in the polls, and who refuses to debate his one serious opponent face-to-face, Ms. Keesmaat’s message about the urgency of dealing with the affordable-housing crisis is not getting through.
It’s a mistake for Toronto politicians to see the issue as anything less than a top priority. The affordability crisis is real and pressing. Almost half the city’s households live in rental units, and half of those are spending more than 30 per cent of their net income on rent – the widely accepted standard for affordability.
It’s not surprising renters are squeezed, given that the average rent in the city in 2017 was $2,400, according to the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation. In order to pay $2,400 a month in rent and limit it to 30 per cent of net income, a family would need an annual income of $120,000. But in Toronto, the median family income is $78,700.
The same disconnect exists for buying a home. Based on a 10-per-cent down payment and current interest rates, a person or family buying the average-priced house in Toronto would need an annual income of $197,000 to limit their mortgage payments to a third of their income.
There are, in fact, two affordability crises in Toronto: for low-income families that can’t survive without some sort of subsidized rent; and for middle- and upper-income earners who spend as much as half their net income on rent or mortgage payments, as well as on utility costs and, in the case of homeowners, on property taxes.
The problem is a lack of stock compounded by outdated zoning laws and development rules.
In the case of affordable housing for low-income earners, it’s up to governments at all levels to work with partners, both for- and non-profit, to build the needed units.
But when it comes to market-based stock, Toronto and its overlords at Queen’s Park need to make way for mid-rise developments in city neighbourhoods that are zoned for low density and single-family homes, especially along streets that follow the subway system.
Toronto cannot put off this transformation any longer. It is growing too rapidly and has lately become a magnet for the tech industry.
Mr. Tory met recently with executives from Amazon.com Inc., which is considering the city as a location for its second headquarters. That project will create 50,000 permanent jobs. Where does the mayor imagine those workers would live in a city with low vacancy rates, high rents and sky-high home prices? Amazon itself raised the question, according to Mr. Tory.
Toronto’s affordability crisis needs to be addressed. If it’s not the major election issue this fall, we guarantee it will be in four years from now.